Sunday, July 22, 2007

Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives, heard of him?

Innovate and beware the bureaucracy and save a billion lives.


In the mid-'60s, doomsayers predicted that, because of war and overpopulation, millions of people in India and Pakistan would die of starvation – and nothing could be done to prevent it. Dr. Borlaug thought otherwise. He wanted to see if his new wheat seeds could help prevent the looming catastrophe in South Asia. Bureaucrats initially thwarted him. But as the famine grew worse, he was finally permitted to move forward.

Within a year, wheat yields more than doubled. Over the next eight years, the two countries became self-sufficient in wheat production. For his work, Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. In his acceptance speech, Dr. Borlaug quoted the creator of the prize, Alfred Nobel: "I would rather take care of the stomachs of the living than the glory of the departed in the form of monuments."

Cutting the red tape

The danger of bureaucracy is another life lesson. Whether in government, private industry or universities, bureaucracies inhibit new ideas and approaches, he said. That's why, when he started on the wheat project in Mexico, he recruited young scientists, who had not been damaged by bureaucratic thinking.

As Dr. Borlaug talked, the Congressional Gold Medal sat on an end table next to him. Set in a green felt case, the gold medal is engraved with a sketch of him standing in a wheat field in Mexico, hat on head, busy writing notes. The drawing is based on a photo that sits in his home office, which is also jammed floor-to-ceiling with books and mementos – including photos of him with presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush.

His granddaughter, Julie Borlaug, who works for Texas A&M, acts as a personal assistant, helping him sort through his vast collection of papers. Dr. Borlaug and his wife, Margaret, moved to Dallas in the mid-'80s to be close to their children. In 1984, Dr. Borlaug was recruited to Texas A&M, where he still teaches part-time.