Norman Borlaug Date of birth: March 25, 1914
Norman Borlaug Date of death: September 12, 2009
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in Saude, Iowa, on the farm of his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, who was the son of Norwegian immigrants. From the age of seven, young Norman worked on the family farm, where he learned the basics of agriculture, and enjoyed an active outdoor life. School for the young farmboy meant a one-room country schoolhouse until he was old enough to attend the high school in nearby Cresco. In high school, Borlaug was an outstanding athlete, playing football and baseball and achieving statewide renown as a competitive wrestler. He credits his high school wrestling coach, Dave Bartelma, with inspiring him to excel at whatever he attempted.
Although his family was spared the worst effects of the Great Depression, Borlaug saw many of his neighbors lose their farms and homes. Across rural America, the dispossessed threatened violence against bank agents and local law enforcement. Borlaug's grandfather, who had taught him so much about farming, encouraged him to leave the countryside and pursue higher education. A newly created federal program, the National Youth Administration, made it possible for Norman Borlaug to attend the the University of Minnesota, even though his test scores did not qualify him for immediate admission. Immersed in the academic environment of the Minneapolis campus, Borlaug made rapid progress and soon joined the forestry program of the university's College of Agriculture. He also recruited Dave Bartelma, to coach the University of Minnesota wrestling team, and assisted Bartelma in introducing the sport to the state's high schools. Although Borlaug's wrestling career ended after college, he would eventually be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
To support himself at school, Borlaug worked a number of jobs, including waiting on tables at a local coffee shop, where he met Margaret Gibson, whom he would later marry. Between terms at the university, Borlaug led a unit of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program designed to put unemployed youth to work during the Depression. Many of the young men assigned to Boralug's team were visibly malnourished. Seeing the change in his men's health and morale as they began to eat regularly -- many for the first time in their lives -- made an indelible impression on Borlaug.
Before and after his senior year, Borlaug worked for the United States Forestry Service at research stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. He had planned on a career with the forestry service when he first heard a lecture by the plant pathologist Elvin Stakman. Stakman proposed that crossbreeding of wheat, and of other grains, could produce varieties that would resist the parasitic fungus known as rust, a pest that devastated crops throughout the United States and around the world. Borlaug was fascinated by this research, and when an expected Forestry Service appointment fell through, he decided to remain at the University of Minnesota and pursue graduate studies in plant pathology with Dr. Stakman.
Norman and Margaret Borlaug married and settled in Minneapolis while Borlaug pursued his studies, completing his doctorate in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. He was immediately hired by the chemical firm Du Pont de Nemours in Wilmington, Delaware. Although he attempted to enlist in the Army during World War II, the government regarded his work at Du Pont as essential to the war effort and he was refused for military service. At Du Pont, Borlaug's war work included new developments in camouflage, disinfectants, malaria prevention and insulation for electronic devices. His most significant achievement at the time was the creation of a waterproof adhesive for sealing seaborne supply packages. With the Marines pinned down on Guadalcanal, Borlaug and his team developed the new adhesive in a matter of weeks, enabling the Marines to hold out until the Japanese were driven from the island.
While Borlaug was engaged in war work, his Minnesota mentor, Dr. Stakman, had taken on a different scientific challenge south of the border. The outgoing President of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, had carried out a revolutionary land reform, breaking up the giant estates of the old ruling class and dividing the land into small holdings, know as ejidos. In the following years, Mexican agriculture was devastated by rust, the parasitic fungus Borlaug and Stakman had studied in Minnesota. Recurring crop failures forced the country to import most of its wheat. The Vice President of the United States, Henry Wallace, persuaded the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation to collaborate with the Mexican government in introducing rust-resistant wheat to Mexico. Ervin Stakman led the project; his project director, George Harrar, invited Borlaug to join them. Despite a lucrative offer to remain at Du Pont, Borlaug headed for Mexico in 1944 to lead the International Wheat Improvement Program at El Batátan, Texcoco, outside of Mexico City.
Borlaug encountered many obstacles and setbacks in his first years in Mexico. A lack of trained personnel, and the resistance of farmers and local bureaucrats frustrated his early efforts, but Borlaug would not relent. Tirelessly, he crossed one strain of wheat with another, trying thousands of variations to find those that would flourish in Mexican soil and resist rust and other parasites. In time, he hit on an unprecedented idea. The wheat-growing season in the central highlands, where Borlaug was working, took place slightly earlier than the season in the Yaqui Valley of Sonora, farther north. If he planted the same seeds at the highland research station during the summer and in the Yaqui Valley station immediately afterward, he could see his crops through two growing seasons in a single year.
Borlaug's superior, Harrar, strenuously opposed the idea, not only because of its expense, but because of a widely-held belief that wheat seeds required a rest period after harvest before they could be planted. Only Elvin Stakman's intervention prevented Borlaug from resigning over the disagreement. Stakman gave Borlaug the go-ahead for this "shuttle breeding" project. Planting the same seeds at different altitudes, where they were exposed to different temperatures, sunlight and rainfall, yielded a wealth of information and enabled Borlaug to create wheat varieties that flourished under very different conditions.
Borlaug moved his family to Mexico City and made a long-term commitment to Mexican agriculture. He became active in his local community as well, coaching Mexico's first Little League team. As his breeding techniques grew more and more sophisticated, he realized the tall thin stalks of wheat he had been growing too frequently collapsed under the weight of their own grain. In the early '50s, Borlaug acquired a variety of dwarf wheat from Japan and cross-bred it with North American strains to produce a semi-dwarf strain with a thicker, stronger stalk, capable of supporting a heavier load of grain. Crossing these with his rust-resistant strains produced ideal wheat for Mexico's needs.
By 1963, more than 95 percent of the wheat harvested in Mexico was grown from seed developed by Borlaug. The country was now producing more than enough wheat for its needs and was exporting wheat to the rest of the world, while Borlaug's techniques were being applied to other grains. The project first proposed by Henry Wallace had grown into the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a training institute funded jointly by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Mexican government. Borlaug directed CIMMYT for over 30 years. The scientists he trained, and the strains of wheat and corn he developed, spread around the world, and other governments sought Borlaug's services to address their food shortages.
In the 1960s, Pakistan and India were on the brink of war, and the entire subcontinent of South Asia was beset with famine and starvation. The United States was sending more than a fifth of its wheat crop to the subcontinent as emergency aid, but uncounted thousands of men, women and children were starving to death. Scientists in both countries, familiar with Borlaug's work in Mexico, urged him to visit the region. Borlaug's first trip to South Asia was unsuccessful, as agricultural communities in both India and Pakistan resisted his proposals to increase their crop yield. By 1965, the situation had grown so desperate that the governments of both countries insisted he return and apply his expertise to the crisis.
In the West, popular books predicted catastrophic famine in Asia and the rest of the world, with deaths in the hundreds of millions. No improvements in food production could possibly keep pace with the growth in population, they claimed, but Borlaug set to work with his characteristic fervor, despite formidable obstacles. Seed shipments were delayed and contaminated, bureaucrats and farmers resisted change to their accustomed routines. With Pakistan and India at war, Borlaug's teams often operated within sound of artillery fire, but he succeeded in importing and planting his Mexican seeds, and within a single season was producing crops on a scale South Asia had never seen before. As the threat of famine receded, war fever diminished and a fragile peace returned to the region.
Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968; India was self-sufficient in all cereal crops by 1974. Since then, grain production in both countries has consistently outpaced population growth. Borlaug's achievements in Mexico, India and Pakistan were hailed as a Green Revolution. The scientists Borlaug had trained in Mexico and Asia spread his techniques and grains to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Indonesia, to continental South America and to Africa. Around the world, infant mortality rates fell and life expectancy rose. In many countries, the rising standard of living reduced social tensions and political violence.
By 1970, Borlaug had returned to Mexico, and was busy at work in the fields an hour's drive from his home when his wife brought word that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He is the only agriculturalist ever to have been so honored. A descendant of Norwegian immigrants -- men and women who had come to America to escape a food shortage in their homeland -- Borlaug traveled to his ancestral homeland to be honored for securing the food supply for countless millions around the world. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, Borlaug established a World Food Prize, to honor others who have made outstanding contributions to improving the world's food supply. Every year, the World Food Prize helps focus the world's attention on issues of food production.
In the 1980s, Borlaug's methods were criticized by some environmentalists for their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but Borlaug was quick to point out that by increasing the productivity of existing farmland, his followers removed the necessity for destroying standing forests to clear additional farmland. In India alone, wooded areas the size of California were spared because of his work. Lobbying by Western activists blocked Borlaug's first efforts in Africa, but when a devastating famine struck Ethiopia in 1984, the Japanese industrialist Roichi Sasakawa approached Borlaug about starting a new program there. In his 70s, Borlaug agreed to head the Sasakawa Africa Association, and was soon doubling grain production in half a dozen African countries. Through a joint venture with the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the program trained over 8 million farmers in 15 countries. While much of the continent lacks the roads and other infrastructure to modernize its agriculture, former President Carter took up the cause, and agricultural progress in Africa continues.
While crop failure and hunger persist in many parts of the world, the mass starvation predicted by many experts in the '60s and '70s were avoided by the efforts of Borlaug and his followers. As the years pass, it has become apparent that roughly a billion of the earth's inhabitants owe their lives to the Green Revolution. Although famine was averted by his past efforts, Borlaug insists that a concerted campaign to build roads and infrastructure in underdeveloped countries will be necessary to avoid mass starvation in the decades ahead.
While Norman Borlaug's accomplishments are largely unknown to much of the public in his own country, he has received numerous honors for his achievement, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Streets and institutions are named for him in his native Iowa, in Minnesota, in Mexico and in India. Margaret Borlaug, Norman's wife of 69 years, died in 2007. The couple had two children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. In his tenth decade, Dr. Borlaug continued to consult with CIMMYT in Mexico, to teach at Texas A&M University, and to travel, promoting his ideas to end world hunger. He spent his last years in Dallas, Texas, where he died at the age of 95.
This is the man responsible for increasing the yields of wheat crops by ~4 times. The following graphic from Norman Borlaugs Wikipedia page says it all really. It shows how much Wheat yields increased by in third world countries: since 1950:
You can't ask for much more from a man than the ability to provide food. And Norman Borlaug did that in spades. He's one of the men people can thank next time they tuck into a sandwich, doughnut, bun or anything containing wheat.
(Apologies for the rather long biography this week, but I find grain farming fascinating. No idea why! I'm intrigued by the attributes of grain and it's multifacetedness e.g. the different stalk lengths used, the different micro-climates that these stalk lengths create, the uses of long stalks, and all the rest of it.
For instance Medieval farmers grew wheat with long stalks so that they could use the hay for thatching, animal fodder, faggots (fuel not sausages!). But modern farmers got rid of the long stalks because roof tiles replaced thatch, hi-tech animal feed replaced hay fodder, and gas/electricity replaced faggots. The result of shorter stems was that more energy went into the seed rather than the stem, which led to bigger grains ergo (not 'that' ergot!) bigger wheat yields for the farmers and cheaper food for us.
It's a funny old world isn't it, with all these disconnected technologies affecting one another in such big ways; all to our benefit.)