Feature

Norman Borlaug

The Nobel scientist whose crops fed the masses

Norman Borlaug, who has died at 95, arguably saved more lives than anyone in history by ushering in the “Green Revolution.” A plant scientist, he kept as many as a billion people from starving by developing superior crop strains that enabled much of the globe to feed itself. For his efforts, he won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Born on a farm in Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug earned a doctorate in plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, said The Washington Post. “In 1944 he joined a team assembled by the Rockefeller Foundation at the request of the Mexican government to increase wheat production in that country.” It was a major undertaking: Between 1939 and 1942, Mexico’s wheat harvest had been devastated by stem rust, an airborne virus. So Borlaug crossbred wheat strains from around the world, a process he called “mind-warpingly tedious.” And he countered Mexican wheat’s tendency “to grow so tall that the stalks fell over” by crossing it with a dwarf Japanese variety. By 1948 Mexico, which had imported half its wheat when Borlaug arrived, “was growing enough to meet its needs.”

Borlaug’s pioneering work, which was soon applied to corn, rice, and other crops, “brought agricultural self-sufficiency to developing countries,” said the Los Angeles Times. This became especially apparent in 1965, when Borlaug “organized a shipment of 35 truckloads of dwarf wheat seeds” to famine-stricken India and Pakistan. The new crop was a success, and “by 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in food production. India joined it in 1974.”

In his later years, said The New York Times, Borlaug faced critics who said the Green Revolution had “displaced smaller farmers, encouraged overreliance on chemicals, and paved the way for greater corporate control of agriculture.” He shot back “that such arguments often came from ‘elitists’ who were rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from.” He also argued that “the real problem was not his agricultural techniques but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary.”

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