Sunday, September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Fed The World

Dr. Norman Borlaug, world-renowned agronomist and winner of the
1970 Nobel Peace Prize
, passed away in Dallas Saturday at the age of 95.

More than any other man in history, his work enabled Third World countries
such as Mexico, India, and Pakistan to finally achieve self-sufficiency in food
grains, achieving what many observers called "The Green Revolution".

The Green Revolution not only freed many poor nations from the eternal
specter of famine, it also enabled them to take the first steps on the road
to industrialization, becoming not just self-sufficient in food but in other
products as well.

In the words of his biographer Leon Hesser, he was "The Man Who Fed The World".

As is often the case with men who make a difference, he sprang from
the humblest of beginnings. Born into a tiny farming community in
Northeast Iowa, he attended a proverbial one-room schoolhouse
until high school. Working on the family farm as a boy, he became curious
as to why certain varieties of crops fared better than others under
different conditions.

Encouraged by his relatives and teachers to get a formal education,
he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1937 with
a Ph.d. in Plant Pathology.

Stints as an agricultural extension agent and a biochemist for Dupont led to
the fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation that would change the course of
Agricultural History.

Drought and war-induced shortages had led to famine in Mexico.
Tasked to assist the Mexican Government in alleviating the situation, the
Foundation sent young Dr. Borlaug and his team to investigate.

What they found was discouraging. Drought and disease had so ravaged
Mexican wheat and corn crops that the farmers could barely feed themselves,
let alone the rest of the population. Infrastructure was poor, and commercial
fertilizer almost non-existent.

Even so, Dr. Borlaug and his team set immediately to work.

The first problem that had to be overcome was to combat "rust",a
fungal infection. By crossing native Mexican wheat strains with rust-resistant
varieties from the United States, Dr. Borlaug's efforts to boost yields began to
gradually show results.

His next step was to adapt different varieties of wheat and
corn for different conditions; temperature, altitude, length of day
and growing season. Poor infrastructure meant that food crops
had to be grown in as many different areas as possible. Spreading
out the work geographically also meant that adaptations that succeeded
in one place might be quickly tried elsewhere.

By the early 1950's, his Mexican work had consistently doubled grain harvests.
But, the improved wheat strains weren't without problems. Improved yields now
meant that the plant heads were too heavy for their stalks, which made them
keel over and die. Plus, they required heavy irrigation and fertilization - scarce
commodities in a poor country. So, Borlaug came up with the idea of further
crossing his new varieties with "dwarf" wheat - which had firmer stalks
and required less irrigation and fertilizer.

This was the key innovation that made him famous.

By 1960, Dr. Borlaug's Mexican work had come to the attention of
India and Pakistan. Taking his Mexico-developed methods to Asia,
within five years he had made India virtually self-sufficient in cereals.
Turning his attention next to rice, he found that many of his techniques
and methods with wheat also worked with rice cultivation. China in
particular was quick to adopt his teaching. Even before the normalization
of relations between the US and China, Dr. Borlaug was in China, teaching
his methods and training local agronomists.

But he didn't quit there. As a Professor of Agronomy at Texas A&M
University, he was more likely to be found in a Third World country
researching and teaching than in College Station.
He was doing field work in rural Mexico, following up on progress,
when word reached him he had won the Nobel Prize.

And he continued to work right up until his death, focusing on farmer-friendly
policy recommendations for poverty-stricken nations in Africa and Latin America.

In the words of former President Jimmy Carter:

" Norman Borlaug's scientific achievements not only saved hundreds
of millions of lives but made him one of the 100 most influential men of
the twentieth century".

And many of the other developments of our time - the rise of China
and India as industrial and scientific powers, the rise of Brazil as a
world leader in grain production, and the banishment of famine in many
corners of the globe would not have been possible but for the work of this
humble Son of Iowa.

Norman Borlaug not only helped Feed the World - he also helped shape it.

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