Norman Borlaug, who died in Dallas, Texas on September 13 at the age of 95, remains the only recipient of the Nobel Prize for agriculture, specifically the Peace Prize of 1970. Possessed of insatiable curiosity about matters botanical and blessed with remarkable energy and scientific incisiveness, Dr. Borlaug (with Rockefeller Foundation funding) worked in Mexico in the 1950s, where he crossbred a ‘dwarf’ strain of wheat. This, when treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, produced far greater quantities of seeds than the earlier varieties had done. His discovery was commercially introduced in Mexico in 1956, and the 1963 harvest was six times greater than that of 1944. The obvious place for the further use of the new strain was South Asia, which in the 1960s faced runaway population growth, stagnating agriculture, repeated monsoon failures — and mass hunger. So desperate was the situation in India that Food Minister C. Subramaniam overrode scientists’ phytosanitary concerns and the Finance Ministry’s objections to gain parliamentary approval for importing the new wheat strain. The rest is the stuff of legend. In Pakistan, wheat yields doubled and by 1974 India was self-sufficient in cereal production.
Dr. Borlaug, who shrugged off the title of ‘Father of the Green Revolution,’ never ceased his research and teaching; neither did he disregard wider socio-political issues. While there were mixed reasons why African increases in yields did not lead to a Green Revolution, Dr. Borlaug is said to have regarded peace and security as prerequisites for agricultural success. He also came to see that certain concerns over the environmental impact of chemicals are justified. He advocated genetic engineering as an extension of conventional techniques. He was a severe critic of those he saw as elitist environmentalists and of western agricultural subsidies. Dr. Borlaug often said that if his critics had seen the effects of mass hunger, as he had done daily for 50 years, they too would want to use technology to feed people. The battle against hunger continues. The U.N. estimates that a billion people are currently malnourished, and by another estimate one third of the Indian population are eating a third less than they were in 1975. Dr. Borlaug, in sustained association with visionary scientists like M.S. Swaminathan — who has characterised him as “the greatest hunger-fighter for all time” — made a profound difference to the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world. The game-changing science and humanistic spirit of this 20th century work need to be replicated, if the new challenges are to be met in the coming decade.