Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Holy Shit, the Green Revolution!


When you think of a revolution, your mind will probably mosey its way into a battlefield, full of glory, gore, and lives laid down willingly for the righteous cause. This is not that kind of revolution. In fact, the Green Revolution was the exact opposite. It was centered not around death, but life.

The Green Revolution is most notable, for preventing hundreds of millions of deaths by starvation. It all started in the mid-1940s with an agronomist named Norman Borlaug. While many young American men were overseas causing brown stains in the pants of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese high command, Borlaug was receiving a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology and Genetics. When he finished, he took a research position in Mexico and started tinkering with wheat genes.

Norman Borlaug
That's his tinkering face.

After a few years, Borlaug had developed a new and dwarfish type of wheat. It was short and resistant to many diseases, so it ended up being a boon to Mexican agriculture. Seeing how well it was working, he figured, "What the hell? Let's keep this going."

That was one of the most important "What the hell"s in human history, made no less important by the fact that I just put the words in his mouth and he probably never said it like that. According to Malthusian population projections, the world - and India in particular - was due for a massive starvation epidemic around the 1980s.

Crowds in India
Because there's a friggin' lot of people there

Norman Borlaug came along with his dwarf wheat (and later dwarf rice), and suddenly there was Everywhere. The problem in India was that rice has a hard time growing high up on hills, because it has a tendency to blow over and break. The reduced height of Borlaug's crops, coupled with the resistance to blight, meant that new acreage could be opened up to farmland. Lots of it.

And open up it did. Between 1950 and 1984, the duration of the Green Revolution, world grain production exploded by over 250%. Instead of a catastrophic population collapse, the world's population grew by four billion. Four billion more people were born than died in a time that was supposed to be marked by fear, famine, and death.

Wheat yield growth over 50 years
Suck it, hunger.

You can argue that the Green Revolution only delayed the inevitable, perhaps even increasing the already horrific burden that the unsustainable human population places on the Earth, and you'd probably have a pretty good point. But it's hard to look at a man who won a Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for pretty much single-handedly saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation as anything but a goddamn hero.

Holy shit.

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