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Norman Borlaug’s Legacy

The clamor over genetically enhanced crops has reached a fevered pitch in France. In the last few months, a group of neo-luddite radicals have crisscrossed the countryside razing fields and sowing baseless paranoia. In one evening alone, more than 1,500 people — led by anti-globalization militant Jose Bove — tore the crops out by their roots as police stood by and watched. "For us," Bove has exclaimed, "this combat will not stop." While an alarming number of Gauls have found an inauspicious hero in Bove, Third World farmers have their own champion in the person of Norman Borlaug. And although they probably don't know him by name, Borlaug (father of the "Green Revolution," which dramatically increased agricultural yields in the 1960s and 70s) is slowly becoming an unlikely folk hero. When Borlaug's career began, a scaremonger named Paul Ehrlich was telling the world that overpopulation would soon lead to global famine. While many fretted over Ehrlich's doomsday scenarios, Borlaug took to the fields. And he's been discrediting Chicken-little scaremongers like Ehrlich and Greenpeace ever since. From Mexico to India to China and beyond, Borlaug is already credited with saving a billion (yes, billion) people from starvation. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 1970 Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then he's also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more than 35 honorary degrees. He's even made his way into pop culture. Penn Jillette of "Penn and Teller" fame deemed Borlaug the greatest human being in the world. And NBC's "The West Wing" called him a miracle worker:

He realized that vital elements could be harvested from the stalk of the wheat. In his hands, India, which at the time had been ravaged by drought and overpopulation — in his hands, the wheat crop increased from 11 million tons to 60 million tons annually.

Borlaug stands as the symbol of technological progress in agriculture, so it doesn't come as a surprise that he has even inspired children to write songs about him:

Norman Borlaug, you may be
the greatest man in history.
Using science and your brain
to stamp out hunger, woe and pain.

The 91-year-old Borlaug isn't shy about expressing his views, especially about those who seek to undermine his legacy. He recently told the Atlantic Monthly that Western environmental activists are "elitists." He continued:

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.

Despite the naysayers, perhaps the greatest testament to the Green Revolution's legacy is the growth of biotechnology in the Third World. From South America to Southeast Asia, farmers are discovering that biotech crops are so superior, they are willing to risk breaking existing laws to plant them. During the last year, Brazilian farmers more than doubled cultivation of genetically enhanced soybeans, with more than 150 million acres under production. And when local bureaucrats tried to over-regulate biotech cotton, Brazilian farmers smuggled in seeds from Argentina and Australia. The same holds true in India, whose farmers have been planting biotech cotton despite overwrought bureaucratic regulations. But earlier this month, Indian Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal said he would drastically cut the red tape. "The seed is the potential tool that can carry state-of-the-art technologies to every farmer," explained Sibal. "It can once again usher in a green revolution." Biotechnology has even found grassroots support in France. When Bove recently showed up to destroy a field of biotech crops, he was met by a group of angry farmers who want an opportunity to plant these modern crops. As they know, unless Bove's movement meets some resistance, the scaremongers of the future (ironically, still stuck in the past) will continue their efforts to scare away impoverished countries from the very technology that can help feed their people.

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