I had the privilege of knowing and working with Norman Borlaug — who has been aptly described by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee as the greatest hunger fighter of our time — for nearly 50 years. I first heard him in 1953 outline an innovative strategy for combating wheat rusts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
From 1963 onwards, he visited India in March every year to see the wheat crop. During his extensive travels by road, he used to stop frequently, talk to the farmers, and examine the state of the health of the plants. Plants and farmers became his life-long friends and companions. Eliminating the wheat rust menace became his unrelenting mission.
Dr. Borlaug started his research career in agriculture in Mexico at a time when the world was passing through a serious food crisis. During 1942-1943, nearly two million people died of hunger during the Great Bengal Famine. China also experienced widespread and severe famine during the 1950s. Famines were frequent in Ethiopia, the Sahelian region of Africa, and many other parts of the developing world. It was in this background that Dr. Borlaug decided to look for a permanent solution to recurrent famines by harnessing science to increase the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of small farms.
The work he did in Mexico during the 1950s in breeding semi-dwarf, rust-resistant wheat varieties and its extension to India, Pakistan, and other countries during the 1960s brought about a total transformation in the atmosphere for the possibility of achieving a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce food. Developing nations gained in self-confidence in their agricultural capability. He disproved prophets of doom like Paul and William Paddock and Paul and Anne Ehrlich — who even advocated the application of the ‘triage’ principle in the selection of countries that should and should not be saved from starvation through American assistance.
The introduction of Mexican semi-dwarf varieties of wheat in India in the early 1960s not only helped improve wheat production but also led to the union of brain and brawn in rural areas. The enthusiasm generated by the new technology can be glimpsed in the following extract from an article I wrote in 1969 for an Indian magazine: “Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has been the backbone of the revolution. Revolutions are usually associated with the young, but in this revolution, age has been no obstacle to participation. Farmers, young and old, educated and uneducated, have easily taken to the new agronomy. It has been heart-warming to see young college graduates, retired officials, ex-armymen, illiterate peasants and small farmers queuing up to get the new seeds. At least in the Punjab, the divorce between intellect and labour, which has been the bane of our agriculture, is vanishing.”
The five principles Dr. Borlaug adopted in his life were (to use his own words): give your best; believe you can succeed; face adversity squarely; be confident you will find the answers when problems arise; then go out and win some bouts. These principles have shaped the attitude and action of thousands of young farm scientists across the world. He applied these principles in the field of science and agricultural development, but I guess he developed them much earlier in the field of wrestling, judging from his induction into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004.
Having made a significant contribution to shaping the agricultural destiny of many countries in Asia and Latin America, Dr. Borlaug turned his attention to Africa in 1985. With support from President Jimmy Carter, Ryoichi Sasakawa, Yohei Sasakawa and the Nippon Foundation, he organised the Sasakawa-Global 2000 programme. Numerous small-scale farmers were helped to double and triple the yield of maize, rice, sorghum, millet, wheat, cassava, and grain legumes.
Unfortunately, such spectacular results in demonstration plots did not lead to significant production gains at the national level, owing to lack of infrastructure such as irrigation, roads, seed production, and remunerative marketing systems. This made him exclaim: “Africa has the potential for a green revolution, but you cannot eat potential.” The blend of professional skill, political action, and farmers’ enthusiasm needed to ignite another Green Revolution as in India was lacking in Africa at that time.
Concerned with the lack of adequate recognition for the contributions of farm and food scientists, Dr. Borlaug had the World Food Prize established in 1986, which he hoped would come to be regarded as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture. My research centre in Chennai, India [the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation] is the child of the first World Food Prize I received in 1987. Throughout his professional career, Dr. Borlaug spent time in training young scholars and researchers. This led him to promote the World Food Prize Youth Institute and its programme to help high school students work in other countries in order to widen their understanding of the human condition. This usually became a life-changing experience for them.
When Mahatma Gandhi died in January 1948, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said: “The light has gone out of our life, but the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. A thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country, the world will see it, and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented the living, eternal truth, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking humankind to freedom from hunger and deprivation.” The same can be said of Norman Borlaug. His repeated message that there was no time to relax until hunger became history will be heard so long as a single person is denied the opportunity for a healthy and productive life because of malnutrition.
Norman Borlaug was a remarkable man who was supported by a remarkable family —wife Margaret, son William, and daughter Jeanie. To my mind, Margaret who died in 2007 is the unsung heroine of the Green Revolution. Without her unwavering support, Dr. Borlaug might not have accomplished nearly so much in his long and demanding career.
Dr. Borlaug was not only a great scientist but also a humanist full of compassion and love for fellow human beings, irrespective of race, religion, colour, or political belief. This is clear from his last spoken words on the night of Saturday, September 12, 2009. Earlier in the day, a scientist showed him a nitrogen tracer developed for measuring soil fertility. His last words were “Take the tracer to the farmer.” This life-long dedication to taking scientific innovation to farmers without delay set Dr. Borlaug apart from most other farm scientists carrying out equally important research.
I was present when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. He pointed out that between 1960 and 2000, the proportion of “the world’s people who felt hunger during some portion of the year had fallen from about 60 per cent to 14 per cent.” But the latter figure still “translates into 850 million men, women and children who lack sufficient calories and protein to grow strong and healthy bodies.” So he added: “The battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won.”
This is the unfinished task Norman Borlaug leaves scientists and political leaders worldwide. It will be appropriate for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture to become the flagship of the movement for a world without hunger.
(This article is based on the Norman Borlaug memorial address given by the author at the Rudder Auditorium, Texas A&M University, U.S., on October 6, 2009.)
The greatest hunger fighter of our time warned against complacency, observing even towards the end of his life that ‘the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won.’
Keywords: Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Committee, wheat crop, agriculture, Green Revolution, Mexican semi-dwarf varieties, Congressional Gold Medal, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, World Food Prize