The Unknown Inventor Who Saved Millions of Lives

August 16, 2013


Leon Hesser’s The Man Who Fed The World is the biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. It chronicles his life and struggles, how he revolutionized the agricultural world, and how his work kept hundreds of millions of people from starvation and death.

Borlaug’s story starts with the moment that he and his wife, Margaret, learned that he had been selected to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His astonishment at receiving such a prestigious honor is a sharp contrast contrasted with his early life.

Borlaug was born and raised in rural Iowa during the Great Depression. He failed his initial college entrance exam. And yet his life came to alter the course of so many other lives in the world. After a short time working for DuPont, Borlaug found himself working in Mexico during the World War II.

Mexico was experiencing a severe food shortage, and Borlaug was put on the case. It turned out that Mexico’s wheat was being attacked by a fungal disease called rust. Borlaug determined that the best way to solve the problem was to create a hybrid that could overcome the rust and survive until harvest time. As a bonus, he developed a hybrid that also boosted yields.

Borlaug’s hybridization experiments were carried out with a shoestring budget and used equipment he scrounged up from wherever he could find it.

The war effort diverted necessary materials and equipment away from him, and the Mexican bureaucracy stood in his way more often than it helped.

He prevailed, though, and developed a hybrid wheat that solved the problem. And he didn’t stop there. He continued working to improve yields and disease resistance.

Some of Borlaug’s hybrids found their way to India and Pakistan, poor countries that were accustomed to receiving food aid from other countries because their farms did not produce enough to sustain their populations. With Borlaug’s help they became self-sufficient in food production, contrary to the predictions of many experts.

Hesser’s account of Borlaug’s accomplishments shows that meticulous observation and zealous dedication to “putting bread into those hungry bellies” turned into actual results. Borlaug’s breakthroughs allowed farmers to increase their production fourfold or even more.

The researcher had a plan, he devoted himself to it, and a significant portion of the world’s population should be grateful.

There is much more to The Man Who Fed The World than the wheat hybrids I’ve mentioned here. In Hesser’s hands, the scientist is a true hero, albeit a little-known one. This fascinating account deserves a place on the shelf of any food lover.

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