Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware of the buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer,’ a film that delves into the life of the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb.’ Alongside the highly anticipated ‘Barbie’ film, ‘Oppenheimer’ has captured the attention of audiences and critics alike, earning critical acclaim since its release this past weekend. The movie provides insight into Oppenheimer’s multifaceted legacy—originally intending the bomb to bring about peace, only to confront the devastating toll it took on lives in Japan. As viewers engage with this thought-provoking film, it will hopefully kindle their interest in the extraordinary contributions of other influential scientists who have indelibly shaped history. Among these luminaries, one man’s achievement stands out, credited with saving one billion lives—a remarkable feat that warrants further exploration (and maybe its own feature length film!)
Norman Borlaug may not be a household name for many, but this Midwestern agronomist, once hailed as the “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity” and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, left an enduring mark as the “Father of the Green Revolution.” His groundbreaking work in agricultural science in the mid-20th century significantly boosted food supplies and saved countless lives.
So, how did Borlaug achieve such an incredible feat? Well, his research revolutionized agriculture by developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties, which made a significant impact on farming productivity, especially in countries facing food shortages. In simple terms, Borlaug’s form of agriculture enabled small-scale farmers to increase their crop production using limited land while also protecting their crops from diseases that could otherwise destroy their harvests. Thanks to the widespread adoption of his groundbreaking methods, countless people in developing nations would have better food security and access to sustenance. Notably, his contributions led to major advancements in wheat production in countries like India, Pakistan, and Mexico, effectively alleviating hunger and preventing famine in many regions.
Yet, just as Oppenheimer’s story is still marred by the present threat of nuclear war, Borlaug’s inspiring legacy is somewhat clouded by the latest State of the Food (SOFI) Report, which paints a dire picture. Between 691 and 783 million people worldwide experienced hunger in 2022, affecting almost 10 percent of the global population. The number of people experiencing hunger remains worse than it was pre-pandemic. And according to the SOFI report’s projections, if current trends persist, 600 million people will continue to face undernourishment in 2030. This number is 119 million more than would have been the case had the pandemic and the war in Ukraine not occurred. Indeed, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, marked by Russia’s failure to honor the Black Sea Grain Deal and the recent bombing of grain facilities in Odessa, highlights the critical need to support alternative sources of production and agriculture, particularly in African regions.
Added to these sobering statistics is the havoc that ever more frequent climate-induced events such as droughts, unpredictable rainfall, and storms are likely to wreak on food supplies. In his book on climate change, Bill Gates outlines how farmers, especially those in developing countries, who already struggle each year to maximize their harvests and turn over profits, are currently terribly supported in adapting to these more occurring events. Multiple bad years in a row can lead to impoverishment, forcing farmers to sell their possessions, and even their land, resulting in tragic consequences for communities that lose a vital source of food.
In short, climate change poses a significant threat to global crop yield, with the potential to damage up to 20% of it by 2050. This crisis also makes farming increasingly challenging, particularly in regions prone to droughts and floods, while leaving communities vulnerable to extreme natural disasters. A telling example is Hurricane Idai, which struck southern Africa in 2019, devastating an estimated 700,000 hectares of crops in Mozambique alone—a country where 80% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods. The aftermath of this disaster saw a sharp increase in hunger and starvation rates in the affected areas.
Yet, just as the victors in World War II ultimately won the war by investing heavily in science and innovation, the war against hunger can also be won with a similar surge of investment. The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers, responsible for producing a third of the world’s crops and over half of the global calorie supply, play a pivotal role in this endeavor. To fully harness their potential, we must enhance their productivity by providing them with the science and technology to produce more and grant them access to appropriate seeds and crops that can thrive in various weather conditions.
Thankfully, entitieslike the CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research network (made up of research centres like the Institute of Tropical Agriculture), are stepping up to the task with impressive innovations that have already shown positive impacts. For example, in Southern Nigeria, they’re developing strong maize strains that can resist pests such as the fall armyworm, saving billions in crop losses. Similar success stories are seen with other crops they’ve helped develop. In Northern Nigeria, resilient groundnut seeds led to bigger harvests and more income for farmers, while in Kenya, they helped build greenhouses and better irrigation systems to tackle drought challenges and less rain. These are just a few of the impactful innovations nurtured by the CGIAR over the past half-century – a testament to their commitment to science-driven solutions for some of the world’s most pressing development challenges.
Elsewhere, innovation in AI is showing great promise in agriculture too! Farmers can use AI to predict weather patterns, plan harvest seasons, and estimate crop yields. It helps them optimize irrigation schedules and detect plant diseases early, leading to increased production and reduced waste. AI’s potential to support farmers in making informed decisions is an exciting development that could revolutionize the agricultural landscape.
To scale these promising technologies and innovations, increased investment in research and development is essential. While the Rockefeller Foundation played a crucial role in supporting Borlaug’s work, today, funding for such initiatives is lacking from governments. In fact, small scale producers only receive 1.7 percent of all existing climate finance.
The CGIAR is seeking $2 billion to further its work, and although it may seem like a significant amount, the return on investment is substantial. Financing for farmers pays for itself, with every $1 invested in agricultural research through CGIAR generating $10 or more in benefits, including increased farmer income and improved community well-being. Closing this funding gap is vital not only for the livelihoods of farmers but also for global food security. Farmers are, after all, vital to community well-being, supporting health, education, and livelihoods. Increasing their income and output has the potential, more broadly, to foster peace, prosperity, and global stability.
To achieve these outcomes, governments could follow the example in ‘Oppenheimer’ by putting forth just a fraction of the massive budgets the US government allocated to defense research projects like the Manhattan Project. Equally, governments should follow up on previous funding promises, such as that made by the European Commission at Global Citizen Live in 2021.
Whereas Oppenheimer’s legacy serves, perhaps, as a cautionary tale, Borlaug’s example inspires action. Both demonstrate the profound impact of investing in science and innovation, whether for good or ill. By allocating a relatively small amount of funding when compared to defense spending, governments today have a unique opportunity to address the scourge of hunger and drive positive change. Science and innovation wield the power to end hunger and create a better future for all, the story of which would inspire a movie for the ages.