IR8

Every now and again we get to hear about people who, through their heroic deeds, managed to save other human beings from certain death. These compassionate acts of bravery typically happen during wars, terror attacks or natural disasters. But I recently became aware of someone who helped save 1 billion people and did it in the time of peace. To add another twist to the story his efforts were funded by the fortunes of two of the US greatest industrialists who had at the time been dead for a few decades. The name of this hero hardly anyone knows about is Norman Borlaug.

In 1960 International Rice Research Institute was established in the Philippines with the financial assistance of the two charitable trusts – Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation. The institute worked on developing new genetic varieties of rice capable of better yields. In 1961 they crossed the Chinese dwarf rice known as Dee-geo-woo-gen and tall, bushy Peta rice from Indonesia. This produced the semi-dwarf variety which became known as IR8. In field trials in optimal conditions IR8 delivered an astonishing yield of over 10t per hectare – the average rice yield in the Philippines at that time was about 1t per hectare.

Following the introduction of the IR8 rice variety the annual rice production in the Philippines rose from 3.7 to 7.7 million tons. Similar results were achieved in other countries. The person requested by the Indian government in 1961 to modernise its agriculture was Norman Borlaug, who already had an impressive track record of introducing high-yielding wheat varieties in Mexico (funded by Rockefeller Foundation). Due to the adoption of IR8 and improvement in agricultural practices the average rice yield per hectare in India rose from 2t in 1960s to 6t in 1990s which helped avert mass famine. The price reduced from $550 per ton to $200 per ton making rice more affordable to the poor. According to some estimates the Green Revolution spearheaded by Norman Borlaug saved up to 1 billion people from starvation.

Like all achievers, Norman Borlaug has his share of detractors. In particular the Greens hate intensive agriculture ushered in by the Green Revolution because it relies on industrial fertilisation and uses much more water than a 1-ton-per-hectare approach. These miserable, negative people would be happy to sacrify the lives of millions in the name of ecological purity. It seems that being despised by the Greens is almost a prerequisite for having a meaningful and productive life these days but I digress…

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