“He was a bright, affirming flame in the midst of a sea of despair then prevailing.” This was how M.S. Swaminathan described Norman Borlaug, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, who died in Dallas on Saturday night. “He was a man of extraordinary humanism, commitment to a hunger-free world and knew no nationality. He is the only person to have so far won a Nobel for agriculture.”

Norman Borlaug’s association with India began in the late 1960s. India was then importing 10 million tonnes of wheat and “we lived a ship-to-mouth” existence. The introduction of the dwarf variety of wheat developed by him in Mexico was a turning point in India’s food production pattern.

Professor Swaminathan, himself an institution-builder and a visionary figure who has carved a niche for himself in agriculture-related research in India, spoke to The Hindu from Virginia Tech University in the U.S. on Sunday. He was associated with Borlaug for five decades.

He added: “I was working at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. The problem at the time of India’s Independence was that the wheat and rice yield was less than one metric tonne per hectare. From 1947 to the early-1960s we increased the area under the crops.”

But there was no significant increase in production. “It was at that time he came to India. My association with him started when we started to work on how to achieve a yield breakthrough in wheat. He is the greatest hunger-fighter for all time. His contribution was multi-dimensional – scientific, political and humanistic.” he said.

At the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Taramani, Chennai, a hall has been named after him.

Professor Borlaug’s efforts to introduce improvements in agriculture were peppered also with disappointments. He earned the displeasure of the American government after he said during a visit to India in 1966 that “India should be free of PL 480 assistance.” At that time India was importing wheat from the U.S.

Professor Borlaug had been disappointed when his efforts to introduce the Green Revolution in Africa failed owing to the unfavourable political conditions there. “Unless there is peace and security there could be no increase in production. During his lectures in India in agriculture colleges he told students to go to the field and not sit in the laboratory,” Dr. Swaminathan recalled.

Professor Borlaug felt that food scientists should be recognised with the Nobel Prize. When the Nobel Prize committee struck down his suggestion, he instituted the annual World Food Prize. Dr. Swaminathan was the first recipient, and Verghese Kurien, credited with the White Revolution in India, was honoured the next year.

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R. SujathaJune 28, 2012