Norman Borlaug: forgotten benefactor of humanity is dead

The father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, has died in Texas, aged 95. He died at his home in Dallas on Saturday from cancer complications. Borlaug was an agricultural scientist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in combating world hunger and saving hundreds of millions of lives. Thanks to the green revolution, world food production doubled between 1960 and 1990 and his work was feted in a 2006 book entitled The Man Who Fed the World.

Borlaug hated the phrase Green Revolution as a “miserable term” but his high-yielding crops saved many parts of the world from famine in the 1960s. Kenneth Quinn, President of the World Food Prize, said the world had lost a great hero. “Dr. Borlaug’s tireless commitment to ending hunger had an enormous impact on the course of history,” he said. “He will be remembered with love and appreciation around the globe.”

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in Saude, Iowa in 1914 to parents of Norwegian stock. Borlaug left the family farm to study at the University of Minnesota and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in 1937. He was also a champion wrestler. Borlaug got a PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. During the war, Borlaug worked at a military lab where he helped develop a glue that stopped food containers rotting in saltwater.

In 1944 he went to Mexico for an government agricultural development program with support from Washington and the Rockefeller Foundation. He would spend 40 years on this project. Borlaug looked at the problem of cultivating wheat susceptible to the parasitic fungus rust. He experimented with double wheat seasons and dwarf plants which were disease resistant and gave higher yield. By 1963 nearly all of Mexico’s wheat came from Borlaug varieties. The harvest grew sixfold in two decades and Mexico became a net exporter of wheat.

Borlaug’s success attracted interest in India and Pakistan, which were at war with each other and close to widescale famine. India was importing huge quantities of food grains from the US. In 1965 Mexico exported a large quantity of wheat to both countries with almost immediate effect. Pakistan’s wheat yield doubled in five years and India became self-sufficient in ten. He also improved strains of rice and corn in Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa.

His ancestral nation of Norway awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Accepting the honour, Borlaug said world civilisation depended on a decent standard of living for all. He said “green revolution” was too broad in scope and only wheat, rice, and maize yields had increased. He compared the forgetfulness and abundance of the West with the underprivileged billions in the Third World for whom “hunger has been a constant companion, and starvation has all too often lurked in the nearby shadows.”

Borlaug continued to press for improvements across the developing world, especially Africa. He helped found the Sasakawa Africa Association in the early 1980s to improve food production. With local researchers he concluded existing products and information could greatly expand the African food production. However improved technologies were not reaching the smallholders who produced most of Africa’s food, and the extension systems were failing to link research to farmers.

While his work was greatly respected in Africa and Asia, he remained almost unknown in his homeland. Writing in 1997 in The Atlantic Online, Gregg Easterbrook said the US had three living Peace Prize winners of which two were household names, Elie Wiesel and Henry Kissinger. Easterbrook said one reason for Borlaug’s anonymity was his life work was done in developing nations far from the media spotlight. But he added a second more sinister reason: “More food sustains human population growth, which [critics] see as antithetical to the natural world.” Most criticism of Borlaug’s work has been about environmental concerns not humanitarian. These relate to large-scale factory farming biased towards agribusinesses as well as issues with inorganic fertilisers and controlled irrigation causing environmental stress. Borlaug never resiled from these arguments and said high-yield farming helps preserve natural habitats.

Borlaug remained active in older years. In 2006 he was awarded America’s highest civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal. Long-time colleague and friend Professor M.S. Swaminathan called him one of the greatest Americans and humanists of all times. Accepting the medal Borlaug stressed the importance of the fight against hunger. “We need better and more technology, for hunger and poverty and misery are very fertile soils into which to plant all kinds of ‘isms,’ including terrorism,” he said.

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