(Norman Borlaug Image Credit: www.worldfoodprize.org)

Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) was credited with ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ in 1970 for his contribution to the society for saving a billion population from the verge of starvation. His contribution can only be appreciated by imagining a world that he prevented from happening, a world where hunger and the associated strife and war would have ravaged peace and tranquillity that most parts of the world experience today. Norm, as Dr. Norman Borlaug was fondly called, was honoured with the Noble Peace Prize in 1970 for his accomplishments especially in India and Pakistan and for spearheading the “Green Revolution” around the world. It was his work in plant breeding by developing high yielding varieties of cereal grains and his humanitarian efforts that has had delayed a hideous, hunger and poverty incited human and environmental catastrophe from happening.

Born in the United States of America with Norwegian ancestry in 1914, Norman Borlaug spent his childhood and adolescence in his family farm in Protivin, Iowa. Growing up in a farm exposed him to the virtues of hard work and team work. He was an avid wrestler, a sport which he many a time had acknowledged to have ingrained in him the tenacity to pursue goals. He worked as a farm hand and saved money to pay for college. Even while studying Forestry at the University of Minnesota, he took up odd jobs to meet his needs. Those were the days when his nation was reeling under economic depression. It was tough making a living at that time and the poor economic condition of the time jeopardized his opportunity to become a full-time employee of the forest service. It was during that time that he happened to attend a seminar by a plant pathologist, Dr. Elvin Stakman, on wheat rust disease. This event, coupled with him losing his job, lent him a direction that he would later own by his sheer will.

He was approached to be a part of a research initiative by the Rockefeller Foundation in rural Mexico to improve the livelihood of subsistence farmers who cultivated wheat. This facility was later developed into Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo–the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) located outside Mexico City. He arrived in Mexico in 1944 when farmers had endured successive years of crop loss due to wheat rust disease. Everything was alien to him, the crop (he was accustomed to growing maize in his farm), the geography, the people and the language they spoke. To understand the difficulties faced by farmers and to better communicate his ideas and technologies to the locals, he learnt Spanish. It was here that he exercised his industriousness to achieve his conviction that farmer’s plight be reversed at any cost. The technologies he helped popularize are still in use to improve crop traits.

Most annual plants have a definite period in which they grow and set seeds. Wheat, an annual crop, also requires a specific weather condition to grow and produce a good yield. To develop a variety (a genotype with defined characters and breeds true) for a specific trait requires that the trait of interest present in one genotype (the donor) be brought to the variety of interest (the recipient). This requires that both crops should set flowers to enable crossing to transfer the trait, and the flowers end up setting seeds. This would mean that only one breeding cycle can be completed each year. It would take 8-10 years to develop a variety with the target trait—in Dr. Borlaug’s case, resistance against wheat rust disease. But, similar weather conditions are possible in two distinct places just by their geographic position and differences in elevation. Mexico was endowed with such geographically different landscapes that Dr. Norman Borlaug recognized that breeding can be done in two successive seasons, first in the northern part of Mexico and the next in elevated southern part which is separated by a distance of 1000 km! He could foresee that such a measure would reduce the time to develop a variety to 4-5 years, but was met with objection.

He believed, to put in his own words, “You cannot build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” His conviction was to the fore when he tendered his resignation since he could not carry-out the work as he envisaged. It needed Dr. Stakman’s intervention that paved the way for Dr. Norman to pursue his goal as he conceptualized. This swift method of plant-breeding technology was later christened as “shuttle breeding” by the popular press of the United States. He was also fortunate with his efforts as the wheat varieties he was breeding were photo-insenstive, i.e., their flowering did not depend on the duration of light availability. Dr. Borlaug did not conceptualize any new ideas, but innovated in harnessing the strengths of existing plant-breeding tools to improve and accelerate product (lines and varieties) development. Plant pathogen that causes a specific disease is classified as different races based on whether the pathogen infects different varieties of a crop species. One race of a pathogen infecting a specific line/variety will not cannot cause disease to other distinct lines/varieties. In wheat, Dr. Borlaug introduced multiline varieties for cultivation, where several lines/varieties of wheat that were uniform in their agronomic traits but differed in their susceptibility to different races of a pathogen were mixed and provided to farmers. Hence, if there is an outbreak of a disease, it may kill one or two lines of wheat and yet the farmers could harvest a lossless yield! He furthered this into his breeding program to incorporate disease resistance against different races into one elite plant variety by recurrent backcross breeding technology. Though he could surmount the problem of rust disease, the longer and slender stalks of the high yielding wheat varieties he developed could not bear the weight of its own grains and lodged. This again led to yield loss from the crop. How he managed to work-around this problem in wheat was what would become the key trait to breed for in the other major cereal crop, rice and that was what changed the life and lives of a billion people around the world.

Dr. Borlaug reasoned that a shorter and stouter stalk could bear the weight of seed-filled panicle of wheat better than longer and thin-stalked wheat plants that he had been breeding. He was open to any means to achieve this and he immediately acquired a Japanese dwarf variety of wheat called Norin 10 developed by Orville Vogel. He incorporated the dwarf trait into his elite lines and developed new semi-dwarf varieties that did not lodge and had more grains per plant. In what was considered an agricultural miracle, Mexico achieved self-sufficiency in wheat in 1956 and became a net exporter. Having achieved what he had set out to a decade earlier, he turned to provide his assistance to others in need. South Asia was at the brink of a repeat of the 1940 Bengal famine, but at a pandemic proportion. He had to encounter hindrances of proportions that he never envisaged but which he never gave up, all to provide enough morsels of food to each hungry mouth.

His contribution to South Asia started with his visit to India in 1963 and the subsequent provision of semi-dwarf wheat seeds for varietal trials at different locations in India. Amidst the India-Pakistan war in 1965 and through various other hindrances, he ensured the successful supply of 250 tonnes of wheat seeds to Pakistan and 200 tonnes to India for sowing. In 1966, India imported 18,000 tonnes of wheat seeds from Mexico. This essentially prevented an imminent famine that would have devastated the Indian-subcontinent and therefore its present history! With the use of the imported semi-dwarf wheat varieties, India’s wheat production increased from 12.3 million tonnes in 1964 to 20.1 million tonnes in 1970, aided along by the adoption of inorganic fertilizers to provide nutrients to the crop. The work on semi-dwarf varieties was extended to indica and japonica varieties of rice at IRRI. This led to the development of “wonder rice” IR8 that increased rice yields remarkably in the Indian subcontinent. This alleviated the troubles of most of the subsistence-level farmers in the region.

Dr. Borlaug extended his work and services to China and other countries in the African continent that also were experiencing problems of starvation and poverty due to diminished agricultural production. His involvement in the 1960s-70s in the region led to improved conditions of the lives of people simply through increased crop production from the same lands that were not reaping profitable crops earlier. He transcended national boundaries, language barriers, political ideologies and ethnicity of people, because he desired to quell human misery arising out of hunger and poverty. It was for such massive efforts that he was recognized by the award of Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970. The recognition, according to him, was the acknowledgment of the world to the evils of hunger and poverty and the hurdle hunger poses to peace. To reiterate the need for efforts towards eradication of hunger and poverty, he instituted the “World Food Prize.” Till his death in September, 2009, Dr. Borlaug was dedicated to expanding agricultural innovation around the world, teaching and training the next-generation leaders to continue and uplift the goal he wanted to achieve, to vanquish hunger from the face of earth. It was his complete and utter dedication to work that led him, in the words of his biographer Ron Phillips, to save more lives than all of the other Nobel laureates put together!


Blog by:

Velu Mani Selvaraj

PhD Scholar

University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad &

ICAR-Indian Institute of Oilseeds Research, Hyderabad.

Email: Email: getvelumani@gmail.com