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September 14, 2009
Norman Borlaug has died at the age of 95, and he's definitely worth remembering. His tireless work on improving agriculture saved hundreds of millions of people from being born to starvation. And it also kept the world from having to tear up even more natural habitats to plant food crops. Update: as pointed out in the comments, here's an excellent interview with Borlaug from 2000).
People tend to forget (or have never known) about the way the world has managed to escape the Malthusian trap over the last two or three hundred years. (A Farewell to Alms
is a book that makes this case at length, more here). And the way that birth rates drop once countries become more prosperous holds out the hope that we won't fall into an even greater version of the same thing. I think that once the Industrial Revolution happened, world population was going to explode eventually. Norman Borlaug was one of the key people who helped keep things together while that happened.
But what about natural, traditional means of growing crops, in harmony with the land and all that? It's easy to forget the agriculture is unnatural, and is a relatively recent invention. (In fact, perhaps it was that step, rather than the Industrial Revolution, that set the world on a path to an eventual population explosion. It just did so more slowly). Once we started clearing land and saving seed, we left the natural way of things behind. To put that another way, that's when the human race stop playing only the cards it had been dealt. And using the highest-yielding seed and the most well-thought-out ways of growing it will keep us from having to clear more of the land we have left.
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