Agriculture: The Unsung heroes of our time


How many scientists can you name at a time?

Typically, people could go for Einstein or maybe other less popular scientists if they’re really into science. No doubt that all scientific thinkers have had their contributions since the start of history, yet some will go unnoticed.

The hero of this post

The late Norman Borlaug was one of those scientists who had an enormous impact on agriculture during the 20th century. He’s also been hailed as the man who helped save a billion lives from starvation. Born in the United States, he later moved to Mexico to conduct most of his research. His work on grains has been the major highlight of his career. He also managed to develop a new breed of wheat called the Semi-Dwarf wheat, which is shorter than normal wheat as the name implies. 

The man himself, a great scientist and a Nobel prize winner. Source: Flickr.

A wonderful transformation

Wheat grows to an average height of around 120 centimetres, about the same as an 8-year-old kid. It’s therefore prone to breakage and subsequent loss of yield. Following Borlaug’s work, the annual wheat produce in Mexico has almost doubled during the late 1950s.

It took only 10 years to get there!

His work, however, was not limited to the Americas only. He also managed to get his wheat seeds to India and Pakistan. Both countries managed to produce enough wheat for local consumption in around 10 to 12 years.

Up close and personal. Source: Flickr.

The main tool Borlaug used was selective breeding, where he breeds plants with desirable features (such as height) in preference to other plants. Another factor he took into account was the presence of diseases. Borlaug was breeding wheat thousands of times to end up with the desired features. Fungal diseases like rust were rampant. They brought down the yield in both developing and developed countries, so the need for resistance arose.

The current situation

Fast forward fifty years or so, we are living in an era where there’s more food wasted than ever. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), around one third of food suitable for human consumption (1.3 billion tonnes) goes to waste. There might as well be enough food for all of us in this world, but are we managing it properly?

Fruits, vegetables and legumes form the bulk of food waste. Source: Flickr.

On the other hand, imagine having to deal with all this population growth which is getting slightly out of control. The world’s population has doubled from 3 to 6 billion towards the end of the 20th century.

It only took 40 years to happen…

Borlaug was an advocate of controlling population numbers, since there is so much land we could cultivate and obtain food from. He emphasised it in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in 1970 as an effective method to ensure food availability in the years to come.

Could we be heroes of our own if we cut down food waste as individuals and corporations?

I believe we can.

3 Responses to “Agriculture: The Unsung heroes of our time”

  1. Musa says:

    It’s a good read, it’s a shame he isn’t very well known, particularly given the impact he had. Stories like this one would help bring awareness of wastage and to help push for a decrease in how much food we throw away.

  2. aali2 says:

    Thank you for that! we could probably feed the world right now if transport was cheaper and more convenient. But it’s truly challenging as to how we could use it otherwise (apart from throwing it away)

  3. mdeurwaarder says:

    Great topic and great post! The whole “feeding the world by 2050” discourse is definitely one that needs to be discussed further.

    I guess the further questions this post raises are to do with how we begin to manage our escalating food waste: how do we make it accessible and desirable as a primary food source? Or how to we reintegrate it into back into either the food system or, alternatively, the energy system with different processes now able to use it as a fuel.