Norman Borlaug

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Norman Borlaug
Norman Borlaug speaking at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in June 2003
Born March 25, 1914
Cresco, Iowa, USA

Norman Ernest Borlaug (born March 25 1914) is an American agricultural scientist, humanitarian, Nobel laureate, and the father of the Green Revolution. Borlaug received his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.

During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of his grain and modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations. These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.Template:Fn He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

More recently, he has helped apply these methods of increasing food production to Asia and Africa. Borlaug has continually advocated the use of his methods and biotechnology to decrease world famine; although his work has faced environmental and socioeconomic criticisms, he has emphatically rejected most of these as unfounded or untrue. In 1986, he established the World Food Prize to recognize individuals who have improved the quality, quantity or availability of food around the globe.

Early life, education, and family

Borlaug is the great-grandchild of Norwegian immigrants to the United States. Ole Olson Dybevig and Solveig Thomasdotter Rinde, from Leikanger, Norway, emigrated from Norway to Dane, Wisconsin, in 1854. Two of their children, Ole Olson Borlaug and Nels Olson Borlaug (Norman's grandfather), were integral in the establishment of the Immanuel Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in the small Norwegian-American community of Saude, near Cresco, Iowa in 1889.[1][2]

Borlaug was born the eldest of four children—his three younger sisters were Palma Lillian (Behrens; 1916 to 2004), Charlotte (Culbert; born 1919) and Helen (1921 to 1921)—to Henry Oliver (1889 to 1971) and Clara (Vaala) Borlaug (1888 to 1972) on his grandparents' farm in Saude. From age seven to nineteen, he worked on the 106 acre (429,000 m²) family farm west of Protivin, Iowa, fishing, hunting, and raising maize, oats, timothy hay, cattle, pigs and chickens. He attended the one-teacher, one-room New Oregon #8 rural school in Howard County up through eighth grade. Today, the school building, built in 1865, is owned by the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation as part of "Project Borlaug Legacy".[3] At Cresco High School, Borlaug played baseball and wrestled, where his coach continually encouraged him to "give 105%."

He attributes his decision to leave the farm and pursue further education to his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug (1859 to 1935), who strongly encouraged Borlaug's learning, once saying, "You're wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on."[4] Through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, he was able to enroll at the University of Minnesota in 1933. Initially, Borlaug failed the entrance exam, but was accepted to the school's newly created two-year General College. After two quarters, he transferred to the College of Agriculture's forestry program. While at the University of Minnesota, he was a member of the varsity wrestling team, reaching the Big Ten semifinals, and helped introduce the sport to Minnesota high schools by putting on exhibition matches around the state. "Wrestling taught me some valuable lessons ... I always figured I could hold my own against the best in the world. It made me tough. Many times, I drew on that strength. It's an inappropriate crutch perhaps, but that's the way I'm made"[5]. Borlaug was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1992.

To finance his studies, Borlaug periodically had to put his education on hold and take a job. One of these jobs, in 1935, was as a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps, working with the unemployed on federal projects. Many of the people who worked for him were starving. He later recalled, "I saw how food changed them...All of this left scars on me".[6] From 1935 to 1938, before and after receiving his Bachelor of Science forestry degree in 1937, Borlaug worked for the United States Forestry Service at stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. He spent one summer in the middle fork of Idaho's Salmon River—the most isolated piece of wilderness in the lower 48 states at the time.[6]

At the end of his undergraduate education, Borlaug attended a lecture by Elvin Charles Stakman, a professor and head of the plant pathology group at the University of Minnesota. The event would be pivotal for Borlaug's future life. Stakman, in his speech titled "These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops", discussed the manifestation of the plant disease rust, a parasitic fungus that feeds on phytonutrients, in wheat, oat, and barley crops across the United States. He had discovered that special plant breeding methods created plants resistant to rust. His research greatly interested Borlaug, and when Borlaug's job at the Forest Service was eliminated due to budget cuts, he asked Stakman if he should go into forest pathology. Stakman advised him to focus on plant pathology instead,[5] and Borlaug subsequently re-enrolled to the University to study plant pathology under Stakman. Borlaug received his Master of Science degree in 1940 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942.

Borlaug met his wife, Margaret Gibson, while in college, as he waited tables at a Dinkytown coffee shop where they both worked. They would go on to have two children, Norman Jean "Jeanie" (later married "Laube") and William Borlaug. The Borlaugs currently have five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Their current residence is in northern Dallas, although Borlaug is only there a few weeks of the year. His wife, Margaret, who is now blind, has assistance from their daughter Jeanie.[6]


From 1942 to 1944, Borlaug was employed as a microbiologist at DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware. It was planned that he would lead research on industrial and agricultural bacteriocides, fungicides, and preservatives. However, following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Borlaug tried to enlist in the military, but was rejected under wartime labor regulations; his lab was converted to do research for the United States armed forces. One of his first projects was to develop glue that could withstand the warm saltwater of the South Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Navy had gained control of the island of Guadalcanal, and patrolled the sky and sea by day. The only way that U.S. forces could supply the troops stranded on the island was by approaching at night by speedboat, and jettisoning boxes of canned food and other supplies into the surf to wash ashore. The problem was that the glue holding these containers together disintegrated in saltwater. Within weeks, Borlaug and his colleagues had developed an adhesive that resisted corrosion, allowing food and supplies to reach the stranded Marines. Other tasks included work with camouflage, canteen disinfectants, and insulation for small electronics.[6]

In 1940, U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace received a request by Mexican government officials for assistance in developing a program to train a new generation of Mexican agricultural scientists. The agrarian reforms that had been instituted following the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had resulted in much lower yields, and the Mexican government feared their agricultural industry was being left behind. The U.S. government passed the program on to the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation contacted E.C. Stakman and two other leading agronomists. They developed a proposal for a new organization, the Office of Special Studies, as part of the Mexican Government, but under the direction of the Rockefeller Foundation. The organization was to be staffed with both U.S. and Mexican scientists, focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology. Stakman chose Dr. J. George "Dutch" Harrar as project leader. Harrar immediately set out to hire Borlaug as head of the newly-established Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico; Borlaug declined, choosing to finish his war service at DuPont.[7] In July 1944, after rejecting DuPont's offer to double his salary, and temporarily leaving behind his pregnant wife and 14 month old daughter, he flew to Mexico City to head the new program as a geneticist and plant pathologist.[6]

In 1964, he was made the director of the International Wheat Improvement Program at El Batán, Texcoco, on the eastern fringes of Mexico City, as part of the newly-established Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo, or CIMMYT), an autonomous international research training institute developed from the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program, with funding jointly undertaken by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Mexican government. Borlaug officially retired from the position in 1979; however, he remains a senior consultant at the CIMMYT. Since his retirement, he has continued to be involved in plant research at CIMMYT with wheat, triticale, barley, maize, and high-altitude sorghum, in addition to taking up charitable and educational roles.

Wheat research in Mexico

Norman Borlaug and George Harrar, 1943

The Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program, a joint venture by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, involved research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. The goal of the project was to boost wheat production in Mexico, which at the time was importing a large portion of its grain. George Harrar, a plant pathologist, recruited and assembled the wheat research team in late 1944. The three other members were Edward Wellhausen, maize breeder, John Niederhauser, potato breeder, and Norman Borlaug, all from the United States.[8] Borlaug would remain with the project for 16 years. During this time, he bred a remarkably successful high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat.

Wheat is the second most produced cereal crop after rice.

Borlaug said that his first couple of years in Mexico was difficult. He lacked trained scientists and equipment. Native farmers were hostile toward the wheat program because of serious crop losses from 1939 to 1941 due to stem rust. "It often appeared to me that I had made a dreadful mistake in accepting the position in Mexico," he wrote in the epilogue to his book, Norman Borlaug on World Hunger.[6] He spent the first 10 years breeding wheat cultivars resistant to disease, including rust. In that time, his group made 6,000 individual crossings of wheat.[9]

Double wheat season

His work had initially been concentrated in the central highlands, in the village of Chapingo near Texcoco, where the problems with rust and poor soil were most prevalent. He realized, however, that he could speed up breeding by taking advantage of the country's two growing seasons. In the summer he would breed wheat in the central highlands as usual, but then immediately take the seeds north to the Yaqui Valley research station near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora. The difference in altitudes and temperatures would allow more crops to be grown each year. His boss, George Harrar, was against this expansion. Besides the extra costs that would be incurred from doubling the work, Borlaug's plan went against a then-held principle of agronomy that has since been disproved. It was believed that seeds needed a rest period after harvesting, in order to store energy for germination before being planted, whereas Borlaug's new plan left no time between harvest and planting. Harrar vetoed his plan, causing Borlaug to resign. Elvin Stakman, who was visiting the project, calmed the situation, talking Borlaug into withdrawing his resignation and Harrar into allowing the double wheat season. As of 1945, wheat would then be bred at locations 700 miles (1000 km) apart, 10 degrees apart in latitude, and 8500 feet (2600 m) apart in altitude. This was called "shuttle breeding".

File:Borlaug Mexico locations.png
Locations of Borlaug's research stations, at Yaqui Valley and Chapingo.

As an unexpected benefit of the double wheat season, the new breeds did not have problems with photoperiodism. Normally, wheat varieties cannot adapt to new environments, due to the changing periods of sunlight. "As it worked out," Borlaug later recalled, "in the north, we were planting when the days were getting shorter, at low elevation and high temperature. Then we'd take the seed from the best plants south and plant it at high elevation, when days were getting longer and there was lots of rain. Soon we had varieties that fit the whole range of conditions. That wasn't supposed to happen by the books".[9] This meant that the project wouldn't need to start separate breeding programs for each geographic region of the planet.

Increasing disease resistance through multiline varieties

Because pureline (genotypically identical) plant varieties often only have one or a few major genes for disease resistance, and plant diseases such as rust are continuously producing new races that can overcome a pureline's resistance, multiline varieties were developed. Multiline varieties are mixtures of several phenotypically-similar purelines which each have different genes for disease resistance. By having similar heights, flowering and maturity dates, seed colors, and agronomic characteristics, they remain compatible with each other, and do not reduce yields when grown together on the field.

In 1953, Borlaug extended this technique by suggesting that several purelines with different resistance genes should be developed through backcross methods using one recurrent parent.[10] Backcrossing involves crossing a hybrid and subsequent generations with a recurrent parent. As a result, the genotype of the backcrossed progeny becomes increasingly similar to that of the recurrent parent. Borlaug's method would allow the various different disease-resistant genes from several donor parents to be transferred into a single recurrent parent. To make sure each line has different resistant genes, each donor parent is used in a separate backcross program. Between five and ten of these lines may then be mixed depending upon the races of pathogen present in the region. As this process is repeated, some lines will become susceptible to the pathogen. These lines can easily be replaced with new resistant lines. As new sources of resistance become available, new lines are developed. In this way, the loss of crops is kept to a minimum, because only one or a few lines become susceptible to a pathogen within a given season, and all other crops are unaffected by the disease. Because the disease would spread more slowly than if the entire population were susceptible, this also reduces the damage to susceptible lines. There is still the possibility that a new race of pathogen will develop to which all lines are susceptible, however.[11]


To increase yield significantly in nutrient-poor soil, Borlaug needed to use fertilizer. However, the cultivars he was working with had tall, thin stalks. Taller wheat grasses could better compete for sunlight, but tended to collapse under the weight of the extra grain—a trait called lodging—and from the rapid growth spurts induced by nitrogen fertilizer. To prevent this, he bred his wheat to favor shorter, stronger stalks that could better support larger seed heads. In 1953, he acquired a Japanese dwarf variety of wheat called Norin 10 that had been crossed with a high yielding American cultivar called Brevor 14.[12] Dwarfing is an important agronomic quality for wheat; dwarf plants produce thick stems and do not lodge. Norin 10/Brevor is semi-dwarf (one-half to two-thirds the height of standard varieties) and produces more stalks and thus more heads of grain per plant. Also, larger amounts of assimilate were partitioned into the actual grains, further increasing the yield. Borlaug crossbred the semi-dwarf Norin 10/Brevor cultivar with his disease-resistant cultivars to produce wheat varieties that were adapted to tropical and sub-tropical climates.[13]

Borlaug's new semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties, called Pitic 62 and Penjamo 62, changed the potential yield of wheat dramatically. By 1963, 95% of Mexico's wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlaug. That year, the harvest was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico. Mexico had become fully self-sufficient in wheat production, and a net exporter of the grain.[14] Four other high yield varieties were also released, in 1964: Lerma Rojo 64, Siete Cerros, Sonora 64, and Super X.

Expansion to South Asia: The Green Revolution

Main article: Green Revolution

File:Wheat yields in selected countries, 1951-2004.png
Wheat yields in Mexico, India, and Pakistan, 1950 to 2004

In 1961 to 1962, Borlaug's dwarf spring wheat strains were sent for multilocation testing in the International Wheat Rust Nursery, organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In March 1962, a few of these strains were grown in the fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Pusa, New Delhi, India. In May 1962, M. S. Swaminathan, a member of IARI's wheat program, wrote to Dr. B.P. Pal, who was then Director of IARI, requesting to arrange for the visit of Borlaug to India and to obtain a wide range of dwarf wheat seed possessing the Norin 10 dwarfing genes. The letter was forwarded to the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, which arranged with the Rockefeller Foundation for Borlaug's visit. In March 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government sent Borlaug to India to continue his work. He supplied 100 kg (220 lb) of seed from each of the four most promising strains and 630 promising selections in advanced generations to the IARI in October 1963, and test plots were subsequently planted at Delhi, Ludhiana, Pant Nagar, Kanpur, Pusa and Indore.

During the mid-1960s, the Indian subcontinent was at war, and experiencing widespread famine and starvation, even though the United States was making emergency shipments of millions of tons of grain, including over one fifth of its total wheat, to the region.[20] The Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies and the region's cultural opposition to new agricultural techniques initially prevented Borlaug from fulfilling his desire to immediately plant the new wheat strains there. By the summer of 1965, the famine became so acute that the governments stepped in and allowed his projects to go forward.[6]

In the late 1960s, most experts said that global famines in which billions would die would soon occur. Biologist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971," and "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

In 1965, after extensive testing, Borlaug's team began their effort by importing about 450 tons of Lerma Rojo and Sonora 64 semi-dwarf seed varieties: 250 tons went to Pakistan and 200 to India. From the beginning, they encountered many obstacles. Their first shipment of seeds was held up in Mexican customs. As a result, they could not be shipped out of Mexican port at Guaymas in time for proper planting. Instead, the shipment was sent via a 30-truck convoy from Mexico to the U.S. port in Los Angeles, encountering delays at the U.S.-Mexico border. Once the convoy entered the United States, they had to take a detour: the National Guard had closed the freeway because of Watts riots in Los Angeles. When the seeds reached Los Angeles, they encountered another impediment. The Pakistani treasury's check for US$100,000 contained three misspelled words, causing a Mexican bank to refuse to honor payment. Yet, the seed was still loaded onto a freighter destined for Bombay, India and Karachi, Pakistan. Twelve hours into the freighter's voyage, war broke out between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region. Borlaug received a telegraph from the Pakistani minister of agriculture, Malik Khuda Bakhsh Bucha: "I'm sorry to hear you are having trouble with my check, but I've got troubles, too. Bombs are falling on my front lawn. Be patient, the money is in the bank..."[6]

These delays prevented Borlaug's group from being able to conduct the germination tests needed to determine seed quality and proper seeding levels. They started planting immediately, and often worked in sight of artillery flashes. A week later, Borlaug discovered that his seeds were germinating at less than half the normal rate. As it later turned out, the seeds had been severely damaged in a Mexican warehouse by over-fumigation with a pesticide. He immediately ordered all locations to double their seeding rates.

The initial yields of Borlaug's crops were higher than any ever harvested in South Asia. The countries subsequently committed themselves to importing large quantities of both the Lerma Rojo 64 and Sonora 64 varieties. In 1966, India imported 18,000 tons of this seed—the largest purchase and import of any seed in the world at that time. In 1967, Pakistan imported 42,000 tons, while Turkey imported 21,000 tons. Pakistan's import, planted on 1.5 million acres (6,100 km²), produced enough wheat to seed the entire nation's wheatland the following year.[20] By 1968, when Ehrlich's book was released, William Gaud of the United States Agency for International Development was calling Borlaug's work a "Green Revolution". High yields led to a shortage of various utilities: labor to harvest the crops, bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor, jute bags, trucks, rail cars, and grain storage facilities. Some local governments were forced to close school buildings temporarily to use them for grain storage.[6]

File:Wheat yields in developing countries, 1951-2004.png
Wheat yields in developing countries, 1951 to 2004

In Pakistan, wheat yields nearly doubled, from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million tons in 1970; Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968. Yields were over 21 million tons by 2000. In India, yields increased from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20.1 million tons in 1970. By 1974, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. By 2000, India was harvesting a record 76.4 million tons of wheat. Since the 1960s, food production in both South Asian nations has increased faster than the rate of population growth. The use of these wheat varieties has also had a substantial effect on production in six Latin American countries, six countries in the Near and Middle East, and several others in Africa. Paul Waggoner, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, calculates that India's use of high-yield farming has prevented 100 million acres (400,000 km²) of virgin land from being converted into farmland—an area about the size of California, or 13.6% of the total area of India.[15]

Borlaug's work with wheat varieties led to the development of high-yield semi-dwarf indica and japonica rice cultivars at the International Rice Research Institute, started by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and at China's Hunan Rice Research Institute. Borlaug's colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research also developed and introduced a high-yield variety of rice throughout most of Asia. Land devoted to the semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties in Asia expanded from 200 acres (0.8 km²) in 1965 to over 40 million acres (160,000 km²) in 1970. In 1970, this land accounted for over 10% of the more productive cereal land in Asia.[8]

Nobel Peace Prize

For his contributions to the world food supply, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Norwegian officials notified his wife in Mexico City at 4:00AM, but Borlaug had already left for the test fields in the Toluca valley, about 40 miles (65 km) west of Mexico City. A chauffeur took her to the fields to inform her husband. According to his daughter, Jeanie Laube, "My mom said, 'You won the Nobel Peace Prize,' and he said, 'No, I haven't',... It took some convincing... He thought the whole thing was a hoax".[6] He was awarded the prize on December 10. In his Nobel Lecture the following day, he speculated on his award: "When the Nobel Peace Prize Committee designated me the recipient of the 1970 award for my contribution to the 'green revolution', they were in effect, I believe, selecting an individual to symbolize the vital role of agriculture and food production in a world that is hungry, both for bread and for peace".[16] It was the only Nobel Peace Prize awarded for agriculture or food production.

The Borlaug hypothesis

Borlaug has continually advocated increasing crop yields as a means to curb deforestation. The large role he has played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to it being referred to by agricultural economists as the "Borlaug hypothesis", namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods such as organic farming would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction. On a global scale, this view holds strictly true ceteris paribus, if all land either consists of forests or is used for agriculture. Because other land uses exist, such as urban areas, pasture, or fallow, further research is necessary to ascertain what land has been converted for what purposes, in order to determine how true this view remains. Increased profits from high yield production may also induce cropland expansion in any case, although as world food needs decrease, this expansion may decrease as well.[17]

Criticisms and his view of critics

Throughout his years of research, Borlaug's programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects. Borlaug's work has been criticized for bringing large-scale monoculture, input-intensive farming techniques to countries that had previously, but inadequately, relied on subsistence farming, and as widening social inequality owing to uneven food distribution. There are also concerns about the long-term sustainability of farming practices encouraged by the Green Revolution in both the developed and developing world. Other concerns of his critics and critics of biotechnology in general include: the construction of roads in populated third world areas, which could lead to the destruction of wilderness; the crossing of genetic barriers; the inability of crops to fulfill all nutritional requirements; the decreased biodiversity from planting a small number of varieties; the environmental and economic effects of inorganic fertilizer and pesticides; the amount of herbicide sprayed on fields of herbicide-resistant crops.[18]

Borlaug has dismissed most claims of critics, but does take certain concerns seriously. He states that his work has been "a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia".[19] Of environmental lobbyists he has stated, "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".[20]

Current roles

Following his retirement, Borlaug has continued to participate actively in teaching, research and activism. He spends much of the year based at CIMMYT in Mexico, conducting research, and four months of the year serving at Texas A&M University, where he has been a distinguished professor of international agriculture since 1984. In 1999, the university's Board of Regents named its US$16 million Center for Southern Crop Improvement in honor of Borlaug. He works in the building's Heep Center, and teaches one semester each year.[6]

Production in Africa

In the early 1980s, environmental groups that were opposed to Borlaug's methods campaigned against his planned expansion of efforts into Africa. They prompted the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the World Bank to stop funding most of his African agriculture projects. Western European governments were persuaded to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa. According to David Seckler, former Director General of the International Water Management Institute, "the environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa."[15]

In 1984, during the Ethiopian famine, Ryoichi Sasakawa, the chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation (now the Nippon Foundation), contacted the semi-retired Borlaug, wondering why the methods used in Asia were not extended to Africa, and hoping Borlaug could help. He managed to convince Borlaug to help with this new, huge effort,[4] and subsequently founded the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) to coordinate the project.

Nigerian exchange students meet Norman Borlaug (third from right) at the World Food seminar, 2003

The SAA is a research and extension organization that aims to increase food production in African countries that are struggling with food shortages. "I assumed we'd do a few years of research first," Borlaug later recalled, "but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, 'Let's just start growing'."[15] Soon, Borlaug and the SAA had projects in seven countries. Yields of maize and sorghum in developed African countries doubled between 1983 and 1985.[21] Yields of wheat, cassava, and cowpeas also increased in these countries. At present, program activities are under way in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Since 1986, Borlaug has been the President of the SAA. That year, Jimmy Carter initiated Sasakawa-Global 2000 (SG 2000), a joint venture between the SAA and the Carter Center's Global 2000 program. The program focuses on food, population and agricultural policy. Since then, over 1 million African farm families have been trained in the SAA's new farming techniques. Those elements that allowed Borlaug's projects to succeed in India and Pakistan, such as well-organized economies and transportation and irrigation systems, are severely lacking throughout Africa, posing additional obstacles to increasing yields. Because of this, Borlaug's initial projects were restricted to developed regions of the continent.

Despite these setbacks, Borlaug has found encouragement. Visiting Ethiopia in 1994, Jimmy Carter won Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's support for a campaign seeking to aid farmers, using the fertilizer diammonium phosphate and Borlaug's methods. The following season, Ethiopia recorded the largest harvests of major crops in history, with a 32% increase in production, and a 15% increase in average yield over the previous season. For Borlaug, the rapid increase in yields suggests that there is still hope for higher food production throughout sub-Saharan Africa.[15]

World Food Prize

The World Food Prize is an international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. The prize was created in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, as a way to recognize personal accomplishments, and as a means of education by using the Prize to establish role models for others. The first prize was given to Borlaug's former colleague, M. S. Swaminathan, in 1987, for his work in India. The next year, Swaminathan used the US$250,000 prize to start a research center.

File:Borlaug with wheat.jpg
Borlaug in Mexico in 2000.

Online education

At the DuPont Agriculture & Nutrition Media Day held in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 25, 2000, Borlaug announced the launch of Norman Borlaug University, an Internet-based learning company for the agriculture and food industry personnel. The University was unable to expand the necessary content or customer base, and since late 2001 has been defunct.

The future of global farming and food supply

The limited potential for land expansion for cultivation—only 17% of cultivable land produces 90% of the world's food crops [22]—worries Borlaug, who, in March 2005, stated that, "we will have to double the world food supply by 2050." With 85% of future growth in food production having to come from lands already in use, he recommends a multidisciplinary research focus to further increase yields, mainly through increased crop immunity to large-scale diseases, such as the rust fungus, which affects all cereals but rice. His dream is to "transfer rice immunity to cereals such as wheat, maize, sorghum and barley, and transfer bread-wheat proteins (gliadin and glutenin) to other cereals, especially rice and maize".[22]

According to Borlaug, "Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So, future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before".[15]

Besides increasing the worldwide food supply, Borlaug has repeatedly stated that taking steps to decrease the rate of population growth will also be necessary to prevent food shortages. In his Nobel Lecture of 1970, Borlaug stated, "Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the 'Population Monster'...If it continues to increase at the estimated present rate of two percent a year, the world population will reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2 additional people are added to the world population. The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3, and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and 2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The tick-tock of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?"[16]

Honors and recognition

Norman Borlaug with his bust in the University of Minnesota's Borlaug Hall, October 2003.

In 1968, Borlaug received what he considered an especially satisfying tribute when the people of Ciudad Obregón, where some of his earliest experiments were undertaken, named a street after him. Also in that year, he became a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

In 1984, his name was placed in the National Agricultural Hall of Fame at the national center in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Also that year, he was recognized for sustained service to humanity through outstanding contributions in plant breeding from the Governors Conference on Agriculture Innovations in Little Rock, Arkansas. Also in 1984, he received the Henry G. Bennet Distinguished Service Award at commencement ceremonies at Oklahoma State University.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Borlaug has also received the 1977 U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 2002 Public Welfare Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the 2002 Rotary International Award for World Understanding and Peace. As of January 2004, Borlaug had received 49 honorary degrees from as many universities, in 18 countries, and was a foreign or honorary member of 22 international Academies of Sciences.[23] In Iowa and Minnesota, "World Food Day", October 16, is referred to as "Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Day". Throughout the United States, it is referred to as "World Food Prize Day".

Several research institutions and buildings have been named in his honor, including: the Norman E. Borlaug Center for Farmer Training and Education, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in 1983; Borlaug Hall, on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota in 1985; Borlaug Building at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) headquarters in 1986; the Norman Borlaug Institute for Plant Science Research at De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom in 1997; and the Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement, at Texas A&M University in 1999.

The stained-glass "World Peace Window" at St. Mark's Cathedral in Minneapolis, Minnesota, depicts "peace makers" of the 20th century, including Norman Borlaug.[24] Borlaug was also prominently mentioned on an episode of the The West Wing television show. The president of a fictional African country describes the kind of "miracle" needed to save his country from the ravages of AIDS by referencing an American scientist who was able to save the world from hunger through the development of a new type of wheat. The American president replies by providing Borlaug's name.

Borlaug was also featured in an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, where he was referred to as the "Greatest Human Being That Ever Lived". In that episode, Penn & Teller play a card game where each card depicts a great person in history. Each player picks a card at random, and bets on whether they think their card shows a greater person than the other players' cards. Penn gets Norman Borlaug, and proceeds to bet all his chips, his house, his rings, his watch, and essentially everything he's ever owned. He wins because, as he says "Norman Borlaug is the greatest human being that ever lived, and you've probably never heard of him."

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Books and lectures

Dr. Borlaug with USDA Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman near the birthday cake prepared for his 90th birthday
This list is incomplete.
  • Wheat in the Third World. 1982. Authors: Haldore Hanson, Norman E. Borlaug, and R. Glenn Anderson. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0865313571
  • Land use, food, energy and recreation. 1983. Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. ISBN 0940222078
  • Feeding a human population that increasingly crowds a fragile planet. 1994. Mexico City. ISBN 9646201343
  • Norman Borlaug on World Hunger. 1997. Edited by Anwar Dil. San Diego/Islamabad/Lahore: Bookservice International. 499 pages. ISBN 0964049236
  • The Green Revolution Revisited and the Road Ahead. 2000. Anniversary Nobel Lecture, Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway. 8 Sept 2000.
  • "Ending World Hunger. The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry". 2000. Plant Physiology, October 2000, Vol. 124, pp. 487-490. (duplicate)
  • Feeding a World of 10 Billion People: The Tva/Ifdc Legacy. 2003. ISBN 0880901446
  • Prospects for world agriculture in the twenty-first century. 2004. Norman E. Borlaug, Christopher R. Dowswell. Published in: Sustainable agriculture and the international rice-wheat system. ISBN 0824754913
  • Foreword to The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution. 2004. Henry I. Miller, Gregory Conko. ISBN 0275978796


  • Template:FnbThe phrase "over a billion lives saved" is often cited by others in reference to Norman Borlaug's work (e.g. [1], [2]). According to Jan Douglas, Executive Assistant to the World Prize Foundation, the source of this number is Gregg Easterbrook's 1997 article "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity",[15] the article states that the "form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths."


1. ^ RootsWeb. Borlaug genealogy
2. ^ "History of the Norwegian Community, Chickasaw, Iowa". Telelaget of America.
3. ^ State Historical Society of Iowa. 2002. FY03 HRDP/REAP Grant Application Approval
4. ^ Martha McFarland, M. 2003. Sowing Seeds of Peace.
5. ^ University of Minnesota. 2005. Borlaug and the University of Minnesota
6. ^ "Green Giant". Stuertz, Mark. Dallas Observer. 5 Dec 2002.
7. ^ Davidson, M.G. 1997. An Abundant Harvest: Interview with Norman Borlaug, Recipient, Nobel Peace Prize, 1970, Common Ground, August 12
8. ^ Brown, L. R. 1970. Nobel Peace Prize: developer of high-yield wheat receives award (Norman Ernest Borlaug). Science, 30 Oct 1970;170(957):518-9.
9. ^ University of Minnesota. 2005. Borlaug's Work in Mexico
10. ^ Borlaug, N.E. 1953. New approach to the breeding of wheat varieties resistant to Puccinia griminis tritici. Phytopathology, 43:467
11. ^ AGB 301: Principles and Methods of Plant Breeding. Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
12. ^ Retiz, L.P. 1970. New wheats and social progress. Science,169:952-955
13. ^ Hedden, P. 2003. The genes of the Green Revolution. Trends in Genetics, 19:5-9 PMID 12493241
14. ^ University of Minnesota. 2005. The Beginning of the Green Revolution
15. ^ Easterbrook, G. 1997. Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity. The Atlantic Monthly. (duplicate)
16. ^ Borlaug, N. E. 1972. Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1970. From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Frederick W. Haberman Ed., Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam
17. ^ Angelsen, A., and D. Kaimowitz. 2001. "The Role of Agricultural Technologies in Tropical Deforestation". Agricultural Technologies and Tropical Deforestation. CABI Publishing, New York
18. ^ Billions served. Interview with Reason Magazine. April 2000
19. ^ Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. 2002. Four Iowans Who Fed The World, Norman Borlaug: Geneticist
20. ^ Singh, S. Norman Borlaug: A Billion Lives Saved
21. ^ FAO Statistics Database
22. ^ The Murugappa Group. 2005. Food for Thought
23. ^ Dr. Norman E. Borlaug's Curriculum Vitae
24. ^ Bjordal, J. 2004. News Around the Diocese

External links


Videos and speeches

Organizations and programs


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