The man who saved a billion lives

One of the most influential figures of the 20th Century was born on March 25th, 1914. His name hardly resonates with the man in the street, but Norman Borlaug, so-called "Father of the Green Revolution," was the agronomist whose work developing more resistant and high-yielding crop strains, combined with the use of new technology and techniques, virtually disproved the pessimistic thesis of Malthus single-handedly. In doing so, he also made the best-selling doomsayer Paul Erlich look even more ridiculously wrong than he already was.

As a child and teenager, he worked the family farm, and was taught in a one-room one-teacher school in rural Iowa. He went on to gain degrees in forestry, plant pathology and genetics. In Mexico he bred a series of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat, and took the best plants of each crop to develop properties that would make them more resistant to the plant pathogen, rust, and other parasites. By breeding dwarf crops, he made them waste less energy in growing long stalks, and less prone to fall over in the wind and rain. He was able to grow varieties that had larger heads with more cereal, and increase production per acre.

Under his team Mexico went rapidly from being an importer of wheat to being an exporter. He did this by introducing a double season for wheat, and by developing multiline varieties to grow together in the same field, to increase pest resistance through genetic variation.

Borlaug went on to Southeast Asia, introducing his strains and techniques to India and Pakistan and hugely boosting their crop yields. In his 1968 book, "The Population Bomb," Erlich had said that humanity was doomed to mass starvation. He said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971," and "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980." It was, it did.

His team went on to develop high yield, semi-dwarf rice for use in China, boosting productivity per acre there as well, and developed and popularized the new crop varieties in South America and he Middle East. Food production was increasing, pace Malthus, faster than population was. The "Borlaug Hypothesis" suggested that increasing food production on current agricultural land made it less necessary to cut down forests in order to grow more food.

He criticized some Western environmentalists who favoured "traditional" (i.e. subsistence) agriculture, suggesting that if they were to spend a month on a poor country farm, watching the people there struggle each day to grow enough food to survive, maybe they would be more favourable to the use of modern farming methods.

Borlaug thought that genetic modification was the key to the next agricultural revolution, pointing out that humans have been modifying crop strains for millennia. He said that GM crops would enable the world to feed a population of 10bn, the level at which it is expected to stabilize.

Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and subsequently the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He demonstrated, by the techniques he pioneered, that the people of the world can survive and prosper if they move on from the traditional ways to embrace the challenges of change. He is reckoned to have saved a billion people from starvation by his initiatives and his life's work. This is ten times the number that were killed by socialist regimes. As epitaphs go, that's one worth writing.