(March 25, 1914 - September 12, 2009)
Years of Discovery: 1940s -1950s
Father of the Green Revolution - He Helped Feed the World!
Norman Borlaug was born March 25, 1914 on a farm near Saude, Iowa and grew up to travel all over the world in a pursuit to increase yields of the world's biggest cereal crop - wheat. He created a food revolution so big that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. In the 1940's, The Rockefeller Foundation invited Borlaug to Mexico to help with their agriculture. There he recognized the weakness of the wheat being grown and set to work to breed wheat that was disease resistant and that would grow in difficult environments. For the next decade he worked endless hours in the fields, investigating and hand breeding tens of thousands of wheat varieties. Indeed, Borlaug's work ethic became legendary.
In the 1960's, Asia was undergoing a population explosion and its farmers were not producing enough food to keep up. Experts began predicting mass starvation. Borlaug was called in for advice. He brought his wheat breeding plans to the Middle East and Asia, also insisting on government support for modern agricultural methods, such as the use of large quantities of fertilizer, price supports, irrigation, and improved infrastructure.
In spite of dire predictions of global famines, nations in Asia used Borlaug's methods and were able to grow enough food to feed their people. In 1968, U.S. Agency for International Development director William Gaud named Borlaug's work a "Green Revolution". Thomas R. DeGregori, Professor of Economics at Houston University, said, "At the core of the Green Revolution was a grain revolution, with Borlaug's wheat providing roughly 23 percent of the world's calories."
Research has shown that while famines garner our attention, the true death toll from food shortages is the result of undernourishment, especially in children. A child who is only mildly malnourished has twice the chance of dying from childhood diseases as a child who is well nourished; one with severe malnutrition has an eight-fold chance of dying. Children's small, developing bodies are simply not robust enough to fight off common childhood infections.
In 1980, just as the Green Revolution began being implemented in much of the world, 47 percent of all children in the developing world had stunted growth, a good measure of their nutrition level. By the year 2000, it had dropped to 33 percent. The Green Revolution laid the cornerstone for adequate nourishment by increasing the available calories and protein of the developing world's people. Statistician Amy Pearce estimates that Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution resulted in over 245 million lives being saved due to improved nutrition.
As Borlaug continued his efforts to expand agricultural success, he found himself fighting off some environmentalists who denounced his methods of using large amounts of fertilizer and pesticide. Borlaug responded, "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. They have never produced a ton of food. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 60 years, they'd be crying out for fertilizer, herbicides, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Borlaug notes that without modern farming technology, an additional area the size of the contiguous United States would have to be farmed to feed today's world population. Thus, a side benefit of Borlaug's Green Revolution may be that it saved more land for wilderness than any other single environmental initiative.
Written by science writer, Chuck Wilson
Read His Feature Chapter in the Book
The small forward to the chapter about Norman Borlaug describes the painstaking efforts of a man who would start a food revolution that would provide the stuff of life-saving nutrition for the world.
"The tall, scrawny man in the checked shirt, brown pants and work boots sat on a small, folding camp stool in the midst of an enormous field of ripening wheat under a broiling Mexican sun. The dust from the fields and nearby road coated his face, while a handkerchief wrapped around his forehead failed to keep the sweat out of his eyes. In one large, weather-browned hand he held a pair of needle-nosed tweezers. The other hand gently encircled a delicate head of wheat, a tiny fleck of white or yellow hinting at the grain that would eventually emerge. With meticulous precision, his hands as steady as a surgeon's, he used the tweezers to probe the barely formed flower and pluck out each tiny stamen - the male part of the plant - being careful not to disturb the plant's ovary, or female part. Then he slid a small glassine envelope over the wheat head, folding over the top and fastened it with a paper clip. In five days he would return to this same plant, remove the paper clip and slip in the stamen of another type of wheat in the hope that the two parts would create a third: a new breed of wheat capable of feeding the world.
Finished with the first plant, he moved his campstool over a bit and started on the second. Then the third. Then the fourth. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, the man worked, never looking up, his muscles growing tense with fatigue, his eyes red with grit. As night fell, he spread a sleeping bag at the rudimentary field station and heated a can of beans on an open fire for his dinner.
From those painstaking efforts would rise new varieties of wheat, ones resistant to deadly fungal diseases, that would thrive in the varied Mexican climates, in poor, overworked soils in the teeming lands of India and Pakistan, and in family plots throughout much of the world. From the work of this man - a farm boy named Norman Borlaug - would come a revolution, a green revolution, one that would feed the world for at least a little while and change forever how we think about the division between nature and man."
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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 Borlaug'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.
A child that has mild malnutrition has twice the chance of dying from childhood diseases than a child who is well nourished. One with severe malnutrition has an eight-fold higher chance of dying.
Nobel laureate Robert William Fogel's studies showed that 20% of the population in pre-industrial Europe didn't consume enough calories to provide enough energy to work.
Researchers have found interesting correlations to what time of year you are born. Gabriele Doblhammer and James W. Vaupel discovered that people who are born in the months of October, November, and December live a half-year longer on average than those born in other months. When this study was repeated in the Southern Hemisphere the same was true, but for months that were six months out of phase. By ruling out other possible causes, the researchers determined that the difference was linked to the seasonal availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to mothers when they were pregnant in the summer. So it isn't only what you eat; it's also what your mother eats that influences how long you will live.
In 1980, just after the start of the Green Revolution, 47% of all children in the developing world had stunted growth.
In 2019, this had declined to 21%.
"You'd see young people asking for a nickel to buy bread and older people sleeping in the park. We were a pretty sick nation at that time. It made me tough. I was angry that this kind of condition could exist and persist in our own society."
"It would be helpful when you're working on these problems to develop a skin as thick as a rhino's hide, so you don't feel all the darts. Oh, there are lots of critics. If you don't do anything you'll never have critics."
"Don't try to discourage me, Ed. I know how much work is involved. Don't tell me what can't be done. Tell me what needs to be done - and let me do it. To hell with the extra work and strain. It's got to be done, and I believe I can do it."
"One of the greatest threats to mankind today is that the world may be choked by an explosively pervading but well camouflaged bureaucracy."
"Supplying food to sub-Saharan African countries is made very complex because of a lack of infrastructure. For example, you bring fertilizer into a country like Ethiopia, and the cost of transporting the fertilizer up the mountain a few hundred miles to Addis Ababa doubles its cost. All through sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of roads is one of the biggest obstacles to development--and not just from the standpoint of moving agricultural inputs in and moving increased grain production to the cities. That's part of it, but I think roads also have great indirect value. If a road is built going across tribal groups and some beat-up old bus starts moving, in seven or eight years you'll hear people say, "You know, that tribe over there, they aren't so different from us after all, are they?"
"Where are those leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular?"
"We cannot lose sight of the enormous job before us to feed 10-11 billion people, 90 percent of whom will begin life in a developing country, and probably in poverty."
"I was trained in forestry. I've got quite a few shades of green in me. Not the extreme green that some of these who operate on cloud nine have. When people are suffering from hunger, you have to make certain choices."
"There are 6.6 billion people on the planet today. With organic farming we could only feed four billion of them. Which two billion would volunteer to die?"
"If you're a theoretical scientist, you can philosophize about this but I've been in the field for a long time and I believe genetically modified food crops will stop world hunger."
"You have to understand that Norman Borlaug has no ego. He's the world's greatest humanist. He cannot stand to see people suffer."
- Richard Zeyen, Professor at University of Minnesota
"If there's one thread running through Borlaug's life it's doing -- acting with fierce determination. Working on a problem as fundamental as world hunger is a complicated business, and Borlaug is a complicated man, somehow balancing contradictions ... He is the scientist and the dirt farmer; the advocate of common sense and the master of political subtleties; the humanitarian and the pugnacious fighter; the idealist and the consultant to governments of every political ideology. He has been called a peaceful revolutionary, and the tension in that term - between benevolence and aggressiveness - seems particularly apt."
-From the University of Minnesota College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science
"For fifty-two years, Dr. Norman Borlaug has been helping to provide more food to the most needy areas of the world. But perhaps of greater importance, this distinguished scientist-philosopher has been demonstrating practical ways to give people of the entire world a higher quality of life ... The passion that drives Dr. Borlaug's life is an inspiration for all of us to follow. Since 1986, we've worked together through Global 2000 of The Carter Center and the Sasakawa Africa Association to help small-scale farmers to improve agricultural productivity and crop quality, sometimes two or even threefold. It has been an honor to collaborate with Dr. Borlaug. He is a true humanitarian and a dear friend."
-Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States and 2002 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
"Dr. Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution that transformed much of the hungry Third World. As U.S. Food for Peace Administrator in the 1960s, I shipped 4 million tons of food aid per year to India; now it can export food. Dr. Borlaug's scientific leadership not only saved people from starvation, but the high-yield seeds he bred saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed down. He is one of the great men of our age."
-George McGovern, Former US Senator, UN "Ambassador to the Hungry"
"Borlaug has had an inclination to experiment and adopt all that was new in science and technology. As regards current developments in plant biotechnology, he holds the view that Mother Nature has been creating transgenetic plants for eons and responsible biotechnology is not the enemy of mankind, but starvation is."
Frontline, Vol 24, Issue 16, Aug 11-24, 2007. India's National Magazine
"Dr. Borlaug's scientific achievements prevented mass starvation and death in South Asia and the Middle East. I have been particularly impressed by his work in Africa.... Dr. Borlaug is an American hero and a world icon."
-President George H. W. Bush
"It was fun to be there (in Asia after the Green Revolution) at times when younger children were regularly taller than their older siblings, indicating a dramatic improvement in both maternal and child nutrition."
-Thomas R. DeGregori, Professor of Economics, Houston.
Borlaug's grandfather, who had taught him so much about farming, encouraged him to leave the countryside and pursue higher education. His grandfather had received only three years of formal schooling, but had a deep longing to learn. "You're wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on," he told his oldest grandchild.
While working in a local coffee shop, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Borlaug met a pert, pretty young woman: Margaret Gibson, a 20-year-old sophomore in the College of Education. The two quickly bonded, brought together by their similar rural upbringings and their ability to talk about anything. One thing they spoke often about that first semester was Borlaug's frustration with having been forced into the "remedial" college. "I'm nothing special," he told Margaret one night. "But I know damn well I'm better than that - that place for the misfits they expect to drop out."
Then get out, she told him. Work harder. He did. Margaret Gibson was to become his wife.
In Mexico Borlaug Resigns
The first of three great innovations Borlaug developed in Mexico was shuttle breeding. He came up with the idea of supercharging the process by growing two plantings in the same year. This was radically different from how agricultural science was done at the time. His colleagues thought he was nuts. His boss, George Harrar, didn't want to expend resources in two areas of the country. Borlaug thrust his chin out and knitted his brows together. His stance was reminiscent of the powerful wrestler he once was, only this time his opponent was not another young man, but his boss, and at stake wasn't a wrestling match, but the stomachs and lives of millions of Mexicans.
Harrar relented and Borlaug managed to get one season's wheat planted. But a visit the following year by the three-man Rockefeller Foundation team, including Stakman, brought the whole issue to the fore again.
"You're going to be going in circles with such a program," one of the visitors, plant geneticist Dr. H.K. Hayes warned him. "One step forward, the next step backward." The foundation team voted against the Sonora planting, and as Borlaug sat across from them, Harrar spoke to Borlaug testily, "I have told you each time the subject comes up that you should concentrate your efforts in the Bajio area (where Borlaug was based). This scheme of yours has been considered twice, at your insistence, and voted down twice. Why can't you accept that?"
"If this is a firm decision, I also make a firm decision. You will have to find someone else to conform to your rules," Borlaug told him. "You're laying down a policy that is wrong. And I can't go along with it. As of now, I resign. You'll have it in writing first thing in the morning."
And with that, he stalked out of the room.
The next morning, Stakman convinced Borlaug to go on to work at the Chapingo station, promising him he could turn in his resignation letter at the end of the day. Stakman knew that Borlaug's plan might just work. So he went to see Harrar. Coincidentally, that very day Harrar received a letter from a farmer in Sonora praising Borlaug and the Rockefeller Foundation for planting new strains of disease-resistant wheat on his land. "I want to say what is happening here with Dr. Borlaug will have a tremendous effect within a short time," the farmer's letter finished. After a discussion, no one knows how much influenced by the farmer's letter, Harrar agreed to allow Borlaug to continue shuttling his wheat and himself between the two regions.
When Pakistan and India placed an order for 600 tons of Mexican wheat seed, it took a convoy of 35 trucks to transport the seed from Mexico City to the port of Los Angeles, where they were held up by the raging Watts riots. At the same time, the bank called: Pakistan's $95,000 draft to pay for the seed had several misspellings and the bank wouldn't accept it. Borlaug, never a man comfortable with bureaucracy, finally lost his temper. "Get that wheat aboard the ship and send it on its damn way!" he yelled. The wheat was loaded and the ship sailed, but a few days later war broke out between India and Pakistan. The seed made it to the subcontinent, and farmers, sometimes in the shadow of artillery and within the earshot of gunfire, sowed it in their fields
The Nobel Peace Prize
It was October 20, 1970 and Norman Borlaug was doing what he had done at this time of year for the past 26 years - standing in a Mexican wheat plot dressed in mud-splattered clothes, boots and a baseball cap choosing exceptional wheat varieties. Around 10 a.m., he heard the sound of a car bumping along the rutted road at the edge of the Toluca station. When it stopped and he saw his wife emerge, he became frightened, certain something must have happened to one of their two children. He could never have imagined the news she'd come to tell him.
"What's wrong?" he cried, dropping his wheat samples and running towards her.
"Nothing," she laughed. "You've won the Nobel Peace Prize, that's all."
At first, he refused to believe it. Borlaug insisted Margaret return to their house; he still had a day's work to accomplish. As it turned out, he had about 40 more minutes of toil before the press descended upon him.
By the early 1980's Borlaug was semi-retired. It was then that a notorious Japanese shipbuilding magnate was struck by images of starvation in sub-Saharan Africa. Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, began donating millions to the United Nations to help fight hunger in Africa. But as the years passed he felt that not only was his money not enough, but that it might be going for weapons, not food. So in 1985, he had his assistant call Borlaug and ask, "Why has there been no Green Revolution in sub-Saharan Africa?" The assistant asked Borlaug to bring his revolution to the last starving continent.
For more than three decades Norman Borlaug had expended a huge amount of his time away from his wife and kids, traveling all over the world. If anyone had earned the reward of retiring it was Norman Borlaug. He knew little about Africa. Caught off guard he told the assistant, "I'm too old to start learning now." The next day Borlaug received a phone call from Sasakawa, himself. The billionaire told him, "I am 13 years older than you are, Dr. Borlaug. We should have started sooner and didn't, so let's start tomorrow!" Does a good wrestler ever say never? At age 72, he was called back into the battle to combat hunger.
Borlaug was born and educated in the Midwest, growing up on a farm in a region northwest of the "dust bowl" that would become "the world's breadbasket." Borlaug was horrified by the dust bowl and was simultaneously impressed that its effects seemed least where high-yield farming was tried.
From the moment he arrived in Mexico, Borlaug knew what he had to do- radically speed up agricultural time. He had to come up with a superior wheat grain. Determined to conquer the fungal disease rust, and mindful of the various soils and climates of Mexico, he would personally hand-pollinate wheat varieties under the hot Mexican sun wearing his signature hat. With a tireless work ethic and a force of personality, he moved his family to Mexico and made a long-term commitment to Mexican agriculture. He hit upon three agronomic innovations.
Shuttle Breeding with Two Wheat Seasons
The first of these three great innovations was termed shuttle breeding. Rather than planting a wheat crop, waiting for it to grow and harvesting it to see which varieties survived, he came up with the idea of supercharging the process by growing two plantings in the same year. He realized that he could speed up breeding by taking advantage of the country's two growing seasons. He must have been keenly aware of Mexico's geography and, in particular, it's plant geography. The summer crop would grow in the high-altitude, bone dry, poor soil of the Chapingo region outside Mexico City. A winter crop would grow over 1,200 miles north at the research station near Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, which was in the sea-level, irrigated Yaqui Valley, with its more fertile soil and better growing conditions. The differences in altitude and temperature meant the two areas had different growing seasons, so Borlaug could not only grow two crops of wheat in a year, he could see if the plants that grew well in one region also worked in the other. He would harvest seeds in the summer from Chapingo and plant them in the winter in Sonora; and harvest seeds from the winter's Sonora crop for planting in the Chapingo summer. Wheat was " shuttle bred" at locations 700 miles (1000km) apart, 10 degrees apart in latitude, and 8500 feet (2600 m) apart in altitude. Borlaug described the benefits of shuttle breeding in his Nobel acceptance speech, "Through the use of this technique we developed high-yielding, day-length-insensitive varieties with a wide range of ecologic adaptation and a broad spectrum of disease resistance -- a new combination of uniquely valuable characters in wheat varieties."
This was radically different from how agricultural science was done at the time. Borlaug's plan went against a then-held principle of agronomy that has since been disproved. It was believed that seeds needed a rest period after harvesting, in order to store energy for germination before being planted. His boss, George Harrar , was against this plan. Borlaug was unrelenting, "Don't tell me what can't be done. Tell me what needs to be done - and let me do it. There's one single factor that makes the Yaqui effort worth a try, and that's rust. Breeding two generations a year means beating and staying ahead of the shifty stem-rust organism. If I can lick that problem by working in Sonora, then we've won a victory: to hell with the extra work and strain. It's got to be done, and I believe I can do it."
Crossbreeding and Increased Disease Resistance
The second major innovation Borlaug brought to Mexico was high-volume crossbreeding. At the time, plant breeders typically only crossed a few plants each season, waiting until the plants were harvested before choosing the best varieties to use for crossbreeding a few more varieties the following year. With this method, it could take decades before a viable new breed emerged.
Ever impatient, Borlaug took a different approach. By 1952, he had more than 40, 000 wheat varieties in his nurseries and more than 6, 000 individual crosses - all meticulously recorded. Combined with the shuttle-breeding approach, it cut the time required to develop new varieties in half. By 1956, he had developed 40 new rust-resistant strains of tall wheat.
Pure line or genotypically identical plant varieties often only have one, or a few, major genes for disease resistance. Rust is continuously producing new races that overcome a pure line's resistance. Borlaug spent long hours under the Mexican sun developing multilane varieties by hand-pollinating thousands of wheat grains. He knew that multilane mixtures of several phenotypically-similar pure lines would each have different genes for disease resistance. By having similar agronomic characteristics, they are compatible and do not reduce yields when grown together in the field. Later, Borlaug extended this technique by suggesting that several pure lines with different resistance genes should be developed through backcross methods using one recurrent parent. This method allowed various different disease-resistant genes from several donor parents to be transferred into a single recurrent parent. Crop loss was thus kept to a minimum, in that only one or a few lines became susceptible to a pathogen within a given season, and all other crops were unaffected by the disease
An unexpected bonus - Adaptability to Photoperiodism
At the beginning, no one was aware that shuttling the plants back and forth would affect an essential process of plants - the photoperiod, or the length of night and day. Plants have a wide variety of flowering strategies involving what time of year they will flower and, consequently, reproduce. Many plants are dependent on the duration of day and night. This is called photoperiodism, an organism's response to the length of day and night within a 24-hour period. In many plants, this phenomenon determines when a flowering response occurs. The actual regulatory mechanism is governed by the hours of darkness, not the length of day. Despite their names, scientists have discovered that it is the uninterrupted length of night rather than length of day that is the most important factor in determining when and whether plants will bloom. With the onset of a light period a physiological activity called the photophilic stage begins. After 9-12 hours of light, the development of the plant is inhibited by all further exposure to light: the plant enters its skotophile, or darkness-loving phase. Photoperiodism controls mainly the relative share the two mentioned phases have during a 24-hour period. The measure of time is by circadian rhythm, not to the phytochrome system. Animals also have a photoperiodism but no phytochrome system. They measure time other ways.
All flowering plants have been placed in one of three categories with respect to photoperiodism. Short-day plants, which begin to bloom when the hours of darkness in a 24-hour period rise above a critical level, as when days shorten in the autumn. These plants include, cotton, poinsettias, chrysanthemums, goldenrod, and asters. Long-day plants begin to flower when the duration of night sinks below a critical level, as when days lengthen in the spring and summer. Spinach, lettuce, and most grains are long-day plants. Finally, many plants are day-neutral plants, in which the onset of flowering is not controlled by photoperiod at all. They flower regardless of the night length. They may initiate flowering after attaining a certain overall developmental stage or age, or in response to alternative environmental stimuli, such as vernalization (a period of low temperature), rather in response to photoperiod. These are plants such as cucumbers, roses, sunflowers, dandelions, rice, corn and tomatoes.
Wheat, being a long-day plant, was sensitive to periods of sunlight, or more accurately to shorter duration of night. When the duration of night sunk below a critical level, and days lengthened, the wheat would grow. If the light dropped below a certain level, wheat plants released an enzyme that shut down growth. This light sensitivity limited the adaptability of the wheat to different environments around the world. Borlaug's shuttle breeding challenged the idea that each geographic area would require a separate breeding program. Borlaug recalls, "As it worked out, in the north we were planting when the days were getting shorter, at low elevation and high temperature. Then we'd take the seed from the best plants south and plant at high elevation, when days were getting longer and there was lots of rain. Soon we had varieties that fit the whole range of conditions. That wasn't supposed to happen by the books." This meant that the project soon had varieties that fit a range of photoperiodicity conditions and they wouldn't need to start separate breeding programs for each geographic region of the planet.
The flowering hormone, or Florigen, was long sought for. It exists in the leaves of plants. It is not species-specific. It has wide transferability, limited only by the acceptability of the graft. A good connection between the phloem of the two partners seems to be important. Florigen is physiologically not specific. It can, without any difficulty, be exchanged between short-day, long-day and day-neutral plants. It is very likely identical in all plants. Florigen production occurs only under a certain (inductive) light program that differs in the two types of short-day and long-day plants.
Borlaug's team was taking the seeds from the long-day wheat plants grown in the northern, shorter days and planting them in the south where the days were getting longer. They were experimenting with the complicated combined action of florigen and phytochrome - genetic farming way ahead of its time.
This research was drawn from (A. LANG, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, East Lansing, 1984). A good read on the subject is the book, Biological Rhythms, by Vinod Kumar, 2002, Springer. 254 pages.
After 10 years of wheat breeding, Borlaug had plants that resisted rust and other diseases, plus they were insensitive to the length of daylight and had the potential to grow in a wide variety of photoperiod conditions. He had gotten two thirds of the green revolution science together. What was missing was a wheat plant that could handle the fertilizer.
The third major innovation resulted when Borlaug's success caught up with him. From the rapid growth spurts induced by nitrogen fertilizer Borlaug used in the poor soil, the superior and taller wheat grasses competed for sunlight and collapsed under the weight of the extra grain - a trait called lodging. Again, Borlaug had an answer. He searched for a shorter, stronger stalk, and found it in 1961 in a Japanese semi-dwarf variety called Norin. He crossed his wheat with the new Japanese dwarf variety to create shorter, stiffer wheat. The results were spectacular - the dwarf Mexican wheat grew like little bushes, doubling the country's yield, from about 2 tons per acre to just over 4 tons per acre. It not only provided a sturdier stalk, it tillered, sending up multiple stalks. More heads of wheat per plant grew fat with grain from the fertilization. This was Borlaug's leading research achievement, to hasten the perfection of dwarf spring wheat. Though it was conventionally assumed that farmers wanted a tall, impressive-looking harvest, in fact shrinking wheat and other crops proved beneficial. Bred for short stalks, plants expend less energy on growing inedible column sections and more on growing valuable grain. Stout, short-stalked wheat also neatly supports its kernels, whereas tall-stalked wheat may bend over at maturity, complicating reaping. Nature has favored genes for tall stalks, because in nature plants must compete for access to sunlight. In the controlled environment of high-yield agriculture equally short-stalked plants receive equal sunlight.
Born March 25, 1914 on the farm of his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, a son of Norwegian immigrants. Learned the basics of agriculture in America's Midwest and enjoyed an active outdoor life. An outstanding athlete at Cresco high school, he achieved statewide recognition as a competitive wrestler. While at the University of Minnesota, he was a member of the varsity wrestling team, reaching the Big Ten semifinals. He helped introduce the sport to Minnesota high schools by putting on exhibition matches around the state. He says his wrestling coach, Dave Barthelma, constantly encouraged him to give 105%. He would later be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1992. Encouraged by his grandfather and family, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota in 1933. Borlaug Hall, on the St. Paul Campus of the University, would later be named for him in 1985.
To support himself, he waited tables at a coffee shop, where he met his future wife of 69 years, Margaret Gibson. Margaret was to become his closest and dearest mentor. Chose agriculture as his vocation and joined the forestry program of the University's College of Agriculture. During his senior year at the University, he worked with the U.S. Forestry Service at research stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. He had planned on a career with the forestry service, but after the position was later eliminated due to budget cuts, he heard a lecture by plant pathologist Elvin Stakman that was to begin his life's career.
It was during the last months of his undergraduate education that he heard the lecture by Elvin Stakman, on the crossbreeding of wheat and other grains to produce varieties resistant to the harmful parasites fungus known as rust. Encouraged by Stakman, and fascinated by this research, he decided to pursue graduate studies in plant pathology at the University. He completed his doctorate in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. Dr. Stakman was to become his key mentor in his career.
Borlaug and his wife, Margaret, had three children, Scotty, a baby who died of spinal bifida during his early work in the fields of Mexico, Norma Jean Laube and William Borlaug. His wife, Margaret, died on March 8, 2007.
Upon the completion of his graduate studies, the chemical firm DuPont de Nemours, in Wilmington, Delaware, immediately hired Borlaug. When War World II broke out, he attempted to enlist. The army considered his research at DuPont essential to the war effort. Just how essential is shown by his war work. One of the most significant achievements was the creation of a waterproof adhesive against saltwater for U.S. speedboats supplying sea borne supply packages to stranded Marines on the island of Guadalcanal. This enabled the Marines to hold out until the Japanese were driven from the island. Other tasks included work with camouflage, canteen disinfectants, DDT for malaria prevention, and insulation for small electronics.
While Borlaug was engaged in this war work, his Minnesota mentor, Dr. Stakman, had taken on a different scientific challenge south of the border. Revolutionary land reform was occurring in Mexico. Giant old ruling class land estates were broken up and the land was divided into small holdings, known 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, who also developed hybrid corn in the U. S. in the 1920's, first proposed the idea that the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation collaborate with the Mexican government in introducing rust-resistant wheat to Mexico. E. C. Stakman led the project. His project director, George Harrar, invited Borlaug to join them. Despite a desire to finish his war service with DuPont, sweetened by a lucrative offer from Du Pont, Borlaug headed for Mexico in 1944 to lead the International Wheat Improvement Program at El Batátan, Texcoco, outside of Mexico City.
Borlaug arrived in Mexico with a determination and a force of personality, which would initiate innovative changes to Mexican agriculture. His breeding techniques, improved irrigation, better roads and plenty of fertilizers led to his tall, thin stalks of wheat collapsing under the weight of their own healthy grain. Borlaug acquired a variety of dwarf wheat from Japan and crossed it with the North American wheat varieties to produce a semi-dwarf strain, which had a thicker, stronger stalk. The dwarf wheat was capable of supporting a heavier load of grain. Having developed rust-resistant strains and shorter, stronger stalks of wheat, he produced the perfect wheat for Mexico's needs.
1914, March 25. Born in Suade, Iowa.
1937, September 27. Married in Margaret's brother's sitting room, with a few family members in attendance.
1942. Dr. Borlaug receives his PhD in Plant Pathology and Genetics from the University of Minnesota.
1944-1963. Borlaug and his teams conduct pioneering wheat research in Mexico. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is formed.
1963. Borlaug arrives in India and Pakistan to plant the seeds of the "Green Revolution".
1968. United States Agency for International Development director, William Gaud, first uses the phrase, "Green Revolution" to describe Borlaug's achievements in Asia.
1970, December 10. Borlaug becomes the only agricultural scientist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
1972. Richard Nixon visited China on his critical détente mission. Norman Borlaug accompanied him, signifying the promise the green revolution offered.
1984. Borlaug is appointed as a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A & M University.
1986. At the age of 72, Borlaug is called to Africa to lead the way in bringing the Green Revolution to the African continent. The Sasakawa-Global 2000 Projects begin.
1986. Borlaug creates the World Food Prize.
2007, July 17. Borlaug is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
2007, March 8. Margaret Borlaug dies at the age of 95.
Timeline of the Green Revolution
1937. During his senior year at the University of Minnesota, Norman Borlaug first heard a lecture by the plant pathologist Elvin Stakman. Stakman proposed that crossbreeding of wheat and other grains could produce varieties that would resist the parasitic fungus known as rust, a destructive crop pest. Fascinated by this research, he pursued graduate studies in plant pathology with Dr. Stakman.
1940. Norman Borlaug is chosen as a plant pathologist for a team in Mexico, led by E. C. Stakman and George Harrar, and funded by The Rockefeller Foundation.
1944 - 1963. Borlaug arrives in Mexico and introduces three radical innovations.
1) Shuttle breeding by using two experimental plots, one in the north of Mexico and the other near Mexico City.
2) High volume crossbreeding by hand-pollinating thousands of wheat grains, crossing gene typical lines, thus creating new rust-resistant strains of wheat.
3) Dwarfing of the tall, lodging wheat with a Japanese short-stalked wheat, thus producing a higher yielding variety on a shorter stem.
1948-1956. The "Quiet Revolution" in Mexico becomes the progenitor of The Green Revolution in India and Pakistan a decade later.
1962. Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, is published, and the environmental movement leads to legislation for reasonable controls on the use of pesticides, fertilizers and DDT.
1963. Mexico becomes self-sufficient in wheat production and a net exporter of wheat. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is created in Mexico.
1963-1964. Experimentation with dwarf Mexican varieties is initiated in both India and Pakistan resulting in the pre-Green Revolution crop years. An all-time record harvest is experienced with these importations, and the revolution in wheat production gets underway in both countries. This is the first time in history that such huge amounts of seed have been imported from distant lands and grown successfully in their new homeland.
1964. The Green Revolution in the Philippines is started by The International Rice Research Institute with new strains of rice that double the yield of previous strains if given sufficient fertilizer.
1968. Pakistan is self-sufficient in grain production.
1968. Recognizing the success of the Rockefeller team with wheat and later rice, the United States Agency for International Development director, William Gaud, proclaims a "Green Revolution", in describing the achievements of Borlaug's revolutionary agronomy.
1970. Norman Borlaug is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "helping to turn pessimism into optimism in the dramatic race between population explosion and food production". He becomes the only agricultural scientist ever to have been so honored.
1972. The Cultural Revolution in China meets the Green Revolution when President Richard Nixon and a delegation of scientists, including Norman Borlaug, visit China, signifying the promise the green revolution offers. This is the first time a United States President visits China. It begins an important dialogue in normalizing U.S-China relations that leads to the People's Republic of China joining the United Nations. Since 1980, China has been the Green Revolution's greatest success story. China is now the world's biggest food producer.
1974. India is self-sufficient in all cereals.
1980s. Environmentalists criticize Borlaug's high-yield dependence on inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, pressuring donor countries and philanthropic organizations to back away from the Green Revolution. Borlaug defends the use of inorganic fertilizer and addresses environmentalists by arguing effectively that they should first be humanists. He argues that the Green Revolution has actually led to improved air and water quality, protected wildlife, protected soils, and reduced the loss of biodiversity through saving lands that otherwise would have to be cultivated for crops, because of the high yield value of Green Revolution crops.
1984-1986. Borlaug is lured out of retirement in 1984 by Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa. Along with president Jimmy Carter, Sasakawa wants to achieve an African Green Revolution. Borlaug begins his third career in Africa. The Sasakawa-Global 2000 project is underway and operates in 12 African nations.
1986. Borlaug creates the World Food Prize. This is an international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.
2000, September 8. Borlaug presents his anniversary lecture at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo. In the speech, Borlaug calls for the development in the 21st century of a "Blue Revolution" to compliment the "Green Revolution" of the 20th century. In the Blue Revolution, water-use productivity must be reasonably wedded to land use productivity. Later in speech, Borlaug shares one dream that recalls that enchanted evening when he listened to Stakman lecture on rust as an undergraduate. Among all the cereals, rice is unique in its immunity to the rusts. He imagines the benefits to humankind if the genes for rust immunity in rice can be transferred into wheat barley, oats, maize, millet, and sorghum. He dreams, "Finally, the world could be free of the scourge of the rusts, which have led to so many famines over human history."
Hanson, Haldore; Borlaug, Norman E. and R. Glenn Anderson. 1982. Wheat in the third World. Westview Press.
Norman Borlaug on World Hunger. 1997. Edited by Anwar Dil. San Diego/Islamabad/Lahore: Book service International. 499 pages.
Woodward, Billy, Shurkin, Joel and Gordon, Debra. Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentith Century. Linden Publishing, 2009.
Bickel, Lennard. Facing starvation: Norman Borlaug and the fight against hunger. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest Press distributed by Dutton, New York, 1974.
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Vietmeyer, Noel. Borlaug; Volume 1, Right off the Farm. 1914 - 1944. Bracing Books, 2009.
Vietmeyer, Noel. Borlaug; Volume 2, Wheat Whisperer 1944-1959. Bracing Books, 2009.
Swanson, Lora. Norman Borlaug: Hero in a Hurry. (YA) BookSurge Publishing, 2009.
Dr. Norman Borlaug is one of the most influential people of the 20th Century. He is the only agricultural scientist to win the Nobel Prize. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his contribution to improving agricultural productivity throughout the world. He is considered the Father of the Green Revolution. In his acceptance speech, Borlaug summarized his philosophy, "If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace." Thus he founded the World Food Prize in 1987 to be the highest individual honor for truly exceptional and unique achievements in improving the quantity, quality and availability of the world's food supply and its access to all human beings.
He has received 49 honorary degrees from as many universities in 18 countries. Streets and institutions are named for him in his native Iowa, Minnesota, Mexico and in India. In 1968, Borlaug received what he considered an especially satisfying tribute when the people of Ciudad Obregon, where some of his earliest experiments were undertaken, named a street after him. Borlaug was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1992.
1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
1977 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
2002 Public Welfare Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
|Borlaug Receives the Congressional Gold Medal|
2002 Rotary International Award for World Understanding and Peace.
2004 National Medal of Science.
2006 Padma Vibhushan, India's highest honor to non-citizens of exemplary accomplishment.
2007 Congressional Gold Medal.
Buildings named after Borlaug
The Norman E. Borlaug Center for Farmer Training and Education, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
Borlaug Hall, on the St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota.
The Borlaug Building at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
The Norman Borlaug Institute for Plant Science Research at DeMontfort University, Leicester, England.
The Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement, at Texas A&M University.
Norman Borlaug's Wikipedia Page
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Norman E. Borlaug. 2007 Sixty-two years of fighting hunger: personal recollections. Euphytica 157:287-297
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Bread and Peace. 2004. As told to Vicki Stavig. University of Minnesota Alumni Association. January 14, 2004.
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Ecology. Ecology: Definition and Much More from Answers.com.
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Food for Thought. 2007. The Murugappa Group.
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Killer fungus spells disaster for wheat. 2008. Eurekalert. Public release date: March 12, 2008.
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The father of the 'Green Revolution'". Did You Know?. University of Minnesota. URL accessed
Top 10 agricultural events during past 50 years named. 2003. American Society of Agricultural Engineers. June 2003.
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Wheat history: Modern food production and the Inevitable Outcome. 2007. KSB. Kaslo Sourdough Bakery.
Bickel, Lennard. 1974. Facing starvation; Norman Borlaug and the fight against hunger. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest Press.
Borlaug, Norman. 1970. "The Green Revolution, Peace, and Humanity." Nobel Lecture. © The Nobel Foundation.
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Brinkley, Douglas. 1996. "Bringing the Green Revolution to Africa: Jimmy Carter, Norman Borlaug, and the Global 2000 Campaign." World Policy Journal. March 22.
DeGregori, Thomas R. 2004. Recognizing a Giant of our Time: Dr. Borlaug Turns 90.American Council of Science and Health.
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Fogel, Robert William. 2004. The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death 1700-2000, Europe, America and the Third World. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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