Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cow Peas, Political Kings and Saturn's Rings

Usually I'm the one who brings up scientific trivia during our nightly walk; but the other night Linda surprised me with news that scientists have discovered a new ring around Saturn. Then she moved on to calling the Nobel Prize given for ribosome chemistry "boring."

That led to me, falsely it turns out, criticizing the Nobel Committee for the "fact," as I then thought, that Norman Borlaug had never been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while Fat Albert the Gorester and Jimmy the Peanut Farmer Carter had each been awarded one, along with Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat, at least one of whom should have been awarded iron shackles and a copper jacketed bullet to the head rather than a peace prize gold medal, depending on your point of view.

And thus I learned that Linda, who's probably better informed than 90% of this country's population, and 95% of the world's population, had never heard of Norman Borlaug.

. . . never heard of Norman Borlaug, even though he actually was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, plus a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and a Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.

Norman Borlaug was also awarded a Padma Vibhusan, which is India's second highest civilian award, also in 2006. He wasn't apparently thought quite as worthy as Nelson Mandela, who holds the distinction of being the only foreigner ever awarded the Bharat Ratna, which is India's highest civilian award.

Now, I certainly have nothing against Nelson Mandela, who is a very great man as men go; but, but, but. . . what sort of world is it where Nelson Mandela deserves India's highest civilian award while the best it could do for Norman Borlaug was to award him its SECOND highest civilian award.

India, of all places, where probably a third of the population is alive and eating instead of dead and rotting because of Norman Borlaug. . .

It's true that Norman Borlaug did nothing but stunningly boring and tedious work in agronomy, a stunningly boring field, from when he got his PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942 until he died on September 12th of this year.

First he fed millions of Mexicans by developing a high yield, disease resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. Then he doubled down and fed tens of millions more Mexicans by bucking his boss and the agronomy establishment and going on to develop various varieties of his special wheat to allow double cropping each season.

In 1962 he got bored with feeding Mexicans, so he moved to South Asia, where he fought and won a long battle with hidebound government bureaucrats (oxymoron alert) and proceeded to feed hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis by proving to farmers that they could plant and harvest and eat his Mexican semi-dwarf wheat varieties without having to give up their naan and raga rhythms in favor of tortillas and mariachi music. In the process he made a fool of Paul Erlich whose Population Bomb, thereby, er, bombed, big time.

Probably because he missed the Mariachi music he was back in Mexico and had already left for his test fields in the Toluca valley by 4:00 AM on the day the Nobel Prize Committee called to tell his wife that he had won the peace prize. After she told him about that, totally in character, he finished his work in the fields before he came back home to where the microphones were and pretty soon made his name mud with the environmentalists by hurling a big cow flop at them.

. . . "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

Having skewered the well fed and self satisfied Al Gore types like so many kebabs he retired to rest a bit, soakin' up the rays part of the time in Mexico and part of the time in Texas. But there was to be no enduring rest for him; because well fed Western European and American environmentalists were determined to keep most black Africans starving, their children stumbling dazedly around with hunger swollen bellies, even as they praised Nelson Mandela for achieving change by voluntarily starving himself in prison.

So it was that a Japanese shipbuilding tycoon, Ryoichi Sasakawa, called up Borlaug, who was probably enjoying a well deserved marguerita by the pool, and lured him to Ethiopia, where what he saw convinced him to stay in Africa for a while to feed tens and hundreds of millions of people there.

"I assumed we'd do a few years of research first," Borlaug later recalled, "but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, 'Let's just start growing'." Soon, Borlaug had projects in seven countries. Yields of maize and sorghum in developed African countries doubled between 1983 and 1985. Yields of wheat, cassava, and cowpeas also increased in these countries."

Even Jimmy Carter was impressed enough to put down his knife and fork for a while to help a bit by travelling to Ethiopia and convincing the latter day pharoah there to let his people go. . . and use fertilizer. . . no matter how much the environmentalists who were growing fat eating lobster and caviar on the self congratulatory lecture circuit whined and stamped and insisted that Africans were better off dead or starving than alive and well fed enough to stomp around to the music of their koras and mbiras and bougarabous.

That's who Norman Borlaug was until he died last month at age 95 after a life spent saving the lives of perhaps a billion people.

Norman Borlaug, unlike Al Gore and a lot of other much more famous men, was a man who had a dream, a dream of well fed peasants in India and Africa and Asia and South America. A dream of a world without so many bloated belly babies to provide photo ops for Madonna and Bono and Sean Penn and Al Gore and Jimmy Carter.

And he was a man who patiently and incredibly made that dream a reality, with his hands and with his brain, on the ground amidst the cow flops, in a dozen countries, despite the carping of ivory tower environmentalist types and the foot-dragging of status quo government types. A man who actually did something, quite a big thing, about the simple fact that "Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. . . Yet food is something that is taken for granted by most world leaders despite the fact that more than half of the population of the world is hungry."

And that's why it's a damn shame that there isn't even a plaque honoring his name in the hall in India, now home to a billion much better fed people because of his dream and work, where they mark the names of those, like Nelson Mandela, who have been awarded the Bharat Ratna.

Facts and quotes mostly from the well of Wikipedia. Outrage and shamelessly plagiarized Mario Puzo/Hyman Roth quote from my own deep well. The contents of a can of Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder were heated and enjoyed during the writing of this message.


Your son said...

Those damn "progressive" types are at it stronger than ever these days. I argue with them from time to time on Monsanto message boards (i keep an eye on Monsanto for investment purposes). I was unaware that this Borlaug guy fathered the field of gene-selective breeding.

Amusing postscript btw

Sully said...

Aargh!!! A near PhD in the sciences didn't know about Norman Borlaug. Arguably he was the greatest scientist in the history of the world in terms of the impact of his work on human well-being in his own time. The only others who compare dealt with water quality; but the Romans knew how to prevent water borne diseases 2,000 years ago even though they didn't know the science.