The man who saved a billion lives

Why Genetically Modified food is necessary to feed the planet by Jonathan Gray for The Toronto Globalist

Norman Borlaug with spikes of wheat.Photo credit: CIMMYT.

Saving the species. It’s the noblest goal any human can aspire to, and it is associated with figures who are the paragon of humanity. I do not wish to speak about ‘saving souls’ in a religious sense. Abraham Lincoln literally saved tens of thousands of men and women who would otherwise be subject to abject slavery. Nelson Mandela literally saved millions from apartheid. In terms of occurrences outside one’s lifetime, there are some individuals whose contributions to medical science have saved numbers of an unimaginable order of magnitude –  Jonas Salk discovered a method of defeating polio; Edward Jenner brought about the beginning of the end for smallpox. We have our heroes, our saviors, the ones who dedicated themselves to helping, above all else.

We are 6.6 billion people now. We can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear. -Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug isn’t a household name by far. Yet, in his lifetime, he was credited to saving over a billion people, in a very literal sense. For this, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, a frank defeat of the doomsaying Malthusians and ‘Population Bomb’ adherents. Thomas Malthus, a British economist, had predicted in 1798 that exponential population growth would outstrip global food output, which was limited by the efficiency of the land. Now deceased, Norman Borlaug’s legacy lives on in the technology he tirelessly distributed across the globe. This is the legacy of agricultural technology, specifically of genetically modified organisms. Yet, it is amongst the most maligned scientific achievements of the past decades; the ‘Franken-Foods’ have been spurned in favor of a return to the ‘natural’ processes of the ‘organic’ food movement.


  1. That’s partially correct. Her dissertation is on the subject of physics, but you’re entirely right in that it is not a technical paper by any means, and therefore not a scientific PhD so much as a Philosophy of Science.
    The dissertation itself discusses non-locality, comparing Bell’s theorem and the Bohm interpretations of quantum physics. Technically, a paper on physics, but not ‘technically’, heh.

  2. Hi Jonathan, thanks for stopping by, and for correcting an otherwise great article. Yeah we noticed that even on the back of Shiva’s books she claims to be “one of India’a leading physicists” which is doubly incorrect. It’s really weird that this is being claimed as she isn’t known for any achievements in physics, and her audience probably doesn’t care enough about physics to give it much credence.
    I really liked this part of the article:

    There aren’t ‘fish genes in plants’, and even if there were, it wouldn’t impart any more ‘fish’ qualities than on the molecular level, and would be broken down in the same manner.

    I have said similar things, in that people think that a hypothetical fish gene in a tomato would impart some sort of essential ‘fishiness’ to the tomato and make it no longer really just a tomato. But single genes do not contain the essence of the organism they came from last, especially since genes can move between species and each species that exists today can have genes in common with a wide variety of organisms, both closely and distantly related. Humans have about 100 genes from bacteria, are we part bacteria?
    There is a fundamental change that needs to take place in our understanding of life that comes with the ability to move genes between species.

  3. I really don’t understand the squeamishness people have about interspecies gene transfer. Maybe it’s just a lack of understanding of what DNA is and what genes are? Or maybe it’s a lack of understanding of what it means to be descended from a common ancestor, even by people who accept evolution as true?

  4. I would posit that people just tend to have a more ‘whole-istic’ view of much of biology. Despite the relatively widespread fact that, rounding up, we’re basically genetically identical to other species– it hasn’t quite sunk in with folks. A better treatment of the concept is found in a delightful article on, which describes evolution by natural selection’s implication of shared ancestry utterly ‘mindblowing’ (with literal graphics to accompany).
    I tend to be reminded of that Tennyson line: “Nature red in tooth and claw”. It is, to me, a highly valuable reminder of how divorced the notion of nature is from the reality. Nature is not a happy circle of friend animals under the rainbow- it’s a vicious and deadly thing where one animal’s life is another’s dinner. Isn’t it the case that Darwin shocked more in his original writings by the concept of natural selection than by common descent?
    I just perceive an increasing return to a spiritualist approach to nature that emphasizes an unrealistic depiction, “Mother Nature” (particularly appropriate for the eco-feminists such as Vandana Shiva).

  5. This is the legacy of agricultural technology, specifically of genetically modified organisms.

    I think this is reaching a little – Borlaug didn’t do GMO in the sense that it is normally used (yes we perpetually argue that GMO is an extention of what people have always done, but even I think this is a stretch when talking about Borlaug – particularly as it has the potential to muddy his achievements in the eyes of some) his work was all done with breeding (another reason not to call this GMO – plant breeders need recognition too…) – I keep seeing the green revolution being called GMO around and about and it tends to raise my heckles.
    It’s also worth noting that Borlaug didn’t so much defuse the Malthusean bomb as extend the fuse a touch and increase the payload – if we don’t actually fix the underlying issues (I think what was done was awesome and necessary – but if we rest on our laurels then it is clear that this merely caused a generation or two to be skipped and probably added billions to the reaper’s list)
    As a final wossname – anyone yet dug up Shiva’s actual dissertation? Or concrete evidence that it’s Philosophy of Sci and not Physics proper the degree is in? (the one link that I’ve repeatedly stumbled across is less than clear and I don’t want to jump to conclusions simply because I want it not to be physics…)

  6. I don’t see that discussion as having put it to bed – the link to the Amicus doodad that I followed (can’t even seem to get this much info atm) had the dissertation listed both as Pholosophy of Science AND as Physics – her publication history doesnt seem to suggest strongly for it being a science degree rather than a philosophy of science degree – but a twitter link, publication history and title of a dissertation isn’t enough for me (particularly as titles of physics papers and other dissertations don’t necessarily allow me to get exactly what the hell they’re on about) – I’m not keen on flat out stating the degree isn’t physics without something more concrete (I’m fine with saying she ain’t, and never was, a leading Indian physicist – because that is abundantly clear, but in my mind the nature of the doctorate is still relatively murky – perhaps I’m being overly cautious on this but I’m not willing to trust twitter references and very scant evidence about the thesis)

  7. Hey folks, I decided I would try to put this issue to rest myself, so I called up the University of Western Ontario, got sent to their registrar’s office, and they said that degree verifications are now outsourced to a company called AuraData. This company, however, requires authorization to check on someone’s degree, and is supposedly for employers and not individuals. Great. So I called the Department of Philosophy and got an answering machine and will try back later.
    In the meantime, feast your eyes on her acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood award, in which she says that she left physics to do the philosophy of subatomic particles. (hint hint) And then she said that she left academia in 1982 to do her activism thing. Her Ph.D. was granted in 1981, so that doesn’t leave a lot of time to be a ‘leading physicist’ for sure.

  8. I suppose I should explain the twitter reference a bit more. Chris MacDonald is a bioethicist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada. He contacted the University of Western Ontario, but I don’t know who. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have corroboration. Want to give them a call? 🙂

  9. I can see the headlines now – Monsanto probing Vandana’s record, more harassment news after our film at 11 (Food Inc no less!)
    I’ll leave it in Karl’s capable hands!

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