Norman Borlaug, the Man Who Saved the World from Starvation
In 1950, Norman Borlaug was solicited by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government to research and develop a more productive variety of wheat. Borlaug was a brilliant American agronomist, and his contribution was supposed to save millions of people from starvation.
In some parts of the world, Mexico and an extended region of the Asian continent, there weren’t enough cereals to feed the people. The wheat they were cultivating was growing too fast, and its seeds were falling too soon.
Bourlog was eventually capable of creating a variety of wheat that was three times more productive and resistant than the one traditionally cultivated. It was the beginning of what we all know today as the Green Revolution. And the birth of Frankenwheat.
But What Is Frankenwheat, Anyway?
Frankenwheat is a term that some people — including expert researchers and doctors — apply to modern wheat.
They claim that the wheat we eat today has so little in common with the one our ancestors ate. It was, after all, obtained through genetic manipulation, ending up with 42 chromosomes instead of only 14 as the ancient wheat had.
The world needed wheat with a better yield, ideally more resistant to diseases, and capable of supporting a faster growth without the seeds falling off before harvesting time.
Borlaug went on to apply a genetic technique that allowed him to select the most resistant wheat types and performed what’s called backcrossing. He obtained varieties that better adapted to the clime in countries like Mexico.
Still, to make that wheat have sturdier stalks, the researcher had to insert a gene from a wheat variety cultivated in Japan. Adding a new gene showed the expected yield in the new wheat variety that was, afterward, grown worldwide.
But there’s so little research on how this gene can impact human health! In other words, we don’t know the long-term effects that this wheat has on our well-being. Here’s what we know…
Our Health Is in Our Forks
And as long as we don’t know what we put in our forks, we can’t be sure about our health, right?
Mark Hyman says, in his book, The UltraMind Solution, that:
“Food is not just calories or energy. Food contains information that talks to your genes, using them on or off and affecting their function moment to moment. Food is the fastest-acting and most powerful medicine you can take to change your life.” (source)
Perhaps knowing that Hyman is a doctor himself, with several board functions on functional medicine institutions, and an eleven-time New York Times best-selling author will make you think twice about his words.
And ever since we’ve been eating wheat — grains have been the single most significant source of energy in our diets — it appears that the number of health issues associated with our digestion and the immune system has steeply increased.
Hyman quotes in the same book a review paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine that listed no less than 55 diseases that eating gluten (the main protein found in wheat) can cause. Many of them are labeled as neurological and psychiatric diseases (depression, anxiety, dementia, schizophrenia etc.) and even more illnesses associated with gut health.
He sums up the gluten problem claiming that gluten causes dysfunctions in the brain and body by increasing inflammation and acting as an excitotoxin (a substance that will overexcite, damage, and ultimately kill the brain cells). That’s a pretty harsh thing to say about your favorite crackers, pretzels, and bagels, right?
Should We Blame Norman Borlaug for the Frankenwheat We Eat?
The developer of the wheat in our plates, who died in 2009 at 95 years old, received multiple awards for his work. Some of the most notable ones were the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal, and even the Nobel Peace Prize.
In hindsight, Borlaug’s dream was to save humanity from starvation and the planet from deforestation. Without more productive wheat, we would have cleaned up more land and adapt it for agriculture.
In his mind, the only way out of the starvation that was threatening the planet was either a sudden decrease of the worldwide population (due to hunger or disease) or massive deforestation in an attempt to make room for our harvests.
Borlaug helped to avoid both of them (at least to some extent). But perhaps his solution was too quickly implemented on a global scale. By creating new wheat varieties with increased yield, Norman Borlaug indeed saved millions of lives. Still, he profoundly modified the genome of these cereals in the process. And the effect of it is hard to quantify in the millions of people whose health might have been unknowingly affected by the consumption of the new varieties of wheat.
In an interview that Catherine Feuillet, Research Director for the National Institute of Agronomical Research in France, has given to Sylvestre Huet, a journalist at the Liberation, she said that:
“Up until now, the selection of some varieties of good seeds was a form of art based on the visual analysis or the analysis of the physio-chemical parameters of the plants. This art allowed us significant progress, but it has reached its limitations. To advance from this point, we need to move over that progress we have blindly achieved and to open the “black box” of the genome…. Then, once we know where the “good” genes are, first with approximation and then more precisely, by particularly identifying each gene and its role in the physiology of the plant, we will be able to cross them and generate combinations that we will no longer make blindly, but knowingly.” (source)
Basically, Feuillet tells us that the progress we have achieved so far in developing the wheat we all eat was made blindly. Researchers focused on which genes made the new plant look better leaving all the other parts in the dark.
The problem, of course, is that most of us are clueless about the entire above. At this point, it doesn’t even matter if we should blame anyone other than ourselves for not paying attention to the foods we shove down our throats. What are you going to do about it now that you’ve read this?