Friday, September 18, 2009

Reflections on two deaths

So, generally speaking, this blog is intended to serve as a record of Leah's and my brewing adventures. I realize some others enjoy reading this as well, and I'm glad to let others learn from our mistakes, but any entertainment derived here from is purely incidental. That being said, I would like to take a moment to discuss a couple people who died this past week. One is serious, and one not so much, and both are only tangentially related to beer. But I'd like to use this platform, insignificant as it may be, to discuss each of them.

On a serious note, last Sunday witnessed the passing of an individual who likely saved more lives than anybody else who has graced this planet. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Congressional Gold Medal, and a National Medal of Science. Some estimate he saved over one billion lives, and yet most people have never heard of him. His name was Norman Borlaug, and he was an agronomist. By developing modern agricultural techniques, he allowed countries such as Mexico, India and Pakistan to avoid mass famine. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered the following words in tribute to Borlaug: "As we celebrate Dr. Borlaug's long and remarkable life, we also celebrate the long and productive lives that his achievements have made possible for so many millions of people around the world . . . we will continue to be inspired by his enduring devotion to the poor, needy and vulnerable of our world."

So what does he have to do with beer? Well frankly, I'm happy to pay tribute to such a great man on this blog even if he had nothing to do with beer. However, I do think he's impacted everybody who brews. See, making beer is very inefficient. You're taking grain that could otherwise be used to make food--not to mention using drinking water and valuable energy--and creating a luxury product. You can brew with organic grain, find ways to cut down on your energy use and re-capture your waste water but it doesn't change the fact that it's still an incredibly inefficient product. If you don't eat meat because you see it as wasteful (you have to feed a cow x pounds of grain to yield y pounds of meat, etc.) you really shouldn't be making or consuming beer. However, we have the luxury to use barley (and wheat and oats and, if you're Anheuser-Busch or Miller, rice or corn) in such a manner because we don't need all of it for food. And we don't need all of it for food in large part because of the work of Norman Borlaug.

Now there's also a practical lesson here that goes beyond brewing. You may choose not to eat genetically-modified organisms (GMO's), or to stick to an organic diet. But those are luxuries you can afford (as is beer) because of the plentiful world in which you live. What troubles me, however, is that anti-GMO zealots in the U.S. and Europe have pressured six sub-Saharan African countries into banning GMO food aid. One of those countries is the Sudan. Now it's one thing to make a choice for yourself to not eat certain types of food despite a complete lack of scientific evidence that those foods are harmful. Presumably, you've never had to worry about where your next meal will come from. However, it's another thing to tell people in a country like the Sudan--a country classified by the World Food Program as a food-deficit, low-income nation--that they should force their citizens to follow the same restrictions. As Borlaug once said, "[Critics have] never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

I know I'm getting on my soapbox here, but my point is that technological achievements such as Borlaug's Green Revolution have allowed us to live the comfortable lives we lead. We all owe a debt of gratitude to scientists such as Borlaug who have helped maintain a peaceful and prosperous world where we can afford to dedicate time, effort and resources into making such trivial items as beer--items which enrich our daily lives.

Speaking of enriching our daily lives, the other person I'd like to discuss who passed away this past week did just that (at least for me). Patrick Swayze, and specifically the movie Road House, is woven into the fabric of our brewing history. If you look back through our early brewing records (back when our notes were all on physical paper), you'll find the following note in the entry for our Lake Effect Kölsch-style ale: "Brewed with Evan while watching Road House." Later on, we would name our Irish Red Ale "Road House Red" (with Swayze gracing the label). And when we brewed on Christmas Eve, we just had to include the video of our favorite Christmas carol, "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas" when we recapped the brew day on this very blog.

Now does Swayze even deserve to be in the same post as Borlaug? The short answer would be no. But at the same time, Borlaug did the heavy lifting so we could spend time engaging in relatively meaningless tasks such as brewing beer, watching Road House, or brewing beer while watching Road House. And I guess I just wanted to take a few minutes of my time and yours to point that out.


Blogger Josh Langhoff said...

Hi Russ! Nice post. I was flabbergasted when I read Borlaug's obituary because, yeah, I'd never heard of him. You make thoughtful points.

3:23 PM, October 05, 2009  
Blogger Russ said...

Good to hear from you, Josh! Truth be told, I had never heard of Borlaug until an episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit a few years ago. Better late than never, right?

10:05 PM, October 06, 2009  

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