Paul Greenberg

"When the wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together. They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget."

--Norman Borlaug

It could have been the picture on some tattered old travel poster blowing in the wind: Visit Mexico in the Fall.

It was long ago and we were on our way to see the fabled Copper Canyon by rail, and the same scene kept being repeated outside the window of our swaying old passenger car on the Chihuahua al Pacifico line somewhere south of Chihuahua and before we reached the first slopes of the Sierra Madre. All was flat, dry, brown and barren. One arid vista succeeded another, one adobe hovel followed another.

And then, like a dream, acres of bright green fields appeared, their stalks of grain waving in the wind, and in the middle of this postcard view, a great Victorian mansion. Then it was all gone, and once again we were rolling past much the same scrawny fields that had come before. Only later did we learn that we'd just passed a Mennonite colony.

That's what all Mexico could be like, I thought, looking back toward the oasis. This is a rich country, and not just in mineral wealth. Seeded with crops adapted to the land, irrigated with water and the sweat of hard labor, and with enough capital to invest in chemical fertilizer and farm equipment, the whole, extensive state of Chihuahua, the largest in Mexico, could be one such green vision after another.

I must have said all that aloud, because another tourist sitting beside us chimed in: "I didn't come to Mexico to see an agricultural field station."

No, he'd come to see the real, unchanging Mexico, he explained. By which he must have meant the unbroken poverty and the blank, uncomprehending looks of the children peering over the mud walls without so much as a wave at the passing train. It must all be preserved so our tourist friend could luxuriate in his idea of the true and authentic.

It occurred to me that, if I were to escort our traveling companion back to the rear platform of the train, I might be able to kick his ample backside all the way down the first arroyo we passed, and neither Mexico nor the rest of the world would have been the poorer.

Confronted by abject poverty, and faces so drained by it they didn't have even the energy to express desperation, there will always be those who rhapsodize from afar over the indigenous culture, the romantic life of the campesinos, the glories of La Raza and all that. They are usually accompanied by a guitar or ideology. But others see the same scenes and ask: What can be done about it?

One of those others was Norman Borlaug, a plainspoken Iowa farm boy who worked his way through the University of Minnesota during the Depression. His death this month at 95 came at the end of a life as rich as the bountiful fields he left across the world. To quote the citation that came with his Nobel Prize in 1970, "More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world."

How sum up the magnitude of the transformation this one man wrought? Maybe by starting with Jonathan Swift's observation in Gulliver's Travels that "whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

If that's so, what is one to say of a man whose work painted whole swaths of the planet green?

To cite one index of the change this one man wrought: In 1950, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for its 2.2 billion people. By 1992, after Norman Borlaug had introduced his new strains of wheat around the world, the global harvest totaled 1.9 billion tons of grain for its 5.6 billion people--using only 1 percent more land.

His work would take root, literally, at a time when "experts" were predicting worldwide famine. As in the best-selling, supposedly scientific work, "Famine, 1975!" Its authors may even have had a point at the time; they just didn't count on another natural phenomenon: the ingenuity of man, as exemplified by one stubborn American agronomist. What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!

Paul Ehrlich, whose work is now only an example to beware, was hailed an ecological prophet when his best-seller, "The Population Bomb," appeared in 1968 forecasting worldwide famine in the next decade. The End Is Near! It was only "a fantasy" to think that India, for example, could ever feed itself. Within nine years after Norman Borlaug got there and started evangelizing for his new crop varieties, India was producing all the grain it needed. Pakistan reached the same goal in only three years. How differently things have turned out because of one man.

Norman Ernest Borlaug was going to have a nice, safe, successful career with DuPont, having started there in 1942 working on chemical compounds used in the war effort. But, as with so many who go on to accomplish great things, he came under the influence of a great teacher: Elvin C. Stakman at the University of Minnesota, who encouraged him to switch from forestry to plant pathology. His old teacher would later urge him to accept a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fight wheat rust in Mexico. Which he did, with great success.

In the course of his work in Mexico, Norman Borlaug started different experimental farms in different parts of Mexico. He began crossbreeding different varieties of wheat by laborious effort under the broiling Mexican sun, fighting off sickness and fatigue to travel thousands of miles on impossible roads to spread the word. The result: new varieties of wheat that could be grown in dry climates all over the world, producing record crops. Wheat production in Mexico alone would increase sixfold between the 1940s and '60s.

Norman Borlaug would have his critics, too, the way cotton has boll weevils. They argued that the underdeveloped world would have been better off sticking with "sustainable" agriculture and "natural" fertilizer instead of Dr. Borlaug's combination of new plant varieties and additional nutrients for them.

He found such arguments less than convincing. Or as he put it, direct as ever, "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 50 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."

Which is what I should have told my fellow passenger aboard the Chihuahua al Pacifico so many years ago.