Norman Borlaug Saves A Billion

Everyone loves a hero. Save someone from a burning building, and you’ll get your fifteen minutes of fame. That’s why I’m always surprised that more people don’t know Norman Borlaug, who would have celebrated his 104th birthday on Sunday. He won the Nobel prize in 1970 and there’s good reason to think that his hacking efforts saved about a billion people from starving to death. A billion people. That’s not just a hero, that’s a superhero.

To understand why that claim is made, you have to go back to the 1970s. The population was growing and was approaching an unprecedented four billion people. Common wisdom was that the Earth couldn’t sustain that many people. Concerns about pollution were rampant and there were many influential thinkers who felt that we would not be able to grow enough food to feed everyone.

Paul Ehrlich, in particular, was a Stanford University biologist who wrote a book “The Population Bomb.” His forecast of hundreds of millions starving to death in the 1970s and 1980s, including 65 million Americans, were taken very seriously. He also predicted doom for India and that England would not exist by the year 2000.

Here we are 40 or 50 years later and while there are hungry people all over the world, there isn’t a global famine of the proportions many people thought was imminent. What happened? People are pretty good problem solvers and Norman Borlaug — along with others — created what’s known as the Green Revolution.

Borlaug broke the rules for growing wheat as part of experiments he conducted in Mexico. Breeding high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat was just the start. He also developed methods to get two growing seasons a year, flying in the face of conventional wisdom. India and Pakistan imported this wheat and found they had an embarrassing problem. Wheat production rose to the point that they didn’t have sufficient storage, labor, or even bags to store the harvest in.

In Pakistan, wheat yields went from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million tons in 1970. They became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968. In India, yields increased from 12.3 million tons to 20.1 million tons in the same time period. By 1974, India became self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Other countries took note, and the world was able to grow more wheat on less land than ever before.

It isn’t just wheat. Borlaug’s techniques inspired similar work with rice. It isn’t surprising that he won the Nobel prize. The story is told that his wife received the notification and since he was at one of the research fields, she drove out to tell him. This could be the genesis of the joke about winning the Nobel prize by being “out standing in your field.”

You might not think of farming as a hacking activity, but Borlaug and others bred high-yield plants with desirable characteristics. Others promoted synthetic fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticides, which worked in conjunction with the new varieties.

Of course, like anything complex, there are detractors. Ehrlich still thinks the world will starve to death sometime soon. Numbers of people who starve each year depend on how you count starvation, but the number is far less than the apocalypse Ehrlich warned about. The fact that about 11% of the seven billion people on Earth are not sufficiently fed is something we need to fix, but most people agree the food exists, it just isn’t getting to the hungry people due to economics and political issues. It isn’t that there isn’t enough food.

Regardless, world grain production went up about 160% from 1958 to 1984. In addition, on average, a person consumes 25% more calories today then they did before the Green Revolution.

I guess this story appeals to us because it is a great example of how predictions of doom can be solved by technology. After all, Thomas Malthus has been predicting world-wide famine since before 1800. Over my life, we’ve heard that we would run out of hydrocarbon fuel, we would make the air unbreathable, and a host of other gloomy predictions. Of course, we shouldn’t assume technology is going to fix everything. It is up to us to seek the solutions to all the daunting problems that loom ahead.

124 thoughts on “Norman Borlaug Saves A Billion

  1. Most, if not all, of the famines in the past 150 years were exacerbated by politics.
    e.g. During the Irish potatoe famines, Ireland was exporting fattened cattle to England to butcher. (The Irish were heavily taxed by the British overlords for any produce they grew, except potatoes resulting in the mono-culture collapse.)
    The Ukraine famine was caused by the Soviets taking all of the crops, leaving the farmers with neither food nor seed for the next year’s crop. The Ethiopian and Biafran famines were also attempts by their governments to force the inhabitants to conform to their religion and restricted international aid to the starving.

      1. I know nothing of famines let alone East African famines, but I can easily imagine storage, distribution, ownership etc of any water they do have to be exacerbated by whatever politics result.

  2. Nutrient pollution into the air and water, arable land turning into desert, subverting nature, GM crops, pesticide resistant insects, obesity etc.
    Hardly a Green Revolution.
    More people are alive than the world can arguably sustain.
    Least we know whom to thank.

        1. Perhaps [dave] and his fanbois would care to take a tour of the ‘third world’ refugee camps with me. I guarantee they’ll find absolutely no support for their politically correct environmental politics there.

          It wouldn’t affect what they believe of course. They know they’re right and there’s no power in existence capable of changing that.

      1. 80% of the people in India are protein-deficient because the cheap grain allowed for a population explosion to levels that cannot be sustained any longer under any sort of balanced diet.

        It’s possible to be a healthy vegetarian – if you’re living in the west where you can import all sorts of nice substitutes for meat protein. If you’re a peasant farmer with twelve mouths to feed, it’s going to be milk and rice for everybody, every day.

          1. >”Hard red varieties are 18% protein.”

            That’s not very much. Ideally your diet would consists of about 40% protein, 40% carbs and 20% fats, but we can simplify it to a 1:1:1 ratio. Anyhow, getting enough protein from even the “high protein” vegetarian options like legumes (up to 25% protein) ends up with you eating too much carbs.

            Your ideal protein intake is about 2 g/kg body mass, so an 80kg adult would need 160 grams of protein a day. Adjust that up by the 18% and you’d need to eat 900 grams of the wheat per day – a whole bag of flour – which would contain about 3000 kcal of energy which is already in the overeating territory, and you’d still need to eat more to have fats and other nutrients instead of just wheat. This is why the people of India suffer from protein deficiency.

            This is why you need to eat cheese, milk, meat, fish, eggs… but with so many people to be fed it’s not possible to delegate farmland to anything else than growing the cheapest highest-yielding cereals to maximize the calorie output of the fields rather than the quality of the food that comes out, and so the people suffer from deficiencies.

          2. >”Are they only growing noodle wheat?”

            Pretty much, because it’s got a higher yield. All the good protein-rich foods take more land and water to grow.

            Also, legumes contain lecitins that cause nutrient malabsorption if it’s not processed off from the food, which lowers the value of things like beans, pulses, nuts, because they have to be cooked extensively or otherwise people get indigestion and other problems. That means higher price per calorie, which means the poorer folk don’t eat them.

            Of course the body is not very sensitive in how much protein or carbs you eat – it can tolerate a range. The average adult can drop their protein intake to 70-80 grams without too much trouble, so you’re only getting 75% of your normal 2000 kcal diet from “high protein” wheat, all the way down to about 50 grams per day which is the recommended minimum for the average adult. Below that, you start to get sick.

            That 50 grams a day would be getting about 10% of your calories from proteins, and the rest from carbs and fats, which is less than ideal, but unfortunately a reality for billions of people in the “green revolution” countries where the availability of cheap high-yield cereals lead to a population explosion at the expense of food quality. Now they can’t back off anymore, because the people are too many and the only way to grow enough food is by growing low-quality carbohydrates.

          3. 900g a day seems about right. Roman soldiers consumed 1/3 ton per year or 830g and they also ate meat when they could. Two pounds a day when on the march I think was the wheat calculation.

          4. >”Two pounds a day when on the march I think was the wheat calculation.”

            Yeah, but we’re not on a march. You don’t need to eat 3000+ kcal a day sitting in the office, or even doing light industrial work. The people of the past were used to a much harder excercise regiment, because their only source of power was people power.

        1. A ‘healthy’ vegetarian or vegan diet is only possible by eating vitamin supplements and/or stuff like cereals that are vitamin fortified.
          If you stick to a strictly 100% vegan, all natural diet you’ll tap out your body’s reserves of Vitamin B-12 and some other vital compounds.

          Humans are omnivores, our pure and natural diet includes the flesh of herbivores, which have the biology to make B-12 etc and store it in their muscle tissue. Far as I’m concerned, any doctor that says they’re a vegan or vegetarian should instantly have their medical license revoked because they apparently refuse to believe the facts of basic biochemistry.

          1. Vegetarianism is fine, you can get all the stuff you need from milk products. Vegans have to be careful, because while every essential amino acid can be found in a plant of one kind or another, you have to know which ones.

            B12 is made by some yeasts, and vegan supplements are available.

            Yep, vegans do tend to have a large crossover with stupid hippies and self-righteous “spiritual energy” idiots, raw food faddists, and all sorts of other fads where doing one bizarre thing will solve all biological problems completely. But veganism as a principle is certainly practicable for humans.

            While our “pure” (what?!?!?) and “natural” diet (I suppose you mean what cavepeople ate) may include eating animals, we no longer live “pure and natural” lives in any way. So fortunately vitamin supplements exist, alongside computers and space shuttles, allowing us to transcend our primate limitations.

          2. >”you can get all the stuff you need from milk products. ”

            But how do you get milk without cows and the associated “misuse” of farmland to grow meat?

            The argument is that we could feed everybody if we didn’t eat meat, but ironically, in order to subsist on a vegetarian diet you need to grow meat anyhow or suffer from nutrient deficiencies. Alternatively, you have to nosh on some grey-goo quorn stuff.

            Although even quorn isn’t a very good substitute of meat. You feed the fungus a kilo of starches and you get 136 g of proteins, but those proteins are of lower quality and so you need to eat twice as much, making it equivalent to about 70 grams of chicken. Meanwhile, feeding the kilo of starches to an actual chicken nets you just about the same amount of protein and people prefer chicken breast over grey goo.

          3. Considering some of the things I’ve been served in various ‘organisational’ catering facilities over the years, grey goo may not be quite as bad as it sounds…

    1. A book published in the 1970’s (though not popular with those “in the know”) estimated that through “proper use”
      of existing land, i.e. stopping urban sprawl, using crops to feed people, not livestock, (or now, produce ethanol).
      The Earth is capable of feeding approximately 50 billion people, without using any of the existing National Parks.

        1. True it wouldn’t be much of a life as there would not be enough resources for everyone to have much in the way of creature comforts like vehicles,electronics etc.
          It would be difficult just to provide everyone proper sanitation and diseases would spread very rapidly in the mega cities they would inevitably be forced to live in.

      1. So what’s the title of the book? Not sure who the people yo characterize as In the know” are, bur perhaps they recognize reality. Not enough viable land to support ThomasJefferson’s Agrarian Society model. That means Urban sprawl in inevitable to shelter t and provide work spaces for those born, who will never have an Agrarian option to support themselves. Ever since Agriculture became the mean to support a growing human population, a portion of the crops had to be used to provide the energy to sustain production. Huge hay barns where constructed to feed draft animal over Winter, even if the animals wheren’t working.. Having said that there is a lot of land that can be used to grow crop for food or fuel, that may never to so because doing so may be deemed inconvenient.

    2. Thank you for pointing out that with every positive story there will be detractors that need to piss on the parade. At least you are alive and unstarving to thank this kind gentleman.

          1. Yes, the growth rate is declining, but it’s still a positive number.

            While EU/US/Japan/etc. are stagnant for having reached their limits of growth, the developing world is shooting through the roof too fast to make an emergency stop before it plunges the whole world into poverty.

            And why is that happening? Because we’re dumping cheap food onto undeveloped markets, into societies that haven’t advanced beyond the “make 12 kids to till the field” stage. Instead of using their resources for advancing their societies, they use them to breed more people. Of course advancement happens, but it gets eclipsed by the exponential population growth.

            As I explained in another post below, societies have two competing uses for resources: living standards and population. Once a certain living standard is reached, the people start to limit their breeding to avoid giving up their living standard, but if they haven’t reached that stage of society before the population grows to the carrying limits, they will revert back to their original state of poverty. You have to grab the next rung in the ladder before you can hold on.

            That’s because in poverty conditions, children are survival, children are your genes’ way to fill the environment with copies of you so your genes could capture a larger portion of the available resources even though it’s a tragedy of the commons and the resources keep dwindling because of overpopulation. Your genes don’t care, because for them to survive they have to copy faster than anyone else. Those who do, survive, and continue to breed.

            Only if the society manages to grow in complexity enough, that survival for everybody becomes a matter of maintaining the infrastructure, only then do people switch the strategy for fewer offspring and limited population. If you’re in a society where one generation ago your parents were living in a stick hut in a forest, and now you’re living in a tin-roofed favela, the fallback to the stick-hut culture isn’t that great – you can go back, and eventually you will when the food runs out because the society reaches its carrying capacity.

          2. In other words it’s the effect where, in the developed world, if the power goes out it’s zombie apocalypse in three weeks, while in the developing world in the same situation people just go “meh”, abandon the trappings of modernity they’ve only barely achieved, and go back to the jungle. Many may die because of hardships, but that’s business as usual.

            In our world the fall is too great for most people to handle, so we’re “trapped” by our own advancement to become sustainable.

            In the developing world, a person may be glad to finally afford a bicycle, but they still remember how to get around by foot. If they should lose the bicycle then life just goes on. This produces the apparent carelessness of the “aboriginal”, who neglects and discards even expensive items and tools, because the harder something is to come by, the more effort it takes to have it, the less useful it ultimately is to survival.

          3. Worth pointing out that the majority of the “data” for the growth rate decline is in the projection. Yes, these are highly educated guesses, but we don’t know for sure yet that our growth rate isn’t going to continue spiking.

          4. TGT,
            “Growth rates are slowing to various extents within different populations with result of the overall population growth rate decreasing from 1.55% per year in 1995 to 1.25% in 2005, 1.18% in 2015 and 1.10% in 2017” from Wikipedia
            Those projections are based on the data from the last 20+ years, so actually what we don’t know is if the growth rate will continue declining.

    3. Trolling or dumb?
      Modern production methods are more area efficient than some older ones even without pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Some of those old methods included burning large forest areas, good for some plants but bad for many other plants and animals.

      We are far from reaching a population limit and there are several known ways to improve production. Exchange cows for insects as a protein source for instance, seaweed…

        1. It’s actually quite hard to get enough protein eating vegetarian diets, unless you include dairy products, which implies cows, which implies meat being produced, which means you might as well eat meat. If you plan to get the recommended amount of protein from the typical high-yield “green revolution food” like grains, you’ll have to eat so much starches that you become overweight.

          >”80% Indians Suffer from Protein Deficiency, Reveals Survey”

          The symptoms of not getting enough protein range from mental decline to hormonal imbalances and rashes and sores that won’t heal.

          1. > “It’s actually quite hard to get enough protein eating vegetarian diets, unless you include dairy products”

            From what I’m aware of, I don’t think that’s true. Protein is available from many easy-to-cultivate plant sources. To give just a couple of examples, hemp and algae are both protein rich, in fact in the case of certain varieties of algae it’s even more protein rich than meat sources.

          2. It seems to me the high-yield crops were selected for high caloric content, could similar techniques used to develop the high-yield crops be used to get high-protein-yield crops?

            From another perspective, we need and break down proteins to get their amino acids, so really we need amino acids, some of which our own body can produce, and some of which we can’t (the essential amino acids). Wouldn’t it make more sense to select vegetables/fruits/… with relatively higher concentrations of essential amino acids? Then our body can synthesize the rest as it sees fit?

            Can technology efficiently chemically synthesize these essential amino acids?

            Consider a wild garden, as a seed grows into a plant, initially it captures very little light for a long time, but the sunlight besides it is not wasted, it goes to the competing grass or plants around the seed. In agriculture it seems a lot of sunlight is simply wasted until the plant is relatively large with respect to the rows it is planted in.

            This makes me believe a food factory with solar panels with multiple levels of plants on the same area could grow more food, instead of wasting solar light on earth. I also wonder if plants have other bottlenecks,

          3. >”You could try arguing with this guy…you might not want to make him mad though.”

            I don’t need to. He makes it work, because he’s getting enough nutrients by over-eating, and then spending the excess energy by working out.

            For regular people, that doesn’t work. They either become obese, or ill, unless they get supplemental protein and B12, iron, etc.

        2. Why eat insects?

          Low maintenance,, broad feed sources, high protein, low on the food web (ie energy efficient / highfood-weight conversion).Insects are common foods in much of the world.

          1. I have just read that beer is a good source of vitamin B12 and folic acid. You have given a list of excellent arguments for eating insects but – beer.

    4. “More people are alive than the world can arguably sustain?” How the hell would you argue that, considering that those people are today alive and being sustained by the world?

      I bet you must be nice and comfy complaining about technologies which feed third-world people from first-world safety. Right down the street from an overpriced Whole Foods which turns greenwashing into a luxury commodity.

      1. >”How the hell would you argue that, considering that those people are today alive and being sustained by the world?”

        In the same way how you can argue that taking a loan to buy food isn’t sustainable when you aren’t making enough money to pay the debt.

        The amount of soil and fresh water depletion in the world, plus the overfishing, and the pollution we cause is the debt we are unable to pay with so many people to feed. We’re simply tapping into resources that aren’t replenished fast enough to cover the losses.

        1. That simply isn’t true. Very little of the world’s arable land is being utilized. Is meat production unsustainable? Almost definitely. But we aren’t at a point where we are consuming more calories than the world can create. Most of the heavy lifting for feeding the world is done with grains. It is our wealthy privilege to think of meat as a necessity.

          The ethicality of continuing to grow our utilization of arable land is another debate. For the record I think very bad things will come from the loss of biodiversity and wilderness, but we definitely can produce the resources for our current population sustainably on this planet.

          Now, add perhaps five to ten billion more and we’re going to be in a bind. Also, climate change is going to change things considerably. Climate change is strongly tied to agriculture, but it’s definitely not the only thing driving it.

          1. Forgot to add by “resources for our current population” I mean food. Energy and manufacturing material is another matter. We could be making energy sustainably, but we aren’t. And we are using plastic at a truly insane rate.

    5. Unfortunately yes it’s unsustainable but hopefully the population should start going to negative growth in the next 40 years or so with better sex education and elevation of the status of females in the developing world.
      Women who are educated tend to not have a bunch of kids they can’t afford.
      The other half of the solution is space colonization we have an entire solar system at our disposal.

    1. Yes, the part where the problem wasn’t actually fixed, because the population in the developing world shot up like a rocket thanks to the green revolution and dumping cheap grain on the world market.

    2. I missed where Al gave an example of “Government prevents solution from helping”.’ but that is not to say many governments, including Western government are part of the problem. The only thing you missed is pointing out where you think government interfered with any solutions. This is an instance where government played a positive role. Interesting how some have to broaden the definition of who are hackers, in a vain attempt to try to shine a positive light on the term hacker

  3. “Of course, like anything complex, there are detractors. Ehrlich still thinks the world will starve to death sometime soon.”

    We’re still not through with the wild card that climate change presents.

      1. There have been cases of entire herds of livestock dying somewhere in Siberia because of the permafrost thawing and releasing unknown, very old viruses…

        Who knows what’s still hiding in there, at least some care needs to be taken when colonising this land.

        1. That concern is way overblown. Consider this, what do you mean by ‘very old’?

          Another commenter mentioned an incidence of Anthrax. In that case the viri in question were thought to have been frozen about 75 years. That’s nothing in evolutionary time. Stuff like that will happen but it’s still just a modern virus which we do have modern experience in dealing with. Worst case scenario… we all start getting smallpox shots again.

          Then there’s those stories about virus’s or bacteria being found that have been frozen on a geological timescale. That story gets way overblown because something that old we might not have any experience in treating.

          So what?

          Our own DNA is littered with the remains of ancient virus’s. Each of those, to beat the incredible odds against ever getting encoded in our genome must have been tremendous plagues in their day. Today they are nothing.

          Scientists even removed one of these from a human DNA sample and put it back together. The result was a live virus that was barely even capable of infecting human cells. How could what had once been a plague be so impotent today? Because our immune systems have evolved to defeat it already! If you only find it in ancient, frozen material… there is a reason for that! It has no place in today’s ecosystem.

          So.. if strange viri from 100s of thousands or millions of years ago start popping up in the Canadian, Alaskan and Russian mud puddle what will we find? Probably a mix of the same modern virus’s we are already fighting today plus old crap that our bodies already know how to beat down with little effort. We might not even notice it.

          Big deal!

  4. how the tables have turned, nowadays they think about how to eliminate few billion from the population, see bill gates for example, i think any drastic action is a bad thing, let it be pro or contra, for example they go to africa and vaccine the children so they survive the harsh environment, but now the problem is all the ten will survive, so the next problem is how to feed all of them, then we have other problems, it is a very complex thing for sure

    1. If people no longer need to have 10 kids, so enough will survive to look after them when they’re old, then soon enough they’ll stop having so many. Of course contraception is a fairly vital part of that. Keyhole vasectomies might also be revolutionary.

      As economic development goes up, childbirth rates go down. It’s happened all over the world. Basically bringing most of the world into the middle-class will solve just about every problem humanity suffers.

      Except global warming, but then being middle-class they’ll all buy Priuses.

      1. >”As economic development goes up, childbirth rates go down”

        Assume that the childbirth rate is linearily dependent on economic development. Then note that the rich western nations are just teetering around replacement rate.

        In other words, we’d have to uplift the whole world to this level just to stop it from overbreeding, but we don’t have the ten earths to pull off such living standards for all. If we don’t, then the world population just keeps on growing until everyone’s poor again.

    1. Wishful thinking.

      The population growth in the developing world hasn’t ceased. It’s slamming fast into the sustainability limits and poverty again.

      Societies advance when they have more resources available in short enough time that they can’t eat all of them. When the population growth catches up, the advancement stops.

      1. Point being that there’s two competing uses for the resources: living standards and population.

        Once the limits of growth are reached, living standards and population are frozen in place because the people don’t want to give up on whatever they’ve gained. The society is stuck at the mode of operation it’s in when it reaches the limits of available energy and materials, because trying to improve living standards would require reducing population, and trying to reduce population is not feasible. As the population decreases, living standards improve more markedly for the poor, the uneducated, the stupid etc. who respond by producing more babies since it’s possible and they have nothing else to do anyhow. Slowly, but surely, you get an idiocracy situation where the society declines and quality is replaced by quantity.

        Any other outcome is only possible if the society has already reached a level where everybody, or most everybody, understands the point and voluntarily agrees to have no more children than necessary.

        And if you don’t reach a sufficiently high level of advancement before you run out or resources, you won’t even get to the idiocracy scenaroin. The population won’t stop growing because so many people are still at the level where they just keep bumping out babies, and the society collapses back to poverty before it goes anywhere.

        1. I’ve seen it before, and it hasn’t changed my mind.

          Consider a hypothetical society that has 1 million people at the level of “can’t afford a bicycle”. The people are quickly eating themselves to deeper and deeper poverty because everyone’s trying to have 7 children just so some would survive and keep the family going. After all, children are labor and labor brings you food.

          So, you have a situation where the population is trying to triple every generation of about 20 years. In 20 years it’s 3 million, in 40 years it’s 9 million, in 60 years it’s 27 million etc..

          So, the society’s population limit is around 1 million, from where it will decline because most people will just starve or die otherwise. Now, let’s introduce modern health care to eliminate child mortality and provide everyone cheap food: a “productivity leap” where suddenly you double the wealth of everyone. How long till the people will eat and breed themselves back to poverty? Less than one generation. About 15 years later everyone’s back at the brink of starvation and very few got any wiser.

          Let’s introduce a larger leap of 10 times the productivity. How long now? About 40 years, and we’re back to the starting point. In those 40 years, you start with a 90% surplus, which eventually declines to zero, and with that surplus you have to educate everyone and change the culture to stop the rampant breeding and overpopulation before you run out of surplus to do anything else.

          So you go from “no bicycle” to “bicycle” in about two generations. Then it stops, and you’re back to square one because you haven’t reached a stable state. The people are still breeding too fast, and soon enough the bicycles are beaten to machetes.

          But all the while this is happening, some Swedish professor can go on youtube and we can all pat ourselves on the back for how well the little Africans are doing, how daddy bought a bicycle and little girl goes to school to learn math. Until 20 years later it’s Hutus and Tutsis again.

          1. Or, like what happened in India with the project to provide solar power to the poor, with the idea that they’d save on kerosene for lamps and educate themselves, and lift themselves out of poverty.

            Some years later, 95% of the solar lanterns were broken and stolen. The people just didn’t know how to maintain them. But, while the program was ongoing, everyone was congratulating themselves on a good job done.

          2. If you follow the development of the developed nations, and why they’re developed instead of being two steps from stone age mud-hut cultures, you’ll find several disruptions and “productivity leaps”.

            Such as, the plagues: killed a whole bunch of people, suddenly you had all this land for food production and a massive surplus. Living standards went up in few short years before the population could be replaced. Likewise, discovery of coal, discovery of oil, the industrial revolution – suddenly people had hundreds, thousands of times more resources available than what they could even use – so for two hundred years things could only get better and better even if the people kept getting more and more.

            We got this far before we ran out. We just about got to the point where the population stopped growing before the fun stuff ran out. Now the happy hour is over, and pretty soon it will be last calls, because the third world is coming over to replace us who refuse to lower our living standards for the sake of having more people.

  5. Something I see as a potential next step in growing healthy, nutritious food for lots of people without hurting the environments comes in the form of robotics. Small robots to kill invasive weeds and pests. Robot swarms that can identify what part of the plant needs to be harvested and leave the rest in place. We could have large food prairies with a wide variety of plants all intermingled, providing natural defense against all sorts of pests and diseases. These prairies can be shared between man and nature to prevent massive ecosystem damage by slash and burn, and excessive pesticide use. And we’d get more variety in our diets, since it wouldn’t just be one huge field of wheat/corn/soybeans everywhere.

    1. Automatic, ripeness-based harvesting has been a thing for at least 20 years. The agricultural engineers are cool as hell – biology, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, chemistry, biology (worth mentioning twice), and the occasional explosive all in the same lab. I *love* those people. Self-driving tractors are commercial-off-the-shelf today. Automatic sprout re-potting in greenhouses. Dude – automatically propagated seedless watermelons! None of this tedious-assed pipetting the maristem anymore. If I could afford a decade of grad school I’d go there just to hang out. And maybe save the world, heck I don’t know.

    1. How did he kill millions? He supported chemical warfare in WW I but chemical weapons didn’t kill many compared to traditional humane ways of removing body parts.

      And if your are referring to WW II he didn’t participate actively or passively.

      1. Before the Haber process, nations were squabbling over small islands full of bat droppings, because they could be processed to saltpeter to make ammunition and explosives. Haber is in part responsible for WW1 and WW2 because without him the nations wouldn’ have had much to shoot each other with.

    2. Anyone who develops technology of any notable power is going to be responsible for mass murder by that rationale.

      Care to calculate the present and future death toll of machine learning? Including elections and foreign policies redirected by data mining algorithms? It’s going to be a ridiculously dangerous technology, albeit one that kills indirectly.

  6. Hello,
    Aside of the great invention that this man done we have to bear in mind that the poor countries are now in trouble due to fertilizers and patented crops.

    Written on 2009:
    But is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis? Last year a massive study called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.

    ( a subscribe thing appears at the beginning if you are not patient you can find the Spanish translation here and translate it back to english: )

  7. Reading Norman Borlaug’s name after seeing the lead illustration, I had to chuckle. Chuckled because the wheat varieties he developed are known as dwarf wheat varieties. That farmer should be staring down to see the grain head, not up. Of course that may have been an intentional exaggeration, only the artist knows. In a world of finite resources and a growing population Malthus in time may be proven correct, but that date is always going to be moving target. Peak US petroleum production was accurately predicted. Worldwide peak oil production will be a moving target, because just like Malthus we can’t know what we don’t know. We can’ live on bread alone, but many civilizations that exist today are ancient ones, despite consuming more plant protein than animal protein. Be it animal life or plant life we have so much mono-culture, perhaps it’s the lack of diversity that ends up being our nutritional Achilles heel?

    1. The dwarf wheats are not very short. Just short enough and strong enough to not go down in wind or rain that blows down previous varieties, which spend a lot of energy making straw.

  8. “I guess this story appeals to us because it is a great example of how predictions of doom can be solved by technology.”

    You can’t solve the problems of overpopulation by increasing the food supply, all that does is delay the crunch slightly, while enabling even more population growth. To solve the problem, you need to stabilise the population at a sustainable level.

    1. I don’t think you can solve a prediction in general. You can solve a mystery, but you can’t do the much abused “solve a murder”. This is right there in the solve a murder category.

    1. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and the Y2K “disaster” have the same narrative.

      Earnest, hardworking people figure out there’s something going wrong, we work diligently to avoid the worst case scenario, and then some ignorant child comes along and says “See, there was never a problem at all!”

      Tale as old as time; young gorillas sneering at the accomplishments of the silverbacks.

  9. If you are going to credit him with saving massive people from starving, should also charge him with crimes against humanity because his work means that ultimately more people will starve, or die from disease, war, etc. (The more powerful the four-wheel drive, the further away from the road you get before you get stuck.)
    Saying that population collapse isn’t going to happen because you haven’t seen it happen yet is short-sighted. The pattern has happened many times before, and there is no repeal of physics. Questions are when, how bad, and how much gets damaged on the way.

    1. Shhh…. you’ll upset the cornucopians who haven’t pondered the ecological limits to growth and the enormous non renewable inputs like the crude oil needed for the machinery and fertilisers to farm what W. Catton termed “virtual acreage” … as we climb further and further out on the ecological limb.

      1. But… but… surely wind turbines will magically result in new wind turbines, and we don’t need to mine for more metals or burn lime for concrete, and if a cloud goes in front of the sun we can just turn the smelters off to save power.

        They can do that. Can’t they?

          1. That’s the point though. The cornucopians haven’t said a word about -how- they’d actually run the world while all their “renewable” systems are based on cheap materials and energy from non-renewable inputs.

            Everyone’s just installing solar panels and erecting wind mills, and nobody’s put a single thought on how to close the loop from renewable resources back to renewable resources to actually make them renewable and sustainable.

            Serious questions have to be answered, like, how to recycle concrete back to concrete instead of just “recycling” it to landfill rubble, because all new concrete you make emits CO2.

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