Borlaug's focus on crop science merits revival
November 17, 2009
When Norman E. Borlaug died several months ago, the media hailed him as "feeder of the world," "father of the Green Revolution" and "a towering benefactor of humankind." No one would disagree with any of those descriptions as well as the many more expressed. All those aware of his illustrious career as a researcher could add numerous words of praise to the outpouring at his death at the age of 95. As one of the few, if not the only person to be actively involved with food production to receive the Nobel Prize, Dr. Borlaug imparted a genuine luster to those who work to expand global food production. His drive and energy in pursuit of relieving hunger stand as beacons guiding the careers of many people at work in this important field today. He was truly an inspiring leader.
It is agreed that hundreds of millions of people around the world have sufficient food as the result of Dr. Borlaug’s efforts. Yet, he was never satisfied with what he had accomplished in showing how yields of wheat could be increased, and then applying some of the same findings to rice and other crops. He worried about the constant need to expand global food production, continuing his search for systems and rejecting as "naysayers" and "elitists" those who object to expanding yields through scientific advances. He expressed embarrassment when awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970. The words used by the committee that chose him for this honor had great meaning for him and are a reminder to grain-based foods of the centrality of the industry’s mission. The committee said in part:
"More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace."
It was while working at the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico that Dr. Borlaug bred the variety of wheat that would withstand applications of water and fertilizer and still be standing at harvest time. This advance in food grain production, which continues to have an important role in wheat production in North America and around the world, owed much to one of Dr. Borlaug’s mentors, Professor Orville A. Vogel, working at Washington State University. It is Dr. Vogel who discovered semi-dwarf wheat plants with commercial production possibilities. By passing along this germplasm to Dr. Borlaug, Dr. Vogel is credited with being a central figure in the Green Revolution. Dr. Borlaug pursued an intensive breeding process to find wheat with disease resistance and adaptability to different day lengths.
The Vogel contribution, highlighted by the introduction of the Gaines and NuGaines varieties of semi-dwarf white wheat in the Pacific Northwest, is also remembered for causing problems for flour millers of that region. But superior yields eventually carried the day and milling systems were adjusted to accommodate the grain. This wheat’s strong straw prevents plants from falling over under the weight of heads made heavy by fertilizer applications. Dr. Vogel, who died in 1991, was for 42 years a plant researcher on the staff of the Agricultural Research Service stationed at Washington State.
It is well to remember that the possibilities of genetic modification for expanding yields of wheat and other crops greatly excited Dr. Borlaug. Noting the crescendo of objections to modified crops, Dr. Borlaug enjoyed contending that the "risks" usually alleged by critics are "rubbish, unproven by science," while the likely benefits are "endless." He was also a great worrier about how population growth continues to challenge food availability. His death coincides with a time when global leadership is expressing expanding concern about reaching out to hungry people. There is no reason why nearly four decades after he won the Nobel Prize that his advocacy of science in wheat production should not prevail once again.