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Dr Norman Borlaug
by Hugh Stringleman
A plant breeder who some have called the most positively influential man of the 20th Century has died in Dallas, Texas.
Dr Norman Borlaug, born on an Iowa farm in 1914, developed high-yielding, short-strawed wheats in Mexican research stations which created the Green Revolution.
This ended the horrible cycles of droughts and famines which caused millions of deaths each year in vulnerable countries of South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
Borlaug was called “The Man who Fed the World”, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and the United States Congressional Medal of Honour, his country's highest civilian award, in 2006. In addition he was conferred with over 50 honorary degrees from universities around the world and world leaders paid tribute at his passing.
Borlaug was no shy, retiring plant breeder who chanced upon some high-yielding crosses. He deliberately bred dwarf wheats, which tillered more, demanded more fertiliser and produced much more grain.
Firstly, he tackled the annual scourge of stem rust head on by dramatically increasing the numbers of crosses annually and demanding “shuttle breeding” between cool and hot climates to double the annual genetic progress.
“Cross breeding is a hit-or-miss process. It's time-consuming and mind-warpingly tedious. There's only one chance in thousands of ever finding what you want, and actually no guarantee of success at all,” he told his biographer, Leon Hesser.
Then he tackled the problem of poor utilisation of increased nutrients by tall, slender wheat varieties, which were prone to wind or rain damage and “lodging”.
He crossed poor-yielding dwarf varieties found in Japan after World War Two with his new, most promising, broadly-adapted Mexican wheats. They tillered profusely, resisted straw damage or breaks and doubled the grain yields.
Within seven years, in the early 1950s, the national average yield of wheat in Mexico doubled and that country was able to feed itself.
After Borlaug began consulting for the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation in 1960, he travelled outside of the Americas and was quickly confronted with world poverty. In countries like India and Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria, wheat yields were disastrously low and hunger was endemic. He convinced the UN to send trainees from those countries to his stations in Mexico, where they learned to lay out experimental plots and cross-breed wheat and other cereals. He fostered an international network of collaborating plant breeding stations.
From his Mexican base at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), Borlaug evangelistically promoted the high-yielding varieties, which required greater fertiliser inputs, against entrenched resistance from scientists and bureaucrats.
He spoke directly to agriculture ministers and heads of state in the famine-prone countries. India's Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, ploughed a garden bed in front of her official residence in Delhi and sowed Mexican wheat. Her agriculture minister, Shri Subramaniam, took a courageous decision against the advice of his senior scientists to import 18,000 tonnes of seed wheat from Mexico, and then insisted that departmental advisors tell farmers to use Borlaug's recommended high rates of fertiliser, and not try to spread their nutrients too thinly.
Such was his success, built on the labour of millions of peasant farmers, that by 1975 India was a net wheat exporter. Pakistan followed two years later.
In 1970 Norman's wife Margaret ran out into the Mexican fields to tell him he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he didn't believe her.
Biographer Hesser calls the award “the only Peace Prize made for work on food production as its most basic level, on the lands of individual farmers.”
In receiving the award Borlaug said, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”
In 1970 it was estimated that 40 million hectares were sown with Borlaug-bred varieties, which was the most productive 10% of the world's agricultural land.
However, for a number of reasons, the Green Revolution never achieved in Africa the success it had in Asia and the Middle East. Borlaug and former US President Jimmy Carter, with the help of a Japanese philanthropist, worked systematically through African countries during the 1980s to introduce new varieties and improved farm management.
He became a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University in 1984, where he remained until his death, aged 95.
In later years Borlaug championed the widespread adoption of GM technology to reverse the worrying trend of lower yields from wheat, maize and rice, now declining from their peaks that he and fellow plant scientists scaled.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke for many around the world when he learned of Borlaug's death from cancer in Dallas on September 12.
“Dr Norman Borlaug's life and achievements are testimony to the far reaching contribution that one man's towering intellect, persistence and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress.”