The man who saved 1.000.000.000 lives


Norman Borlaug died yesterday. He was 95 years old and he probably did more for humanity than anybody else in the XXth century. According to some estimates he saved between 245 million and 1.000 million people from starvation through his discoveries in agronomy. The exact numbers don’t matter much, it must feel pretty good saving 1 person, let alone hundreds of millions…

I consider myself a pretty well-read person but I didn’t know who Norman  was until yesterday when I unexpectedly bumped into his obituary in my local newspaper. Any person’s death is tragic but I could easily have missed this piece of news, while I surely couldn’t miss the death of more glamorous people. It just makes you think about what the media consider is interesting news for us and the conclusion is that the obituaries (Sp: necrológicas) can be a surprisingly inspiring source of information.

What did Borlaug do? He discovered a way for poor countries to produce more food, which prevented a lot of people to die from starvation. Specifically, he developed a variety of wheat (Fr:blé, Sp:trigo) that was smaller, more resistant to diseases and which offered much higher yield (Fr: haut rendemment, Sp: alto rendimiento). But one thing is the science, the other is making sure that those countries that need it most actually apply the technology. He discovered and made sure his discoveries had an impact… and they did. As the saying goes “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime”.

Saving lives is a pretty noble thing to do (to say the least).  Doctors save lives one at a time, teachers save lives every now and then, good policy (tobacco laws, traffic laws etc…)  allow governments to save thousands of lives, humanitarian organizations save hundreds of thousands of lives…  but one researcher can save thousands of lives, or millions.

There are interesting debates around this because Borlaug was a big advocate of biotechnology and genetically modified crops to fight world famine, and many people are against these technologies.

Here is more on Norman Borlaug.

Some articles:  ‘The man who fed the world’ in the Wall Street Journal and a longer, more complete one on the  New York Times

Related professional opportunities:

— World Food Programme vacancies – Belongs to the United Nations (ie ONU).  Internships, professionals, consulting, Junior Officers Programme (based in Rome, Italy).

— Monsanto, one of the leading agricultural companies. Visit the careers section.

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