Norman Borlaug, Plant Scientist Who Fought Famine, Dies at 95
Published: September 13, 2009
Norman E. Borlaug, the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday night. He was 95 and lived in Dallas.
Norman E. Borlaug accepted the Congressional Gold Medal in July 2007.
The cause was complications from cancer, said Kathleen Phillips, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University, where Dr. Borlaug had served on the faculty since 1984.
He was widely described as the father of the broad agricultural movement called the Green Revolution, though decidedly reluctant to accept the title. “A miserable term,” he said, characteristically shrugging off any air of self-importance.
Yet his work had a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of people in developing countries. His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history.
Largely because of his work, countries that had been food deficient, like Mexico and India, became self-sufficient in producing cereal grains.
“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”
The day the award was announced, Dr. Borlaug, vigorous and slender at 56, was working in a wheat field outside Mexico City when his wife, Margaret, drove up to tell him the news. “Someone’s pulling your leg,” he replied, according to one of his biographers, Leon Hesser. Assured that it was true, he kept on working, saying he would celebrate later.
Criticism of Techniques
The Green Revolution eventually came under attack from environmental and social critics who said it had created more difficulties than it had solved. Dr. Borlaug responded that the real problem was not his agricultural techniques, but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary.
“If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species,” he declared.
Traveling to Norway, the land of his ancestors, to receive the award, he warned the Nobel audience that the struggle against hunger had not been won. “We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts,” he said. Twice more in his lifetime, in the 1970s and again in 2008, those words would prove prescient as food shortages and high prices caused global unrest.
His Nobel Prize was the culmination of a storied life in agriculture that began when he was a boy growing up on a farm in Iowa, wondering why plants grew better in some places than others. His was also an unlikely career path, one that began in earnest near the end of World War II, when Dr. Borlaug walked away from a promising job at Dupont, the chemical company, to take a position in Mexico trying to help farmers improve their crops.
The job was part of an assault on hunger in Mexico that was devised in Manhattan, at the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation, with political support in Washington. But it was not a career choice calculated to lead to fame or honor.
Indeed, on first seeing the situation in Mexico for himself, Dr. Borlaug reacted with near despair. Mexican soils were depleted, the crops were ravaged by disease, yields were low and the farmers could not feed themselves, much less improve their lot by selling surplus.
“These places I’ve seen have clubbed my mind — they are so poor and depressing,” he wrote to his wife after his first extended sojourn in the country. “I don’t know what we can do to help these people, but we’ve got to do something.” The next few years were ones of toil and privation as Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues, with scant funds or equipment, set to work improving yields in tropical crop varieties.
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.
He was by then a trained scientist holding a doctoral degree in plant diseases. But as he sought to coax better performance from the wheats of Mexico, he relied on a farm boy’s instinctive feel for the plants and the soil in which they grew.
“When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together,” he told another biographer, Lennard Bickel. “They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.”
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, in his grandfather’s farmhouse near the tiny settlement of Saude, in northeastern Iowa. Growing up in a stalwart community of Norwegian immigrants, he trudged across snow-covered fields to a one-room country school, coming home almost every day to the aroma of bread baking in his mother’s oven.
At the time, most farm boys dropped out of school. But Norman’s grandfather Nels Borlaug, regretting his own scant education, urged his grandson to keep going. Norman worked his way through the University of Minnesota during the Great Depression. More than once in those desperate years he encountered townspeople in Minneapolis on the verge of starvation, which sharpened his interest in the problems of food production.
Tackling a Problem
He first studied forestry, but fell under the influence of a legendary expert in plant diseases, Elvin C. Stakman, who encouraged him to switch to the broader field of plant pathology. After earning a doctorate in the field, he took a job with DuPont in 1942 and worked on chemical compounds useful in the war. But Professor Stakman helped persuade him to join the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican hunger project in 1944.
Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.
His insistence on breeding in two places, the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer, imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, but it cut the time to accomplish his work in half.
By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.
In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.
Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.
The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.
This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.
By the early 1960s, many farmers in Mexico had embraced the full package of innovations from Dr. Borlaug’s breeding program, and wheat output in the country had soared sixfold from the levels of the early 1940s.
Attention Across Globe
Urgent queries began to pour in from other poor countries, for they were caught in a bind. After World War II, the introduction of basic sanitation in many developing countries caused death rates to plunge, but birth rates were slow to follow. As a result, the global population had exploded, putting immense strain on food supplies.
On the Indian subcontinent in particular, a crisis developed. The population was growing so much faster than farm output that it was not clear how the masses could be fed. In the mid-1960s, huge grain imports were required to avert starvation.
At the invitation of the Indian and Pakistani governments, Dr. Borlaug offered his advice. He met resistance at first from senior agricultural experts steeped in tradition, but as the food situation worsened, the objections faded. Soon, India and Pakistan were ordering shiploads of Dr. Borlaug’s wheat seeds from Mexico.
One vital shipment through the Port of Los Angeles was delayed by the Watts riots of 1965 in that city, and Dr. Borlaug spent hours yelling on the phone to get it through.
Indian and Pakistani farmers took up the new varieties, receiving fertilizer and other aid from their governments. Just as in Mexico, harvests soared: the Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so bountiful that the government had to turn schools into temporary granaries.
As with the Mexican effort, the Rockefeller Foundation and other donors set up a project in the Philippines to work on rice. It led to the creation of semidwarf varieties that also caused rice yields to soar. Chinese scientists ultimately followed in the footsteps of Western researchers, using semidwarf varieties to establish food security in China and setting the stage for its rise as an industrial power. And Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues helped spread the new crop varieties to additional countries of Latin America, notably Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.
Confronting the Effects
Dr. Borlaug’s later years were partly occupied by arguments over the social and environmental consequences of the Green Revolution. Many critics on the left attacked it, saying it displaced smaller farmers, encouraged overreliance on chemicals and paved the way for greater corporate control of agriculture.
In a characteristic complaint, Vandana Shiva, an Indian critic, wrote in 1991 that “in perceiving nature’s limits as constraints on productivity that had to be removed, American experts spread ecologically destructive and unsustainable practices worldwide.”
Dr. Borlaug declared that such arguments often came from “elitists” who were rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from. But over time, he acknowledged the validity of some environmental concerns, and embraced more judicious use of fertilizers and pesticides. He was frustrated throughout his life that governments did not do more to tackle what he called “the population monster” by lowering birth rates.
He remained a vigorous man into his 90s, serving for many years on the faculty of Texas A&M and continuing to do vital agricultural work. In recent years, he marshaled efforts to tackle a new variety of rust that is threatening the world’s wheat crop.
Dr. Borlaug’s wife of 69 years, the former Margaret Gibson, died in 2007. He is survived by a sister, Charlotte Borlaug Culbert; a daughter, Jeanie Borlaug Laube; a son, William Borlaug; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Gary H. Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs for the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that Dr. Borlaug’s great achievement was to prove that intensive, modern agriculture could be made to work in the fast-growing developing countries where it was needed most, even on the small farms predominating there.
By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.
“He knew what it was they needed to do, and he didn’t give up,” Mr. Toenniessen said. “He could just see that this was the answer.”