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Soul Behind the Man

The Pioneer (New Delhi, India)
By C. S. Prakash
April 2, 2006

Dr Norman Borlaug tells me that I can address him as Norm. But how can I bring myself to address this great man by his first name? He is a heroic figure credited with saving a billion lives. He has won virtually every important humanitarian award, including the Nobel Peace Prize.

World leaders revere Borlaug as a celebrity. Yet, he is humble, and in touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary people one can think of.

For the past 62 years, Borlaug has worked at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico where he developed the 'dwarf' varieties of wheat, triggering the Green Revolution. Short varieties produce more grain per acre because they tap sunlight more effectively and do not collapse with the weight of the grain. Borlaug creatively combined wheat varieties from across the world to introduce the dwarfness genes into wheat grown in Mexico, India and Pakistan.

Other countries adopted his breakthrough with amazing results.

In the developing world, wheat yields that had remained at an abysmal 250 kg/ha for decades increased ten fold in the last 40 years. India, which harvested a meagre 12 million tons of wheat in 1965, now produces over 80 million tons. Similar discoveries of a dwarf gene in rice also led to a boost in this miracle crop - this time pioneered by Indian scientist Gurdev Khush, working in the Philippines.

The poorest people have been the biggest beneficiaries of Borlaug's scientific talents. Abundant grain harvests have ensured that food prices have remained low despite inflation in other commodities. The percentage of family income spent on food has declined while per capita food consumption has increased in most countries. And this has occurred despite the huge population growth.

Even so, when you meet this frail, 92-year-old scientist, he comes across more like your favourite uncle than the legend that he is. Warm, unassuming and modest, he speaks slowly but forcefully. He has an impeccable sense of humour - often self-deprecating. When I asked him once how he was doing, he replied smilingly, "at my age, just getting up in the morning and being around is good enough." Yet, Borlaug maintains a hectic work and travel schedule that would put men half his to shame.

When Borlaug turned 90 two years ago, I celebrated the life of this remarkable man, and several world leaders, including Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, sent notes of appreciation. M S Swaminathan, who worked with him on India's Green Revolution, said, "Norman Borlaug is the living embodiment of the human quest for a hunger-free world. His life is his message." My eleven-year old son even wrote and recorded a rap song about Borlaug that was broadcast around the world by Voice of America.

During our frequent conversations, he often reminisces about his time in India in the 1960s when the country was facing debilitating famine due to drought. During a heated debate in Parliament, C Subramaniam, then Agriculture Minister, lashed out at sceptics: "We either try these seeds of Borlaug's or we continue to starve." The first seeds of Mexican wheat were planted in CS's residence in New Delhi where former Prime Minister Vajpayee lives now.

Borlaug has fond memories of his Pusa days, and has much appreciation for the tenacity and leadership of Subramaniam and Swaminathan. However, he has no patience for naysayers such as environmentalists who oppose modern agriculture. He believes these self-styled greens are sincere but misguided, and fears that they are trying to stop scientific progress in its tracks.

He believes that continued scientific research in agriculture along with creative policies aimed at poverty reduction are essential to rid the world of remaining hunger and malnutrition.

It is this belief that leads him to support newer technologies such as genetically modified crops. Despite his awesome contribution in reducing hunger around the world, he is not a household name. His biography is due later this year. A Hollywood movie is in the works too.

Future historians, however, will acknowledge that this modest soul from America, with his firm belief in the promise and power of science, helped us walk the first step towards the 'Indian Dream' with a few humble wheat seeds.

CS Prakash is a Prof at Tuskegee University, US, and President of AgBioWorld Foundation.

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