In 1970, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a man named Norman Borlaug. His achievement? Saving hundreds of millions of people from death by starvation. Yet today, few people in America and the West even know his name. This is unfortunate, for his story is heroic.
Borlaug was a geneticist and plant pathologist who discovered ways to produce heartier and faster-growing varieties of wheat and other grains, brought these methods to various parts of the world, and taught people how to implement them. Thanks to his work, farmers and agriculturalists were—and are—able to produce orders of magnitude more food than they could prior to his discoveries.
Borlaug was born in Iowa on March 25, 1914. His parents were farmers, and he was educated in a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade. He did well in high school, and wanted to pursue a college degree. In 1933, on the recommendation of a friend, and despite the onset of the Depression, he hitched a ride north to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He started in the General College, and later chose forestry as his major. He earned his degree in 1937, and was planning to enter the Forest Service until he attended a lecture presented by Dr. E. C. Stakman, a plant pathologist. That talk, Borlaug later said, “changed my life, my whole career.”1
Stakman’s lecture, “These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops,” discussed the spread of plant “rust” that was killing off grains across the United States.2 Borlaug was so fascinated by the subject that, instead of joining the Forest Service, he enrolled in the university’s graduate program for plant pathology, where he proceeded to earn both a master’s degree (1937) and a doctorate (1942).
After receiving his doctorate, Borlaug took a job as a microbiologist with the DuPont de Nemours Foundation, but he did not stay there long.3 In September 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation offered him a position running a joint program with the Mexican government, helping Mexican farmers to improve agricultural technology and increase their wheat production. Borlaug accepted the job, moved to Mexico with his wife and children, and launched the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program.
Borlaug set himself to tackling the scourge of the Mexican farmers, a fungus known as stem rust that was devastating the wheat crops and mutating faster than resistant wheat strains could be bred to combat it. Casting aside the traditional methods of fighting the fungus, which had long been unsuccessful, and bucking the accepted “wisdom” that wheat varieties must be bred in the area in which they were to grow, Borlaug took a novel approach. Each year, he took seeds of the best prior wheat harvest and planted them in two regions: the northern part of Mexico and a southern testing site. The northern crop was grown in the fall, with less daylight, and the southern crop at high summer, with more. Seeds from each crop were then taken to the other region and planted. This technique, which became known as the “shuttle breeding” system, not only increased the wheat’s adaptability, enabling it to grow in widely varying conditions; it also increased the yield of wheat and bolstered its resistance to various diseases, including stem rust.4 Growing more than one crop per year also meant that resistant strains of wheat could be developed faster, making it easier for Borlaug and the farmers to keep ahead of disease mutations.
Borlaug experimented further by crossbreeding the Mexican wheat with a variety of Japanese dwarf wheat. Wheat has a natural tendency to grow long stems, so when the plant becomes heavy with grain, these stems can easily bend and break, causing the grain to spoil. Borlaug’s Japanese dwarf-Mexican hybrid had a shorter, sturdier stem, which could support a greater amount of grain without breaking. This development enabled farmers to fertilize their plants more heavily and produce more wheat.
Like most innovators, Borlaug had his opponents. His shuttle breeding system, in particular, drew fire from wheat breeders and geneticists wedded to the tradition that wheat had to be bred where it was to be grown. These critics’ voices were strong enough that, at one point, Borlaug’s boss asked him to halt that part of his experiment.5 Borlaug refused, threatening to quit the program entirely if he was not allowed to follow his own judgment. His work had already been so successful that many Mexican farmers, not wanting to lose him, protested on his behalf. This support, and that of his mentor, Dr. Stakman, combined with his own insistence enabled him to maintain his position and continue his work.
In time, the veracity of Borlaug’s judgment and the value of his methods became undeniable. When Borlaug arrived in 1944, Mexico imported a majority of its wheat. By 1956, due largely to his efforts, Mexico was exporting wheat.6
Borlaug’s revolutionary work in Mexico was only the beginning. The hunger he witnessed during the Great Depression, along with his knowledge that hundreds of millions of people were starving throughout the world, affected him deeply.7 He did not accept such conditions as inevitable, and having already improved food production so dramatically in Mexico, Borlaug thought that if he put his mind to it he could do the same elsewhere.
His next challenge would be even greater than that in Mexico.
Throughout the 1950s, populations in India and Pakistan had increased far faster than food production in those countries, where production was already insufficient. By the early 1960s, it was clear that, if population growth and food production continued at pace, both countries would suffer catastrophic food shortages before the end of the coming decade. Many forecasters in the West threw up their hands, declaring that there was no way to sufficiently increase food production in such a short time, that hundreds of millions of people were going to starve to death, and that no one could do anything about it.8
To their credit, the Indians and Pakistanis were not willing to sit back and starve without a fight. They went looking for someone who could help them to increase their food production enough to make a difference, and found Borlaug.
At the request of both governments, Borlaug trained a team of young scientists from each country for a couple of years in Mexico and returned with them to India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, financial mix-ups delayed the shipment of his seed (550 tons of it), and when the seed was finally underway, war broke out between the two nations. Borlaug persisted (despite nearby fighting), and got the seed into the ground, only to find that the germination rate was half of what he had expected it to be. Certain of the viability of his methods, he doubled the amount of seed being planted, and, by summer’s end 1965, his hardy, high-yield Mexican dwarf wheat was growing all across India and Pakistan.
The resulting harvests were enormous, stretching available storage space and transportation capacity to their limits. Over the next couple of years, more and more farmers experimented with this transplanted grain, yielding ever-greater harvests. Within a few years, farmers in Pakistan and India were producing ample grain to feed their countrymen.9
Borlaug’s innovations (combined with the efforts of the scientists and farmers who learned from him) led to the widespread increase in food production across South Asia that became known as the “Green Revolution.” Borlaug’s accomplishments, however, went beyond an increase in the amount of food being grown. As his methods increased food production in South Asia, they also increased opportunities, wealth, and prosperity in general across the region. By 1970, just five years after Borlaug began his work there, farmers using the Mexican dwarf wheat had “increased their net income from thirty-seven dollars per hectare with the local varieties to 162 dollars with the dwarf Mexican varieties.”10 Their expanded farming capacity increased demand for farm tools and machinery, which increased demand for technology and labor, and so on: more products, more services, more jobs, better living. Of course, the extent of government intervention in the South Asian economies has fluctuated, and with it the ability of producers to be productive; but to the extent that these economies have improved, Borlaug’s methods played a significant role.
Throughout his life, Borlaug remained focused on his goal of improving food production. In addition to his field work in Mexico and South Asia, he taught his methods to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa,11 served as a director at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, served as the Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, and spoke around the world, seeking to educate people about the vital roles of industrial agriculture and biotechnology in food production.
Against those who opposed efforts to use technology to improve food production—whether the doomsayers of the 1960s who insisted that Pakistan and India were doomed to starvation, or the environmentalists of the 1970s and onward who said the potential harms to wildlife of pesticides and fertilizers trump the millions of human lives such chemicals could save—Borlaug fought back in word and deed. While the doomsayers wrote articles and gave speeches predicting inevitable mass starvation, Borlaug created the new technology that enabled farmers to expand food production and helped them put it to work. While the environmentalists tried to prevent the development and use of biotechnology, Borlaug countered their myths about fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically engineered crops. For instance, he argued that the genetic modification of crops “is not some kind of witchcraft; rather, it is the progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race.” And, holding the environmentalists’ claims to the standard of evidence, he said, “there has been no credible scientific evidence to suggest that the ingestion of [genetically engineered] products is injurious to human health or the environment.”12
Borlaug was a scientist—not a philosopher, economist, or politician—and, like most men, his philosophical, economic, and political views were mixed. For instance, he did not see the connection between freedom and productivity; he advocated certain statist policies regarding patents; and he was to some extent altruistically motivated. Our concern here, however, has been not with the errors he shared with most men, but with the achievements that set him apart. Although Borlaug occasionally advocated government intervention in the economy, and although he sometimes put his goals in terms of “feeding the world,” he did not go around handing out loaves of bread nor ask the government to do so. Rather, he developed stronger, better wheat and taught farmers how to grow it. He did not feed people; he taught them how to feed themselves.
Borlaug’s goal of improving crop quality and yields was a lifelong passion. In an interview in January 2004, he said, “I want to die with my boots on. I will be 90 years old on March 25 and am still . . . helping farmers in several countries to increase their production.”13 Indeed, he continued his teaching and research, including the fieldwork, until just a few years before his death. On September 12, 2009, at ninety-five, he died of cancer, with his boots still on.