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Saving A Billion People from Starvation

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No American ever embraced the power of science to do good more than Norman Borlaug. Father of the "Green Revolution" that transformed agriculture in India, Pakistan and Mexico, he was a compassionate realist convinced that there was no way to feed more than 6 billion people without the judicious use of high yielding varieties, agricultural chemicals, and biotechnology. He never waivered in those views even as they became less politically correct.

Strangely, Borlaug was not widely known in the US except in food and agricultural circles but he managed to become a hero to the poor in the developing world. He had helped as many as a billion people avoid the starvation Malthus had long ago predicted as an inevitable consequence of population growth. His application of science to food production was anything but cold or mechanical. Instead, he saw clearly the corrosive impact that hunger and poverty have on societies and believed passionately that adequate food was the first component of social justice and without it we will never attain peace.

Last year, when food prices skyrocketed and riots broke out in 30 countries, Dr. Borlaug must have been reminded of decades ago when his field work helped contain the social turmoil caused by a similar run up in food prices during the oil crisis of the mid 1970s. He must also have thought how little we have learned to be going through the same experience again. Ironically, it was his success with the Green Revolution that allowed the World Bank, USAID and other major donors to neglect agriculture to the point that a new global food crisis was possible.

America is working to rebuild its international image and has committed to dealing proactively with the problems associated with global food shortages and modernizing agricultural systems. Norm Borlaug's life is both a symbol of what can be done, and a reminder of the enormous problem of global poverty we still face. Why not finish his work? It is time we did. Who knows? Perhaps one day America will again be a hero to the world's poor.


Dan Glickman is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture; Catherine Bertini is the former Executive Director of the UN World Food Program. Both cochair The Chicago Council on Global Affairs' study on global agricultural development. Its final report, Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty, is available online at www.thechicagocouncil.org/globalagdevelopment.