Inventors, Part 1: Averting Global Starvation

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
When I was a youngster, I was fascinated by inventors. I was totally enamored of the romantic ideal of a lone enthusiast coming up with an idea no one had ever thought of before, and then changing the world with it. Perhaps it's not surprising that I idolized inventors: it's not like sports stars had any real appeal to the gangly kid with glasses.

Looking at typical lists of the most important inventions of the 20th century, most people can't help but think of computers, telephones, automobiles, airplanes or various household appliances.

But it seems like those kind of lists are missing the point: even though most people never interact directly with them, there are a few inventions that have radically changed the world.

So, over the next three days, I'm going to provide my shortlist for the three most important inventors of the 20th century
. Starting with an agronomist who pioneered the so-called "Green Revolution."

It's a small footnote in history today, but in the middle of the last century, it was widely predicted that the world was headed inexorably towards global famine and the deaths of millions of people. Bestsellers like 1968's The Population Bomb and 1967's Famine, 1975! spelled out dire predictions about the global population and food supply. Those predictions may very well have come true, if it weren't for the efforts of one American agronomist, Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug invented a strain of semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat. This invention allowed the global food supply to grow radically, and averted the potential global famine. Conservative estimates say that Borlaug's invention saved the lives of more than 240 million people. For his humanitarian efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Recently, Borlaug's work has been criticized by Western environmentalists, who decry Borlaug's outspoken support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture and support for large-scale farming. His response to such criticisms:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Watch for tomorrow's inventor, and find out how a single chemical reaction is now responsible for consuming more than 1% of the world's annual energy supply.


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