I’ve just read a biography of Dr Norman Borlaug entitled The Man who Fed the World. For those too young to remember, he was the modest, Iowan farm boy who bred rust-resistant, dwarf, high-yielding wheat varieties in Mexico that spread around the world in the middle of the last century and saved countless millions from starvation.
Driven by an insatiable desire to try to help those less fortunate than himself, he used his practical farming background and his scientific education to create strains of wheat never dreamed of before.
By meticulous selection in field trials, he isolated and multiplied the traits required and the results outyielded existing varieties exponentially.
His secret was working with technicians and not waiting for results, sitting behind a desk, as most plant breeders did. This work ethic was instilled into him by his Norwegian grandfather.
His fame spread and his varieties were taken up across Asia and Africa, revolutionising grain production over huge dryland areas of the world.
How many lives he saved is unknown, but it must have been millions, and Borlaug was consulted and honoured by governments around the world.
Looking back on his work from a 21st century perspective, you might conclude his ambition to maximise yields by, among other things, heavy use of chemical fertilisers was over the top.
More from less
These days, with climate change in mind, we try to reduce chemical use and “get more from less”.
But Borlaug lived in different times. The Mexican poor were starving around him as he worked, and in India, it was worse.
Before Borlaug’s “green revolution”, many westerners had written off the poor in that teeming country as a lost cause, despite huge annual donations of food aid.
A few years after his varieties began to be grown, India was able to export wheat.
Pakistan followed with similar success and so did several other countries in the region.
It is sad that more recently, for ideological and religious reasons, Pakistan has now banned the use of fertilisers and famine has returned.
So, who are the more contemporary “saviours”? Among the closest Europe came to matching Borlaug’s achievements was my fellow Norfolk man John Bingham, who bred the ground-breaking Maris wheats for the Plant Breeding Institute in the 1960s and 1970s.
We should also recognise Professor Laloux, the Belgian who introduced the system of growing wheat to optimise yield that most of us still use, and the German scientists from Schleswig Holstein, who reinforced his conclusions.
Today there are unsung heroes working on genetic modification that could, perhaps, deliver a much-needed boost to yields that have been largely static for more than 30 years.
But their efforts are neutralised by regulations that still apply across Europe, despite Brexit.
There is perhaps a glimmer of light in the recent Defra proposal to trial gene-edited wheats at Rothamsted – for five years. But we are already 25 years behind the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, with combined climate change/Brexit/Covid prospects of a food shortage to feed our swiftly growing population, and against a background of falling self-sufficiency, Defra’s main concern, it seems, is to encourage more rewilding. I rest my case.