Borlaug was a brilliant scientist and plant breeder, but the other secrets of his success were his perseverance and persuasiveness.
My recent article celebrating the birthday of my friend and mentor, the late Norman Borlaug, received so much attention, from both those who knew and revered him and from others who hadn't heard of him, that it inspired me to revise and republish a 2009 article about him.
Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution in agriculture, died September 12  at the age of 95. His life was one of extraordinary paradoxes: a child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who attended a one-room school, aspired to become a high school science teacher but flunked the university entrance exam – yet ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize for a series of agricultural innovations that averted malnutrition, famine and the deaths of millions.
Borlaug combined modern science with the simple virtues of common sense and plain old hard work. First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce new varieties with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20 percent to 40 percent.
Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties that would not fall over in the field when aggressively fertilized to achieve maximum yields.
Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding” – growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions had distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.
Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.
In his professional life, Borlaug struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that, in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable, and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China and parts of South America to feed their populations.
How successful were his efforts? From 1950-92, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland – an extraordinary increase in yield of more than 150 percent.
Courtesy of the Borlaug Institute
Without high-yield agriculture, either millions of people would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation – with losses of wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion.
Borlaug recalled to me, without rancor, the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: “bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions.”
Both the need for additional agricultural production and the obstacles to innovation remain, and during the decades before his death, Borlaug applied himself to ensuring the success of this century’s equivalent of the Green Revolution: the application of gene-splicing, or “genetic modification” (GM) to agriculture. Products in development offer the possibility of even higher yields; the use of less agricultural chemicals and irrigation; enhanced nutrition; and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.
However, extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in national and United Nations-based regulatory agencies are more than eager to help.
Norman saw history repeating itself: “At the time [of the Green Revolution, beginning about 1945], Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, ‘Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won’t be able to get permission for more of these efforts.’ Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing [biotechnology] era that would arrive decades later. … The naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available.”
Borlaug observed that the enemies of innovation might create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”
His story is a saga of the greatness of America during the 20th century – of opportunity, individuality, courage and achievement. He strove to exploit new technology in a way that was based on good science and good sense.
As remarkable as were Borlaug’s scientific and humanitarian accomplishments, his friends will remember him as well for his modesty, guilelessness, and kindness. Norman’s modus vivendi might be summed up in several observations that he made about the importance of food and the application of science to feeding the hungry.
First: “There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse.” Second: “You can’t eat potential.” In other words, you haven’t succeeded until you get new developments into the field and actually into people’s bellies. And, finally: “It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don’t know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be.”
How to capture the essence of Norman Borlaug? I’m reminded of a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold, who described Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright, as a man “who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”
Note: With Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Fredrick Stare, Dr. Borlaug was one of the co-founders of the American Council on Science and Health.