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Updated: September 14, 2009 02:03 IST

The man who taught the world to feed itself

Justin Gillis
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A file photo taken on December 14, 1970 in Oslo shows Norman E. Borlaug (R) posing next to his wife Margaret with the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded with for his work on disease-resistant wheat.
AFP
A file photo taken on December 14, 1970 in Oslo shows Norman E. Borlaug (R) posing next to his wife Margaret with the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded with for his work on disease-resistant wheat.

Norman E. Borlaug, the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday night. He was 95 and lived in Dallas.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Kathleen Phillips, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University, where Dr. Borlaug had served on the faculty since 1984.

Dr. Borlaug’s advances in plant breeding led to spectacular success in increasing food production in Latin America and Asia and brought him international acclaim. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was widely described as the father of the broad agricultural movement called the Green Revolution, though decidedly reluctant to accept the title. “A miserable term,” he said, characteristically shrugging off any air of self-importance.

Yet his work had a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of people in developing countries. His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history. Largely because of his work, countries that had been food deficient, like Mexico and India, became self-sufficient in producing cereal grains.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” said the Nobel committee in presenting him with the Peace Prize. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

The Green Revolution eventually came under attack from environmental and social critics who said it had created more difficulties than it had solved. Dr. Borlaug responded that the real problem was not his agricultural techniques, but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary.

His Nobel Prize was the culmination of a storied life in agriculture that began when he was a boy growing up on a farm in Iowa, wondering why plants grew better in some places than others. His was also an unlikely career path, one that began in earnest near the end of World War II, when Dr. Borlaug walked away from a promising job at DuPont, the chemical company, to take a position in Mexico trying to help farmers improve their crops.

The job was part of an assault on hunger in Mexico that was devised in Manhattan, at the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation, with political support in Washington. But it was not a career choice calculated to lead to fame or honour.

Indeed, on first seeing the situation in Mexico for himself, Dr. Borlaug reacted with near despair. Mexican soils were depleted, the crops were ravaged by disease, yields were low and the farmers could not feed themselves, much less improve their lot by selling surplus.

The next few years were ones of toil and privation as Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues, with scant funds or equipment, set to work improving yields in tropical crop varieties.

He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslips and sometimes slept in tents.

He was by then a trained scientist holding a doctoral degree in plant diseases. But as he sought to coax better performance from the wheats of Mexico, he relied on a farm boy’s instinctive feel for the plants and the soil in which they grew.

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.

The Rockefeller team gradually won the agreement of Mexican farmers to adopt the new varieties, and wheat output in that country began a remarkable climb. But these developments turned out to be a mere prelude to Dr. Borlaug’s main achievements.

By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.

The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.

This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

Urgent queries began to pour in from other poor countries, for they were caught in a bind. After World War II, the introduction of basic sanitation in many developing countries caused death rates to plunge, but birth rates were slow to follow. As a result, the global population had exploded, putting immense strain on food supplies.

On the Indian subcontinent in particular, a crisis developed. The population was growing so much faster than farm output that it was not clear how the masses could be fed. In the mid-1960s, huge grain imports were required to avert starvation.

At the invitation of the Indian and Pakistani governments, Dr. Borlaug offered his advice. Soon, India and Pakistan were ordering shiploads of Dr. Borlaug’s wheat seeds from Mexico.

One vital shipment through the Port of Los Angeles was delayed by the Watts riots of 1965 in that city, and Dr. Borlaug spent hours yelling on the phone to get it through.

Indian and Pakistani farmers took up the new varieties, receiving fertilizer and other aid from their governments. Just as in Mexico, harvests soared: the Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so bountiful that the government had to turn schools into temporary granaries.

Chinese scientists ultimately followed in the footsteps of Western researchers, using semi dwarf varieties to establish food security in China and setting the stage for its rise as an industrial power. And Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues helped spread the new crop varieties to additional countries of Latin America, notably Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.

Dr. Borlaug’s later years were partly occupied by arguments over the social and environmental consequences of the Green Revolution. Many critics on the left attacked it, saying it displaced smaller farmers, encouraged over-reliance on chemicals and paved the way for greater corporate control of agriculture.

— © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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