The son of Norwegian-American parents, agronomist Norman Borlaug not only brought forth the Green Revolution but in the process saved as many as 1 billion people across the globe from famine, starvation and death.
Earning his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota, Borlaug eventually found himself in the most poverty-stricken areas of Mexico following World War II, where wheat farmers were “barely able to sustain themselves due to repeatedly poor harvests,” thanks to rust — “the parasitic fungus that attacked a wide variety of plants and trees.”
Farmers in rural Mexico were producing less than half of what was needed to sustain the population, and Burlaug spent more than 13 years working on the development of a rust-resistant wheat.
His initial development of rust-resistant wheat improved crop yields but was too top-heavy to withstand wind and rain. But Borlaug then thought to cross breed his new varieties in Mexico with Japanese dwarf strains, and the results were borderline miraculous.
“Aided by the use of fertilizer and irrigation, Borlaug’s new wheat varieties enabled Mexico to achieve self-sufficiency in 1956,” Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn, President of The World Food Prize Foundation, wrote in Burlaug’s biography in 2009.
The agronomist would go on to take his Green Revolution and success to other areas of the world, including the Middle East and South Asia, as most of the developing world was stricken with the same poverty and failing harvests as Mexico.
Training a new generation of agricultural scientists at Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo – the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) located outside Mexico City — Borlaug and his team moved on to India and Pakistan, where crop yields were increased fourfold.
Scientists Robert Chandler, Henry “Hank” Beachell and Gurdev Khush applied Borlaug’s methods to rice in Asia and also found immense success.
Quinn himself witnessed the “miracle rice” they produced while working in the Mekong Delta in 1968, and saw not only that crop yields were increased but violent conflict died down as a result.
He wrote: “The four villages that were accessible by road experienced dramatic improvements, both in terms of nutrition and the well being of the people. New IR-8 rice spread rapidly as peasant farmers with small plots were suddenly able to experience both increased yields and double crops. This in turn led to tangible improvements in the quality of life: child mortality dropped; malnutrition abated; and children, especially girls, stayed in school longer.
At the same time, there was a rapid corresponding decrease in the level of armed conflict and military hostilities. It was as though the combination of new roads and new rice seed caused the roots of violent extremism to wither and disappear in a way that military action alone could not.”
Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his achievements in India and Pakistan and his role in the Green Revolution.
In 1986, the celebrated agronomist went on to establish the World Food Prize, with the assistance of Carleton Smith and the support of the General Foods Corporation, as a Nobel-like prize for agriculture.
As his methods continued to reach new regions of the world, including China and Africa, Borlaug was well on his way to saving more than 1 billion lives through his agricultural innovations.
Though Borlaug himself is now gone, having died on September 12, 2009, his foundational work has the potential to save many millions more.