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Iowans Who Fed The World - Norman Borlaug: Geneticist

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum
October 26, 2002

In 1943 Norman Borlaug joined the staff of the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program as an employee of the Rockefeller Foundation. This program resulted from a trip to Mexico by Vice President Henry A. Wallace and a request from Mexico for technical assistance to improve its agricultural research. World War II, however, prevented American support in the form of government experts and funds, and Wallace turned to the Rockefeller Foundation, which had international experience in public health work, for help. The Rockefeller Foundation studied Mexico's agricultural problems and agreed to send a three-man team to train agricultural scientists and establish an experiment station. Borlaug was a member of that team, with an assignment to conduct research to improve Mexico's wheat production.

In 1944 when Borlaug arrived in Mexico, its farmers raised less than half of the wheat necessary to meet the demands of the population. Rust perennially ruined or diminished the harvest. Applied research to solve problems takes time, of course, and Borlaug labored for thirteen years before he and his team of agricultural scientists developed a disease-resistant wheat. Still, problems remained. Although his new wheat variety resisted rust, it did not have stems sufficiently strong to hold heavy heads of grain, particularly when raised with the aid of fertilizer. This variety also produced low yields and toppled in wind and rain. In an attempt to solve this problem Borlaug turned to several Japanese dwarf strains, which he crossed with varieties raised in the hot, dry fields of Northern Mexico as well as the cool highlands near Mexico City and with his rust-resistant variety. The result was a hard spring wheat that resisted rust, tolerated the climatic and soil variations across Mexico, and reduced toppling. It also produced large yields with the use of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation. As a result, in 1956 Mexico achieved self-sufficiency in wheat production. In addition, his efforts to train Mexican agricultural scientists to continue applied genetic research led to the creation of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CIMMYT). Borlaug directed the wheat program at CIMMYT until he retired in 1979. More important, Borlaug had sowed the seeds of the Green Revolution.

In Mexico Borlaug's team emphasized "production-oriented" research and restricted it to investigations that were "relevant to increasing wheat production." He recalled that "Researches in pursuit of irrelevant academic butterflies were discouraged, both because of the acute shortage of scientific manpower and because of the need to have data and materials available as soon as possible for use in the production program." As Borlaug's experimental plots produced increased yields, his staff distributed the seeds among farmers to help them improve their production. "We never waited for perfection in varieties or methods," he said, "but used the best available each year and modified them as further improvement came to hand."

Borlaug later claimed that his success breeding wheat and increasing production in Mexico put him out of a job. In truth, Borlaug's success increased and complicated his work. The Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program became a model, which other nations adopted to increase wheat, corn, bean, millet, and sorghum production. In many respects, however, his career as a plant breeder had ended. He now became an international advocate for agricultural education and extension, applied agricultural science, and a consultant to the United Nations and a host of countries, all of which led to his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. More than thirty years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize Borlaug lamented, "It was a disaster as far as I'm concerned. You get pushed off into so many things. A lot of your energies are cut off from the things you know best. Some of them you have to do. Because you end up being the spokesman for science in general."

During the early 1960s, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations sent him to North Africa and the Middle East to evaluate grain production and determine whether his Mexican wheat research program could help increase yields in those regions. In 1963 the governments of India and Pakistan also invited him to visit and evaluate their agricultural research programs. In each nation Borlaug observed the work of scientists who had trained under him and who had taken wheat varieties back to their countries from Mexico. Their work convinced Borlaug that his Mexican dwarf wheat varieties could help increase yields substantially in India and Pakistan. In 1968 as a result of Borlaug's help, Pakistan became self-supporting in wheat, although political instability and rapid population growth continued to make this achievement tenuous. Four years later India also became self-sufficient in wheat production. By 1979, Indian farmers had increased their wheat yields by 300 percent since the early 1960s, and the wheat crop provided 70 percent of the calories needed annually by 180 million people. The major agricultural problem for India then became one of food distribution rather than production. At the same time, Chinese agricultural leaders also wanted to adopt the Mexican dwarf wheats and fertilization techniques that Borlaug had developed. He offered his expertise and, in 1984, Chinese farmers produced 87 million tons of wheat for an increase of 46 million tons since the adoption of Borlaug's recommended varieties and methods.

Norman Borlaug's success breeding wheat and disseminating technical information to under-developed, poverty-stricken, hungry nations assured him a place in history as a benefactor of mankind. Without question, he was a skillful geneticist and plant breeder whose work ethic and commitment to applied research helped prevent famine, eliminated hunger in many countries, and revolutionized world agriculture. Yet, Borlaug should be remembered equally for advocating government attention on an international scale regarding a host of issues that related to agricultural and food problems. Borlaug realized that increased wheat and rice production required an "integrated" technological or systems approach to fighting world hunger, that is, a technological package that included improved seed varieties, fertilizers, pest and weed control practices, and irrigation. He advocated improved transportation networks in the form of farm-to-market roads as well as rural education and state subsidization for the acquisition of chemical fertilizers and irrigation systems by small-scale farmers. All of these considerations required attentiveness to politics on a world scale, because politicians make decisions about prices, credit, and markets as well as land utilization or reform.

In addition, Borlaug advocated the creation of state supported demonstration projects in farmers' fields. Subsistence farmers were rightfully hesitant to make major changes in their farming practices because the risks and costs too easily could bring failure and even greater hunger. Tradition dies hard among farmers, and Borlaug drew upon his knowledge of the land-grant-college system as an agent of change. He wrote that if a farmer saw an agricultural demonstration on his own farm or his neighbor's farm, he became "the most effective extension agent in the whole countryside."

Borlaug also recognized the necessity to curb population growth, because he never believed the Green Revolution alone would solve the problem of world hunger. Although Borlaug never used the twenty-first century term "family planning" that is what he meant. Borlaug always warned that agricultural production was finite. Wheat could only produce so much per acre given genetic and environmental limitations. Time and again he warned that the rapid population growth in under-developed nations portended unprecedented food crises in the future. At some point, agricultural scientists and farmers would not be able to meet the food needs of the world's people. "We must," he said, "influence political and religious leaders to face up to the population monster or lose the game by default." Borlaug believed that he had a moral obligation to warn political, educational, and religious leaders about the danger of population increase, particularly in food-deficit nations.

In 1970 when Borlaug won the Noble Peace Prize for his work fighting hunger, he reminded his audience that 50 percent of the world's population remained undernourished and perhaps 65 percent malnourished and that the Green Revolution had not swept over the earth. Moreover, it did not apply to all crops, nor did it benefit all farmers equally. Rather, wheat, rice, and corn production had increased but much work needed to be done to improve the yields of other cereal grains that farmers raised on poor land in drought-stricken countries. He also warned that social justice for hungry people was meaningless. "If you desire peace," he said, "cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace." Borlaug knew that peace could not be maintained when people went hungry, because hungry people cared only about survival. They did not care about democracy. Increased agricultural production was not only good for hungry people and national economies but it also prevented political instability. Hunger fostered social disorder and violence. Borlaug also argued that "all who are born into the world have a moral right to the basic ingredients for a decent and humane life." For Borlaug, access to adequate food that enable people to pursue a meaningful life was, in fact, a human right.

* * *

As a scientist, Borlaug was a pragmatist, that is, he believed in "applied" research, and he criticized academic scientists for being more concerned with publishing scholarly papers based on "pure" or "basic" research that often had little or no immediate practical significance. Put differently, they concerned themselves with publishing papers "for the self-advancement of the senior author, rather than for producing more food." In addition, one of his greatest disappointments was the propensity of foreign agricultural scientists, who trained in American universities, to return home and devote their careers to pure rather than applied research. The Green Revolution in India and Pakistan," he wrote, was "neither a stroke of luck nor an accident of nature." Its success was built on "sound research." He added, "There are no miracles in agricultural production. Nor is there such a thing as a miracle variety of wheat, rice, or maize which can serve as an elixir to cure all ills of a stagnant, traditional agriculture." Scientific advancement in agriculture took hard work and a team approach. It also required political savvy and diplomatic skills to convince both government leaders and farmers to support the acquisition and adoption of the new seed varieties, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and machinery needed to improve production and fight hunger. Usually, this meant helping convince governments to subsidize the needed technological changes, because small-scale farmers in food deficit nations did not have the purchasing power to acquire new technology.

Despite Borlaug's success in fighting hunger in food deficit nations, by the early 1970s, environmentalists and other critics began attacking him for supporting what they considered unwise, if not dangerous, agricultural practices. Environmentalists, some of whom were scientists, particularly criticized him for advocating the use of nitrogen fertilizers that polluted water supplies as well as the use of DDT to kill mosquitoes and fight malaria. No matter. Borlaug in his direct, self-confident manner never doubted that his work benefited mankind, and he was proud of it. He consistently attacked the environmentalists who criticized the Green Revolution for harming small-scale farmers as well as the environment in underdeveloped countries. To Borlaug, they were "fat-bellied philosophers" who had never been hungry. Borlaug considered environmentalists "extremists," largely from rich, well-fed nations who sought to prevent the expansion of scientific knowledge and agricultural progress as measured by productivity alone. Those who would risk or support the continuation of hunger instead of full stomachs, he charged were really members of "antiscience political movements" and "antibiotechnology zealots" who waged campaigns of "propaganda and vandalism." And, he charged that "you have to have at least one square meal a day to be a environmentalist." No one could turn back the clock on agricultural science, he argued. Borlaug worried, however, that the environmentalists who opposed his work would gain sufficient influence with national governments to prohibit biotechnology research in food deficit nations.

Other critics charged that only large-scale farmers could afford improved agricultural technology, and they used it to displace subsistence farmers from the land because the economy of scale permitted them to raise more grain on extensive acres than poor farmers could produce intensively on a few acres. Borlaug bristled at these charges, but he met them directly and forcefully. He reminded the social scientists that criticized him regarding the manner in which the Green Revolution affected large-scale landowners and subsistence farmer saying, "The wheat plant is pretty apolitical. It doesn't care whether it is growing on a big farm or a small farm." More food was better than no food, no matter who raised it.

Borlaug always argued that technology had to be used wisely and that governments had the responsibility to protect the public health and welfare. But, he contended that "the halves are telling the have-nots that they should stay with their impoverished rural life-styles, since greater material well-being leads to environmental destruction." Yet, people in well-fed nations lived longer and healthier lives than others in food deficit nations. Borlaug argued that his environmental critics were unwilling to trade places with people in developing countries where the life span was at least a third less than for Americans and where half of the children died before the age of ten. Put simply, Borlaug contended "it is far better for mankind to be struggling with new problems caused by abundance rather than with the old problems of famine." He had intended his work to fight hunger, he said, rather than to solve the world's socio-economic problems that existed from time immemorial. "The Green Revolution, he argued, "is a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia."

Perhaps more than anyone Borlaug recognized that the Green Revolution was only a "temporary success in man's war against hunger," because politics and the rapidly increasing population had prevented the achievement of a well-fed world.

* * *

Borlaug's commitment to agricultural research that would help increase food production never wavered. "The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called natural methods," he wrote, "the one billion chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot. The new technology will be their salvation." New food and population problems would require new solutions. Biotechnology would be the key to global food security. Borlaug continued to warn that despite the success of the Green Revolution, "Mushrooming populations, changing demographics, and inadequate poverty-prevention programs [had] eroded many of the gains of the Green Revolution." Yet, he believed the advances in biotechnology would have considerable beneficial applications in agriculture, particularly in the areas of transgenetic or recombinant DNA research that would produce herbicide-resistant corn, cotton, wheat, and other crops. He worried, however, that privately conducted and controlled genetic research and the consolidation of agricultural companies that produced bioengineered products would prevent the distribution of improved techniques to food deficient nations on reasonable terms, if at all.

By the late twentieth century, Borlaug also became a strong advocate of genetically modified foods. "Genetic modification of crops is not some kind of witchcraft," he contended. Rather, it was the "progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race." For Borlaug, genetic engineering complemented rather than replaced traditional plant breeding. Without scientific evidence that genetically modified foods harmed human health or the environment, he saw no reason for consumers to reject them. Most important, developing nations could use this new biotechnology to ensure their food supply. Borlaug gave no quarter to those critics who feared biotechnological changes of food plants. He believed the population explosion threatened the environment more than agricultural science.

Borlaug argued that large populations required more food, and that the agricultural methods of the past could no longer meet the needs of the world. Unless biotechnology could improve crop yields, dependability, and nutritional quality, millions of people would go hungry in the twenty-first century. Borlaug wrote: "We need to bring common sense into the debate on agricultural science and technology, and the sooner the better." For Borlaug, the choice was not between feast guaranteed by chemical technology and famine ordained by the environment. Rather, agricultural science could create the opportunities for farmers to produce a sustainable agriculture, which had to be "farm friendly--economically advantageous, drudgery-mitigating, and simple enough that poor farmers are able to adopt the new techniques."

* * *

Norman Borlaug achieved much of his success because he was a risk taker. In 1970 he criticized scientists in the agricultural colleges for being afraid to jeopardize their reputations by trying something new, something that might fail. Food deficit nations needed "big breakthroughs." Farmers in under-developed countries," he wrote, "won't pay attention to a 15 % gain in yield. You've' got to give them 100%. Maybe 200%." More than twenty years later, he reflected an impatience that had become legendary when he criticized a group of African agricultural leaders for being "ultraconservative," and he urged them to keep open minds to new ideas. Borlaug also succeeded not only because he was a skilled plant breeder and a hard worker, but also because he had good luck. In India and Pakistan, for example, the British had built the railroad system into the countryside to facilitate the shipment of cotton and other agricultural products. As a result, wheat and rice farmers had the necessary transportation for the shipment of seed, fertilizer, and harvested crops. At the same time, his flexibility and risk taking nature aided his achievements even more. "Plant breeding is like poker," he said. "If you've got a bad hand, throw it in. If you've got a good one, don't be afraid to bet."

Above all, Borlaug succeeded because he advocated change in an achievable, practical way. He always believed that agricultural science and common sense could improve the human condition, even when confronted with the most trying circumstances, and he considered "team spirit" the most important tool in his fight against world hunger. He wrote, "The defeatist spirit is the greatest enemy of progress, and it persists and is too widespread among scientists. If constructive change is to be provided there is no place for defeatism in the ranks of leadership or among the scientists charged with the responsibility."

Borlaug had good reasons to be both obstinate and optimistic, because he had played a major role in helping farmers increase food production faster than the growth of the human population, with the exception of sub-Sahara Africa. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, Borlaug led the Sasakawa-Global 2000 agricultural program in conjunction with the Carter Center and the Sasakawa Africa Association to improve the crop yields of more than 600,000 subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan African nations. Borlaug refused to concede defeat in the effort to rescue this region from human suffering. He believed sub-Saharan Africa could meet its food requirements if it had "reasonable social and political stability and economic policies to stimulate food production as well as expanded educational and health programs." Only peace could help the African governments to divert spending from armaments to agricultural science. Farmers and scientists, Borlaug warned, could not increase food production without peace.

In retrospect, the Green Revolution in India and Pakistan gave Borlaug the greatest satisfaction of his career. Borlaug's achievements merit commendation, and his failure to end world hunger should surprise no one. Nor should anyone be amazed that he had critics. People of vision, ability, and accomplishment usually confront others who disagree with their goals, methods, and achievements. Above all, however, Borlaug made a difference in human history by saving lives and fighting hunger through agricultural science. Few people can say that about themselves, and that alone is a considerable accomplishment for an Iowa farm boy who went to the University Minnesota to wrestle.

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