The father of the Green Revolution

Norman Borlaug's work on increasing food production averted a humanitarian disaster in Asia and showed the way forward, Thomas Lumpkin writes.

Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A practical man, he told his students ‘you can’t eat research papers’. – Micheline Pelletier/Sygma/Corbis

On 25 March 2014 the world will celebrate the 100th birthday of agricultural scientist and humanitarian Dr Norman E. Borlaug. Known as the “Father of the Green Revolution”, Borlaug’s new wheat breeds and his determination to introduce modern agricultural practices in the developing world saved more than a billion people from starvation.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) will also celebrate the 70th anniversary of the beginning of his work in Mexico. It was here in the 1940s and 1950s, as part of a Mexico-Rockefeller Foundation program to raise Mexico’s agricultural productivity, that Borlaug led the development of high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties and trained smallholder farmers, ultimately allowing Mexico to become self-sufficient in wheat. Borlaug then transferred these methods to India and Pakistan where, between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled, preventing an impending famine.

In recognition of his work and contributions to an increased food supply, Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Typically, he was hard at work in a wheat field on a CIMMYT research station in central Mexico in 1970 when his wife arrived to inform him that he had been awarded the prize.When she shouted the news to him across an irrigation canal he simply acknowledged the information and went back to work.

Borlaug famously admonished his students that

“…you can’t eat research papers”.

Although a trained scientist, Borlaug was down-to-earth and shared a great kinship with farmers. He famously admonished his students that “…you can’t eat research papers”.

Despite this, his research at CIMMYT and its predecessor program featured scientific rigour and great innovation. His big ideas include a global wheat variety testing and distribution network involving hundreds of international partners; the practice of “shuttle breeding” which by successively planting and then selecting breeding lines at two or three different latitudes, both reduced the time to breed a new variety (two or three crops a year instead of one) and made for plants that are broadly adapted to different conditions; careful attention by breeders to disease resistance and milling and baking quality; close ties to farmer groups; and improved agricultural practices.

Borlaug’s ideals and fierce drive are strongly reflected at CIMMYT, the direct successor of the Mexico-Rockefeller Foundation program. Borlaug served as a principal scientist and research leader at CIMMYT from the centre’s launch in 1966 until his formal retirement in 1979, and then as a senior consultant until his death in 2009. At CIMMYT, Borlaug helped create a wheat-breeding program unparalleled for its global partnerships and impact.

Improved, CIMMYT-derived wheat is sown on more than 60 million hectares in developing countries – over 70% of the area planted with modern wheat varieties in those nations. These wheat varieties are responsible for bigger harvests that bring annual added benefits to farmers of at least US $500 million. CIMMYT-derived wheat is also important to developed nations; Australian wheat growers sow a number of CIMMYT-based wheat varieties.

Norman E. Borlaug with wife Margaret and his Nobel Peace Prize. – STR/AFP/Getty Images

Borlaug also championed the development and promotion of quality protein maize, for which Eva Villegas, a CIMMYT researcher who had been a Borlaug protégé, and Surinder K. Vasal, a CIMMYT distinguished scientist, won the World Food Prize in 2000.

Because of the increased grain supplies, food security rose and food prices became more affordable for many years in much of the world. For example, the price paid for wheat by Indian consumers dropped by about 2% each year from 1970-1995, benefiting both rural and urban poor consumers.

For Borlaug, science served a higher humanitarian purpose, and this vision is the real legacy of his long career at CIMMYT. His words appear on a 2006 United States bronze medal minted in his honour: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.”

But a great deal of work still remains, particularly in South Asia. The region faces enormous challenges including climate change, depletion of natural resources and nutritional security. New ways to feed a growing population must be devised with less land, less water and under more difficult circumstances than ever. Together with the Government of India, CIMMYT is establishing a state-of-the-art research facility, named after the father of the Green Revolution.

The Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) is working with institutions in South Asian and the private sector to utilise existing and new technologies including molecular breeding, biotechnology, precision agronomy and conservation agriculture. BISA provides a platform for critical innovation, apolitical collaboration and measured commitments to improve food security and strengthen agriculture in South Asia. Through BISA, Norman Borlaug’s spirit will set in motion a new, more productive and sustainable Green Revolution.

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