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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW JANUARY/ FEBRUARY
In 1798, the English economist Thomas
Malthus argued that population increases
geometrically, outstripping the arithmetic
growth of the food supply. He promised
"famine ... the last, the most dreadful resource
of nature." It took another 125 years for world
population to double, but only 50 more for
it to redouble. By the 1940s, Mexico, China,
India, Russia, and Europe were hungry.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's far-
sighted vice president--elect,
former secretary of agriculture
Henry A. Wallace, believed the
solution lay with technology.
He was right: the Malthusian
tragedy never happened, chiefly
because Norman E. Borlaug
transformed the breeding of
wheat, which feeds more people than any
From 1939 to 1942, Mexico's harvest was
halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne
spores infect stems and leaves, shriveling
grains. Anxieties about wartime food short-
ages led the American philanthropic organi-
zation the Rockefeller Foundation to create
the country's first foreign agricultural pro-
gram: the Coöperative Wheat Research and
Production Program, which was based in
Mexico and which Borlaug joined, as its
plant pathologist, in 1944. The program
was prescient: rust hit the North American
breadbasket in 1954, wiping out 75 percent
of the durum wheat crop used for pasta.
"There was panic in the U.S. and Cana-
dian departments of agriculture," Borlaug
tells me. "We had to acceler-
ate the program to develop
rust-resistant wheat variet-
ies." Borlaug struggled with a
lack of machinery, equipment,
and trained scientists. Yet by
1948, he tells Leon Hesser in
The Man Who Fed the World, a
recent biography, "research
results, the bits and pieces of the wheat pro-
duction puzzle, began to emerge, and the fog
of gloom and despair began to lift."
Before Borlaug, plant breeders sought new
traits in plants by creating perhaps a few dozen
"crosses" of varieties each year. For Borlaug,
this would have meant "at least 10 years devel-
oping resistant varieties," he recalls, "and there
would be another epidemic in that time. I
implant the aids in only one ear to minimize
risk, but once the devices prove themselves,
patients may opt for two.)
Otologics hoped that the military, at
any rate, would think it worth the cost. Jim
Easter, the company's director of business
development, explained to me that military
jets are much louder than they used to be.
Ear protection helps only a little; the whole
skull vibrates. Pilots and ground crew are
going deaf in alarming numbers.
A conventional aid, Easter said, might
be okay for a desk jockey, but not for a pilot
who has to wear headgear, execute high-G
maneuvers, and possibly end up in the water.
And not for a crew member who sweats like
crazy on a hot flight deck. He thought the
military would like a device that went inside
the body and stayed there.
And what about me, with my decidedly
one-G writer's life? Could the technology
be used in cochlear implants?
The main challenge, Conn said, would
be to substitute an electrode array in the
inner ear for the piston the Carina uses in
the middle ear. It might be possible to cre-
ate a detachable electrode that would stay in
place when the unit needed to be replaced,
but that would require maintaining a seal
with as many as 30 separate connections.
Still, Conn thought it could be done.
On the way home, I thought about the
pros and cons of the Carina. Four times the
price. Surgery---and not just once, but every
five or 10 years. On the other hand, quite pos-
sibly better hearing. Being able to hear while
swimming, sleeping, and showering. Having
a body that looked normal---felt normal. If I
were a hearing-aid user, would I do it?
I'd want to see good results over a longer
period of time first: the complete FDA test-
ing and findings. I'd want to see patients
doing well with the device for a while after it
hit the market. And I'd need to have a spare
20 grand lying around.
But given all that, the answer is yes, I
MICHAEL CHOROST IS THE AUTHOR OF REBUILT: HOW
BECOMING PART COMPUTER MADE ME MORE HUMAN,
A MEMOIR OF GETTING A COCHLEAR IMPLANT.
FOUR DECADES AGO, NORMAN E. BORLAUG DEVELOPED A WHEAT
VARIETY THAT FED THE WORLD. NOW HE'S BATTLING AN OLD ENEMY:
A PATHOGEN WHOSE SPREAD COULD CAUSE STARVATION.
By JOHN POLLOCK
ART RICKERBY/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES
THE MAN WHO FED
THE WORLD: NOBEL
BORLAUG AND HIS
BATTLE TO END
Durban House, 2006,
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