16 October 2011

#BAD11 - Thank you Norman Borlaug

If you care about food, you should know Norman Borlaug.  Learn about "the man who saved a billion people."

Arguably no single person has done more to further the cause of humanity than this man.  Yet most people don't know him.  His advances in crop science blunted devastating famines in the third world for decades, and his work remains the basis for a lot of research today.  A lot of my friends in today's environmental movement who bristle at terms like "genetically modified" or who lament the building of roads in rural areas for fear of things like runoff  should consider the alternative.

But the thing about Borlaug that impresses me so much is something my scienceblogging pals should note - he did science communication the right way:
Graduating in the middle of World War II, Dr. Borlaug went to work for the DuPont Corporation. But he was soon approached about joining a fledgling research project being initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation in rural Mexico. After completing his obligatory wartime service at DuPont, he accepted the offer. There, he first saw the plight of poverty-stricken wheat farmers barely able to sustain themselves due to repeatedly poor harvests. Once again, Borlaug found a wide chasm to be bridged. There was an instinctive hesitation to adopt untried new technologies on the part of most subsistence farmers. And, there was an understandable reluctance to trust the word of an expatriate American college boy who didn’t even speak their language.  
 Borlaug admits to being extremely discouraged in this initial venture into the developing world. But his commitment to learn the language, a healthy dose of the determination he learned in high school sports, and his willingness to get his hands dirty working in the fields eventually enabled him to connect with some farmers who tried his new approach to wheat production.
That's right - Borlaug learned THEIR language. He took the extra step to make sure he could communicate on THEIR terms.  If Borlaug couldn't bridge that cultural and linguistic gap, his scientific knowledge wouldn't have done much in Mexico.

I also find it interesting that Borlaug credits the lessons he learned playing sports in school as the things that helped him persevere in Mexico and elsewhere.   I guess jocks ain't all bad either.

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