Norman Borlaug – the Father of the Green Revolution

Norman Borlaug in Mexico. 1970. LIFE Magazine photo.

Norman Borlaug in Mexico. 1970. LIFE Magazine photo.

Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) was an American plant pathologist, agronomist and Peace Nobel laureate. He revolutionized agriculture by bringing about the Green Revolution – a series of research, development and technology transfer that increased agricultural production worldwide, thereby uplifting over a billion people from poverty and starvation.

Inspired by last week’s nominations for the Nobel prizes, I decided to dedicate the first blog on Microbes Eat My Food to Norman Borlaug – the only phytopathologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Norman Borlaug witnessed the impact of technical innovations as a teenager

Norman Borlaug experienced the impact of agricultural innovations on rural life early on in his life. Born in Saude, Iowa in 1914, he grew up on a small farm. At that time, farming was done the same ways as hundreds of years ago – with sickles, manpower and horses. The Borlaug’s house had no insulation and no running water. With the meagre yield from their cornfields, Norman Borlaug’s family could barely survive.

When Borlaug was fifteen years old, the spread of agricultural technologies changed the farmer’s lot drastically. These technologies included improved crop varieties like hybrid corn, synthetic fertilizer and tractors. At first, they were met with suspicion, scepticism and mistrust, but once implemented, the farmers’ wealth increased and the liberation from the daily animal care allowed them for the first time to pursue personal interests. Norman Borlaug’s interests – besides getting an education – were sports. He was an athlete: playing baseball, wrestling, being captain of the football team.

Norman Borlaug’s career was not straightforward

Sports got him into college. In October 1929, the Wall Street had crashed – catapulting millions of people into unemployment and poverty. When Norman Borlaug graduated from high school in 1931, his family was broke and could not pay for the college tuition fees. Luckily, he was invited to join the college football team at St. Paul’s University in Minnesota. To afford food, rent and tuition, he had to handle three side jobs next to his studies; living on a meal-to-meal basis. As an undergraduate, Borlaug studied Forestry and he would have become a forester, if not Prof. Stakman – a pioneer in wheat rust research –had convinced him to switch to crop plant pathology. Stakman had given a memorable lecture about wheat stem rust titled “These shifty, little enemies that destroy our food crops”. His hands-on methods imprinted Borlaug and his fellow students:

Stem rust on wheat

Stem rust on wheat

Stakman did more than teach to the textbook: he produced cereal caregivers. These self-contained “general practitioners” were capable of diagnosing disease and counteracting it wherever they might be in the world. Much of their skills were learned during his outdoor seminars in which he required all of us to interpret the symptoms of scores of wheat disease and to recommend remedies.1

After his PhD on the flax fungus Fusarium lini, at the age of 27, Norman Borlaug began working for the chemical company E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company in Philadelphia. He reached Philadelphia with his wife on the day when Pearl Harbour was bombed. Classified as “essential to the war effort”, he was spared from army service, but had to work for the US army by coming up for solutions to war-related problems like the development of camouflage, disinfectants, malaria prevention and insulation of electronic devices. When he was offered a position as plant pathologist in an agricultural research program of the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, he quit his secure, well-paid position at Du Pont and moved to Mexico in October 1940. He was 30-years old and eager to put his science to work and lift Mexico’s impoverished farmers out of hunger and poverty.

Norman Borlaug in Mexico –the silent wheat revolution.

Working for the Rockefeller Foundation was not as glamorous as one would imagine. The research station at Chapingo – 25 miles from Mexico City had no greenhouses, no equipment, no technicians, no field hands and no fields – just a crude adobe cabin. During the first years in Mexico, he encountered many obstacles and setbacks. Next to the lack of facilities and trained personnel, he struggled with local bureaucrats, the mistrust of farmers and the lack of support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Many times during the four years, frustrated by unavailability of machinery and equipment, without the assistance of trained scientists, travelling over bad roads, living in miserable hotels, eating bad food, often sick with diarrhoea and unable to communicate because of lack of command of the language, I was certain I had made a dreadful mistake in resigning from my former position.1

But Norman Borlaug had a vision! And a goal!

He wanted to save Mexico from famines by providing them with the best, highest-yielding and stem-rust resistant wheat.

Single-handedly, he crossed and tested thousands of wheat cultivars; improved the breeding process by shuttling back and force between Chapingo and the 300 miles distant Sonora to catch two growing seasons and set up a training program for Mexican high school boys as wheat breeders and for farmers in good agricultural practices (with flyers reading “Farmers Field Day – Free Beer and Barbecue”).

After 19 years of relentless breeding, research and training he had accomplished his mission. Borlaug had developed novel, high-yielding, stem-rust resistant, semi-dwarf (to avoid collapse of the stem under the heavy weight of the grains) wheat cultivars that made up 95% of the wheat harvest. Mexico was producing more than enough wheat for its need and was free of hunger. Norman Borlaug had accomplished the silent wheat revolution.

Norman Borlaug in India and Pakistan – The Father of the Green Revolution.

Borlaug training scientists.

Borlaug training scientists.

By the 1960ties, Norman Borlaug was no longer a solo fighter in the Mexican desert; he was a sought-after advisor. He had set up a training program for young people from developing countries at his Mexican facility – now grown into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and his wheat seeds, along the scientists he trained,  spread around the world.

In the 1960s, scientists from India and Pakistan urged Norman Borlaug to visit the region. Both countries were on the brink of war about Kashmir and the entire subcontinent of South Asia was marked by famines and starvation. India was surviving on large-scale food aid sent by the United States and sold in fair-price shops. Stem rust was plaguing their wheat fields. Borlaug immediately saw the need to modernize agriculture. At first his recommendations were not met well.

When I asked about the need to modernize agriculture, both scientists and administrators typically replied: “Poverty is the farmers’ lot; they are used to it.” I was informed that the farmers were proud of their lowly status, and was assured that they wanted no change. After my own experiences in Iowa and Mexico, I didn’t believe a word of it.1

Norman Borlaug set to work with his characteristic fervour, impatience and occasional lack of tact – despite formidable obstacles. He had to operate in two countries at war, fight rumours about his wheat cultivars poisoning water buffalos and making men sterile and organize seed shipments from Mexico to South Asia that exceeded any amount of seed that had ever been shipped internationally. In 1966, he shipped 14.000 tons of wheat seed to India.

Next to providing his semi-dwarf wheat seeds, he pushed for a reformation of the agricultural policy – including the development of a fertilizer industry, reasonably prized fertilizer, a ban of the cheap food policies that subsidized city folk at the farmer’s expense and a fair price for the harvest. Within eight years, he succeeded: India’s wheat harvest in 1968 surpassed even Norman Borlaug’s own optimistic estimations. Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1969 with about 1 million tons surplus of local needs. The higher farmer’s incomes provided extra buying power and an increase in personal spending. Governments were forced to provide public services such as transportation, better schools and better roads thereby resulting in a rising of life standards. 55 years old, Norman Borlaug was the Father of the Green Revolution.

He has often been credited as having saved more lives than any other person. In 1970, Norman Ernest Borlaug received the Peace Nobel Prize for alleviating the world from hunger.

1 “Our Daily Bread. The Essential Norman Borlaug.” Noel Vietmeyer. October 2011.

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2 thoughts on “Norman Borlaug – the Father of the Green Revolution

  1. Pingback: Cereal Killer: Stem Rust Threatens World Wheat Supply | Microbes Eat My Food!

  2. Pingback: Transforming Banana Breeding | bananaroots

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