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Monday, September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug, Nobel prize winning botanist, dies

Norman Borlaug, architect of the Green Revolution, has passed away, at age 95.

The categories for the Nobel Prizes were mostly determined by the will of Alfred Nobel. A number of geneticists, such as Watson and Crick, have won or shared in the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, but there is no prize in genetics. There is no prize in zoology, or botany. A few zoologists have won the Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Borlaug, a botanist, made scientific and agricultural contributions of such importance that he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

What did Borlaug do? What is the Green Revolution? Put simply, Borlaug worked, for many years, on improving crop yields in third world countries. Much of his work was in the field in those countries. There is a chart included in the Wikipedia article on the man that dramatically shows the effect of the work of Borlaug and his colleagues. Wheat yields in Mexico, according to the chart, increased by more than four-fold since 1950. Borlaug's techniques involved increased fertilizer and other agricultural techniques which had not been used very much in third world countries, and breeding crops that could take advantage of these techniques. It seems clear that Borlaug's work kept many people, probably many millions, from starvation.

Borlaug's work has not been without controversy. Critics have claimed that Borlaug's techniques have worked to the advantage of agribusiness companies, made third world farmers too dependent on seed that they may not always be able to afford, and harmed the environment. There is some truth in all these claims, but Borlaug believed that producing more food was more important. He has also put forward the Borlaug Hypothesis, which states that improving crop yields makes deforestation less likely. He has stated that population growth is one of the important reasons why people don't have enough food.

Science is sometimes accused of being too divorced from people's real needs. Maybe so. What, if any, is the practical value of string theory? But discoveries that, at first, seem only interesting to specialists, or irrelevant to human physical or economic needs, often turn out to be of immense practical use. One example is Mendel's work in studying how some characteristics of peas were inherited. I doubt if Mendel, or Mendel's contemporaries, had any idea that his discoveries would make tremendous advances in agriculture and medicine possible. Without Mendel, no Borlaug. Science is also a way of learning about God. Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:20 tell us that how nature works is one of the ways God is revealed to us.

I'm not sure Borlaug's work has helped us to know God better, but it has helped lots of people stay alive, so that they have a chance of learning about Him. We should be grateful for his work.

Thanks for reading.

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