From Wikipedia article on Norman Borlaug:

  • These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation
    (Wiki's reference: The phrase "over a billion lives saved" is often cited by others in reference to Norman Borlaug's work (e.g., [1]). According to Jan Douglas here, Executive Assistant to the World Prize Foundation, the source of this number is Gregg Easterbrook's 1997 article "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity", the article states that the "form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.")


  • Borlaug was also featured in an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, where he was referred to as the "Greatest Human Being That Ever Lived". ...Penn ... says, "Norman is the greatest human being, and you've probably never heard of him." In the episode — the topic of which was genetically altered food — he is credited with saving the lives of over a billion people.

I don't have access to either the article mentioned in the reference or Penn and Teller material.

Is it a reliable claim? Is there official scientific research and statistics backing the 1 billion number?

(I don't mean to question the undeniable accomplishments of Norman Borlaug, merely the popular expression associated with him).

  • 1
    The question specifically with 'save' is hard to answer: there are numerous people who would not have been born if their parents had starved. Increasing the total population will also lead a higher absolute number of people to die. Did he save these people? Would an answer that showed 1 billion extra people on the planet could be fed because of his inventions cover the question? – Spork Aug 18 '14 at 14:01
  • Penn and Teller material is in this YouTube video. – ChrisW Aug 18 '14 at 15:12
  • 1
    First we need to define what it means for an individual to have "saved" a billion lives. Here is one possible definition: We say that Borlaug saved a billion lives if in the counterfactual world where he had never lived (say Borlaug died in infancy), a billion additional people would have starved to death. This seems to me to be a sensible definition. (And if Borlaug really satisfies this definition, he is probably the greatest person who has ever lived.) – Kenny LJ Aug 23 '14 at 3:10
  • @Chrisw This video contains content from CBS CID, who has blocked it on copyright grounds, but that could differ from country to country – Jan Doggen Mar 24 '17 at 11:26
  • @JanDoggen I don't remember the video but my answer implies that it makes an unreferenced claim (so it's part of the claim in question but not an important part of the answer). – ChrisW Mar 24 '17 at 11:29

Is there official scientific research and statistics backing the 1 billion number?

According to the Penn and Teller video he was credited with saving a billion lives when he was awarded his Nobel prize (but I haven't found confirmation of that).

However there's a book of which:

  • This chapter alleges that the number was 245 million.
  • This web page claims that the number today is 280 million, and says,

    There are numerous published reports that Norman Borlaug, through the green revolution, saved over a billion lives, but there seem to be no sources of statistics backing up these statements. They seemed to have arisen due to predicted apocalyptic famines. The famines were unlikely to have occurred on the scale predicted with or without the green revolution. However, this does not lessen the impact of the green revolution on mortality. Numerous studies have shown that childhood nutrition has an emphatic effect on childhood mortality and longevity. Gabriel Popkin, the science fact checker for the book, compiled statistics on the changes the green revolution brought to nutritional levels in children in parts of the world most affected by the green revolution, and its affect on childhood mortality.

  • This web page is from the statistician who explains how she determines the "number of lives saved".

I mention this to say that there one book (i.e. one piece of presumably-peer-reviewed evidence) titled "Scientists Greater than Einstein" which has an answer to this question.

  • 4
    So he only saved 200+ million? Loser. :) – Benjol Aug 19 '14 at 5:32
  • According to the book, "Carl Landsteiner: The Superman Scientist – Discoverer of Blood Groups" saved "1.038 Billion". – ChrisW Aug 19 '14 at 8:02
  • 4
    There may have been one of the first homo sapiens saved by 'Urgh', thus saving all 20+ billion descendents. Urgh is the real hero. – Spork Aug 19 '14 at 13:54

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