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Norman Ernest Borlaug Worked Tirelessly to Solve World Hunger Crisis
by Lori Valigra
Though he was raised on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression, Norman Ernest Borlaug, PhD (1914-2009), didn’t witness bread lines firsthand until he attended the University of Minnesota, where he experienced life-changing events.
“He had seen what happened when the banks came after the farmers, but when he saw his first bread lines, he was horrified,” said granddaughter Julie Borlaug, assistant director of partnerships at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University in College Station.
It was at the University of Minnesota, where he attended a lecture by renowned wheat rust expert Elton Charles Stakeman, PhD, that he discovered the path toward his lifelong pursuit: developing an improved form of wheat that could help alleviate hunger worldwide, an achievement that earned him the moniker “father of the green revolution.”
Humble farm roots
Dr. Borlaug was raised on a farm in Cresco, Iowa, the son of Henry and Clara Borlaug. He attended primary and secondary school in a one-room schoolhouse and then enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a BS in forestry in 1937. Around that time, he also worked for the U.S. Forestry Service in Massachusetts and Idaho. He returned to the University of Minnesota to study plant pathology, earning an MS in 1939 and a PhD in 1942.
Dr. Borlaug was a microbiologist for the du Pont de Nemours Foundation from 1942 to 1944, in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives. In 1944, he became a geneticist and plant pathologist charged with organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. This joint program between the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation involved research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. It was there that he did his seminal work, finding a high-yielding, short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat, according to his Nobel Peace Prize biography. Dr. Borlaug went on to work with scientists in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere to adapt the new strains of wheat to other locales.
According to his New York Times obituary, “He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslides, and sometimes slept in tents.”
“A vigorous man who can perform prodigies of manual labor in the fields, he brings to his work the body and competitive spirit of the trained athlete, which indeed he was in his high school and college days,” notes his biography for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 1970. Tall and thin, Dr. Borlaug was a wrestler, an activity that got him accepted by the University of Minnesota after the University of Iowa had rejected him, thinking that his one-room schoolhouse education might be lacking, his granddaughter said.
For Dr. Borlaug, sports were a key part of life, along with education, a fact he drummed into the heads of his five grandchildren whenever he was home from his frequent world travels. “He thought sports taught discipline, self-respect for an adult other than yourself, and a way to learn how to win and lose,” Julie Borlaug said. Indeed, one of his dreams was to become a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. The closest he came to playing in a major league park was when he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park on June 9, 2004, the year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Julie said her grandfather used to joke that he helped reverse the “curse” of losing for the team.
He was also known for being humble, preferring the company of farmers to politicians. And he kept his personal views private so he could talk freely to so many world leaders, his granddaughter said. “Our family didn’t know how he voted, and he didn’t talk about his religious beliefs,” she said. “That was one of his great successes.”
Dr. Borlaug also founded the World Food Prize, and a biography maintained on the World Food Prize website notes that in Mexico, he developed successive generations of wheat varieties that had broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and exceedingly high yield potential. “These new wheat varieties and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s and later in Asia and Latin America,” notes the biography. “Because of his achievements to prevent hunger, famine and misery around the world, it is said that Dr. Borlaug has ‘saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.’”
He was also known for being humble, preferring the company of farmers to politicians. And he kept his personal views private so he could talk freely to world leaders.
Feeding the world
Dr. Borlaug also worked to get his new cereal strains into mass production to feed the hungry worldwide. He noted that this would provide “a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation.”
He became director of the International Wheat Improvement program of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, established by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Mexican government. In that role, he trained young scientists, which Julie said was his proudest achievement. “He trained them in Mexico and sent them to their home countries, where they moved the green revolution along,” she said.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo in December 1970, Dr. Borlaug credited his students and other scientists and noted that the green revolution had not yet been won. “It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces—the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction.”
Julie said Dr. Borlaug was always aware of history’s role as a teacher. When she asked him why the United States didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol, he spent three hours explaining it to her, starting with the Big Bang Theory and talking straight through the topic of climate change.
His enthusiasm for alleviating hunger never waned. At age 95, when his doctor told him no more could be done for his cancer and blood disease and that he had three to five days to live, he fell silent, she recalled. “Then he said to my mother, ‘I’ve got a problem. It’s Africa,’” she said. “He was never able to achieve the advancement he saw in Pakistan and India in the 1960s in Africa. He wasn’t ready to go.”
Lori Valigra is a frequent writer for Food Quality. Reach her at email@example.com.