Father of Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, dies

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY — Norman Borlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize whose Green Revolution was credited with saving millions of people from starvation, died from complications of cancer at his Dallas home on Sept. 13. He was 95 years old.

Dr. Borlaug was born March 25, 1914, in Cresco, Iowa, to Henry and Clara Borlaug. His parents had emigrated from Norway because of food shortages.

Dr. Borlaug received a bachelor’s degree in forestry in 1937 from the University of Minnesota. Following a brief stint with the U.S. Forest Service, he returned to his alma mater and received a master’s degree in plant pathology in 1940 and a Ph.D. in plant pathology in 1942. He received more than 50 honorary degrees from universities around the world during his lifetime.

In collaboration with plant scientists in Mexico, India, Pakistan and other countries over more than 40 years, Dr. Borlaug was instrumental in developing improved wheat varieties, adapting them to new areas and developing acceptance among native farmers. His improved wheat varieties were adopted throughout the world. Virtually all wheat grown in the United States is of the semi-dwarf type, influenced by the varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug.

"Dr. Norman Borlaug was simply one of the world’s best," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. "A determined, dedicated but humble man who believed we had the collective duty and knowledge to eradicate hunger worldwide. His efforts saved millions of lives and inspired thousands to dedicate their lives to doing the same. The World Food Prize, which he founded, will continue to acknowledge those who carry on the work of providing food to feed the world. Dr. Borlaug will be missed."

For several decades, Dr. Borlaug was associated with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Texcocco, not far from Mexico City, where he was director of the wheat research and production program. He was associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation for the Inter-American Food Crop Program and later was a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University.

He began his plant research in Mexico in 1944 while at CIMMYT, developing a rust resistant variety of wheat. Once his team successfully developed a rust resistant variety, in about 13 years, he then began crossing it with a Japanese dwarf strain to create a variety that could support the healthier, heavier heads of wheat.

Aided by the use of fertilizer and irrigation, Dr. Borlaug’s new wheat varieties helped Mexico achieve self sufficiency in 1956.

"His belief in scientific research and a hands-on connection to the farmers paid off in what was considered an agricultural miracle," the World Food Prize organization said in a tribute.

Following success in Mexico, Dr. Borlaug was asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to focus on the Middle East and South Asia, especially India and Pakistan, where acceptance of his new wheat varieties increased production fourfold, potentially saving hundreds of millions of lives. His work in wheat also was applied to rice varieties in the 1960s, resulting in marked improvement in the world’s two primary food grains — wheat and rice.

As a result of his contributions toward revolutionizing wheat and rice production in most developing countries of the world, Dr. Borlaug was known as the "Father of the Green Revolution."

Throughout his career, Dr. Borlaug emphasized the need to face the challenges associated with rapid population growth. In a 1997 presentation and press conference at a gathering of the National Association of Wheat Growers, Dr. Borlaug described how the world’s population grew from 1.6 billion to 5.8 billion in the first 83 years of his life.

"We are adding approximately 1 billion more every decade," he said. "That’s the problem you people, your children and your grandchildren will be dealing with in the years ahead. You don’t build peace on empty stomachs and human misery, and you can’t protect borders indefinitely with armaments."

Late in life Dr. Borlaug found himself at odds with environmentalists, who were critical of his embrace of intensive agriculture. Dr. Borlaug defended his own environmental credentials but was critical of "The Greenies."

"They’ve forgotten that their grandparents were starving," he said. "That’s how short memory is."

In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize and many other awards from numerous countries, Dr. Borlaug received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. He was named one of the most influential minds of the 20th century by TIME magazine.

His wife, Margaret Gibson Borlaug, preceded him in death in 2007. He is survived by a daughter, Norma Jean Laube, and a son, William G. Borlaug. A memorial service for Dr. Borlaug will be held Oct. 6 at 11 a.m. in the Rudder Auditorium on the Texas A&M campus in College Station.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, September 22, 2009, starting on Page 20. Click
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