An agricultural and humanitarian hero
Published 1:25 pm Friday, March 23, 2018
Most people can’t name the person who is responsible for saving more lives than any other person in the history of the world —not a deity. It is attributed that he saved approximately 1 billion people from starvation during the 20th century and in the present. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime’s work of trying to feed the world.
Norman Borlaug was also known as the father of the “Green Revolution.” A great-grandson of Norwegian immigrant, he grew up on a farm in Cresco, Iowa. Norman went to a one room school house and his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, advised him that “you’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.”
Borlaug went on to receive his Bachelor of Science, Masters and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He was also a varsity wrestler for the University of Minnesota. After World War II, he began working as a geneticist and plant pathologist for a consortium between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government to develop improvements in agriculture.
Sixteen years were spent in Mexico developing high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. Borlaug came up with the idea of using a Japanese semi-dwarf variety of wheat that instead of growing tall and thin and lodging easily (falling down) it had short stalks that concentrated its energy in seed production.
These varieties were sub-tropical and tropical in nature, disease resistant and higher yielding. By 1963, wheat yields in Mexico were six times higher than in 1944. Mexico had become fully self–sufficient in wheat production by 1964.
India was the next target for the Rockefeller Foundation. Borlaug and his team were tasked with discovering if these varieties would work in India and Pakistan. Wheat yields doubled and by 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient and India in 1974.
At the same time biologist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote the “Population Bomb” in 1968 predicting world-wide famine. By the 1970s and 80s hundreds of millions of people would starve to death. How right was Ehrlich?
The techniques of high yielding varieties, high fertilizer inputs, and modern farming techniques were hailed by the United States Agency for International Development as the “Green Revolution.” This technology was transferred to rice and other cereal grains and to other parts of the world with the same success.
Borlaug had a philosophy called the “Borlaug hypothesis,” that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland.
I was privileged to hear Norman Borlaug speak in 1973 at The Ohio State University when I was a high school junior. I didn’t understand much of his presentation then, but I do now. Many agriculture scientists continue the challenge of feeding a hungry world. His ingenuity, determination and success paved the way for more breakthroughs.
Norman lived a long life dying in 2009 at the age of 95. He was not only an agricultural hero but a humanitarian hero as well.
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