Here is another speech I gave at my Toastmaster club on the 11th of April. You can learn more about Norman Borlaug from his Wikipedia page, this great New York Times article and this article in The Atlantic.

Who knows about Norman Borlaug? Very few people know about him. Yet his work has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives.

How was this possible? What did he do? Well he basically created crop varieties, especially wheat varieties, that have enabled yields to dramatically increase in developing countries since the 1950s. In particular this helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s.

How did he manage to accomplish that? That's what I am going to address first. Later I will focus on what we can we learn from his life.

Coming from a family of farmers living in Iowa, he received a doctorate in the field of plant pathology in 1942. After World War II, he started to work in Mexico for the Rockefeller Foundation that was trying to address hunger there.

Despite the dire situation, he was able to create varietes of wheat that could resist diseases by crossbreeding Mexican varieties with disease resistant ones.

This was a really important achievement, but he made one that was even more important. He created wheat varieties called "semidwarf" that could use more fertilizers without collapsing under the weight of the extra grain.

The result was that in 1963, the wheat harvest in Mexico was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived there.

In the 1960s India and Pakistan were experiencing widespread famine and starvation even though the US was sending over one fifth of its wheat there as emergency shipments. The experts were predicting hundreds of millions of people starving to death during the next decades.

The Indian and Pakistani governments called Borlaug asking for advice. He told them to import thousands of tons of wheat seeds from Mexico, the wheat seed he had created. Just 3 years after they started doing that, Pakistan became self sufficient in wheat production. A few years later, India was self sufficient too. Since that time food production in both countries has increased faster than population growth.

It has been called a "Green Revolution", so Borlaug is often called the Father of the Green Revolution.

In the 1960s too, inspired by Borlaug's work, some people started efforts to create "semidwarf" varieties of rice in the Philippines and then in China. These efforts successfully established food security in China in the 1970s, setting the stage for its rise as an industrial power.

Many countries in Latin America and Africa also benefited and still benefit from such efforts.

Now what can we learn from this?

One obvious thing we can learn is that one person can indeed make a huge positive difference in the world. This is a good sign that everyone among us can perhaps have, if not a huge, at least a significant positive impact.

Another less obvious but very interesting thing we can learn, may be that problems that seem too big and intractable, like hunger in the Indian subcontinent, might have a solution that is quite simple and efficient after all.

People often think that problems like this require huge amounts of aid or getting rid of bureaucracies, changing governments, stopping wars, overcoming ideologies, and so on.

This appears not to be the case, which is very good news. We just have to admit that often, we simply have no idea what the right solution to these kinds of problems could be. This means that we have to try many different things and search for different things we could try.

On the other hand, it is true that Borlaug did had to fight against problems created by bureaucracies, governments, ideologies and wars. But these problems did not prevent him from succeeding. He was persistent and motivated enough.

For example, at some points he used to yell over the phone for hours to get some wheat seed shipments from Mexico go forward. One morning in 1965 after he had done such successful yelling the previous day, he learned that India and Pakistan just started a war against each other.

In these countries he also had to fight for a few years some state monopolies that controlled the distribution of seeds.

And in Africa in the early 1980s his projects were stopped for a few years because some environmental groups in the US and in Europe prompted governments and foundations to stop funding projects promoting the use of inorganic fertilizers.

Finally, we can learn that when you find the right solution you can sometimes fix a lot of different problems at once. What he did not only prevented a huge number of people from starving to death, but also lifted many of them out of poverty and enabled countries to develop. Then, as countries develop, population growth slows down, which means that it becomes easier to feed everyone.

So this was not a temporary fix, contrary to what was said, and is still sometimes said, by environmental groups and by people who thought that it was best to let nature by itself take care of population growth.

Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95 and unfortunately his death did not made him well known by the general public. During his life he got a lot of prizes and recognitions though, like the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the American Congressional Gold Medal and no less than 48 honorary degrees from different universities in 18 countries.

But in my opinion there is still very poor recognition from the general public and the media, given the hundreds of millions of people he saved, and the fact that every day one out of two people in this world eats food made from grain varieties that descend from varieties he and his collegues created.

There are still many problems in the world of course, but it is my belief that by widely telling stories like this one and recognizing people like him, we can inspire people to search and find great solutions to our problems.