By all accounts, Norman Borlaug was a hardworking and humble man. When the phone call came to tell him that he had won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, he was working in the wheat fields. His wife, Margaret, had to deliver the news to him. Borlaug is credited with saving a billion lives.
March 25 is the 100th anniversary of Borlaug’s birthday. It is also National Ag Day.
“He had all these awards – the Congressional Gold Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science. Yet, in all my time visiting with him, he never mentioned one. Even up to his death he was still promoting agricultural science,” says Ronald Phillips, Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota.
The Iowa-born man earned the nickname “Father of the Green Revolution.” The term commonly refers to changes in agricultural practices that increased food production from the 1950s forward.
After earning his PhD, Borlaug began doing research and training new scientists in Mexico. One of the first problems Borlaug addressed in Mexico was stem rust, which was killing wheat crops. Despite the poor state of his workstation, he slept and worked there, depending on the support of the local farmers who would loan equipment and help as needed. Borlaug faced criticism for his work at times, but he forged ahead with his breeding plans.
To solve other problems with wheat, Borlaug and his associates developed Mexican semi-dwarf varieties, which had multiple benefits. The shorter wheat produced stronger stalks and two to three times more grain than standard varieties. These new varieties greatly changed the picture of wheat production in Mexico. By 1963, 95 percent of the wheat grown in the country came from Borlaug’s breeding programs. The wheat harvest that year was six times larger than the harvest in 1944, when Borlaug arrived in Mexico.
Borlaug preached the parts that made the whole
Borlaug took his work to India and Pakistan, bringing new seeds to help feed the worlds’ poor. Between 1965 and 1970, India’s wheat crop went from 12 million to 21 million tons. Soon his ideas and principles were being replicated in China and Africa.
“The greatest thing he did for the field of agronomy was to begin to show people that they had to think about multiple parts of the system,” says Jerry Hatfield, lab director at the USDA – Agricultural Research Service. “If you think about what he did in the Green Revolution, it wasn’t about genetics, and it wasn’t about fertility, and it wasn’t about water. It was about all of those different things together.”
Others credit Borlaug with an ability to get others to work together. He could speak to scientists, politicians, and farmers with the same ease.
So 100 years after he was born, and with the world population continuing to grow, Borlaug’s legacy still resonates. He continues to call us all to action with words he spoke in 1970 at his Nobel Lecture: “I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that further progress depends on intelligent, integrated, and persistent effort by government leaders, statesmen, tradesmen, scientists, educators, and communication agencies…we can and must make continuous progress.”
Summarized from “Celebrating 100 Years of Dr. Norman Borlaug,” published in the March-April issue of Crop Science Society of America News.