Norman E. Borlaug was born in Iowa, where he grew up on a family farm. Borlaug attended the University of Minnesota, where he received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in plant pathology and was also a star NCAA wrestler. For the past 20 years, Borlaug has lived in Texas, where he is a member of the faculty at Texas A&M University.
Entering college as the depression began, Borlaug worked for a time in the Northeastern Forestry Service, often with men from the Civilian Conservation Corps, occasionally dropping out of school to earn money to finish his degree in forest management. He passed the civil service exam and was accepted into the Forest Service, but the job fell through. He then began to pursue a graduate degree in plant pathology. During his studies, he did a research project on the movement of rust spores. The project, undertaken when the existence of the jet stream was not yet known, established that rust spore clouds move internationally in sync with harvest cycles—a surprising finding at the time. The process opened Borlaug’s eyes to plant disease and food production.
At the same time, the Midwest was becoming the Dust Bowl. Though some mythology now attributes the Dust Bowl to a conversion to technological farming methods, in Borlaug’s mind, the problem was the lack of such methods. Since then, American farming has become far more technological, and no Dust Bowl conditions have recurred. Borlaug was horrified by the Dust Bowl and simultaneously impressed that its effects seemed least where high-yield approaches to farming were being tried. He decided that his life’s work would be to spread the benefits of high-yield farming to the many nations where crop failures as awful as those in the Dust Bowl were regular facts of life. When he was a young scientist in the 1940s, he was sent by the Rockefeller Foundation to run a project in Mexico. The country’s wheat harvests were being devastated by stem rust. The program’s initial goal was to teach Mexican farmers new farming ideas, but Borlaug soon had the growers seeking agricultural innovations. One was “shuttle breeding”, a technique for speeding up the movement of disease resistance between strains of crops. Crops were shuttled between the climates of the highlands and the plains; thus, planting of two generations each year could be completed. From test results in both environments, Borlaug and his colleagues developed a drought-hardy, rust-resistant strain of wheat and then crossed it with a dwarf Japanese strain to produce a hybrid short enough to survive the wind and channel growth into grain. From total dependence on wheat imports, Mexico had within a few years shifted to being to a net exporter of wheat.
In 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the government of Mexico established CIMMYT as an outgrowth of their original program and sent Borlaug to Pakistan and India, which were then descending into famine. Borlaug argued that India and other nations should switch to cereal crops. He failed in his initial efforts to persuade the seed and grain monopolies to switch to high-yield crop strains.
Despite the institutional resistance Borlaug stayed in Pakistan and India. By 1965, famine on the subcontinent was so bad that governments made a commitment to wheat. Borlaug arranged for a convoy of 35 trucks to carry high-yield seeds from CIMMYT to a Los Angeles dock for shipment. The convoy was held up by the Mexican police, blocked by U.S. border agents attempting to enforce a ban on seed importation, and then stopped by the National Guard when the Watts riot prevented access to the Los Angeles harbor. Finally, the seed ship sailed. Borlaug says, “I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved, and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.”
Nevertheless, Borlaug and many local scientists, who were his former trainees in Mexico, planted the first crop of dwarf rust-resistant wheat on the subcontinent, often working within sight of artillery flashes. Sowed late, the crop germinated poorly, yet yields still rose 70%. This prevented general wartime starvation in the region, though famine did strike parts of India. There were also riots in the state of Kerala in 1966, when a population whose ancestors had for centuries eaten rice was presented with sacks of wheat flour originating in Borlaug’s fields.
Owing to wartime emergency, Borlaug was given the go-ahead to circumvent the traditional seed companies. “Within a few hours of that decision I had all the seed contracts signed and a much larger planting effort in place,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for the war, I might never have been given true freedom to test these ideas.” The next harvest was a 98% improvement. By 1974, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Pakistan progressed from harvesting 3.4 million tons of wheat annually when Borlaug arrived to around 18 million today, India from 11 million tons to 60 million. In both nations, food production since the 1960s has increased faster than the rate of population growth. Briefly, in the mid-1980s, India even entered the world export market for grains. Borlaug’s accomplishment came to be labeled the Green Revolution. In 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize, the only person working in agriculture to ever be so honored. Since then, he has received numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Public Service Medal, the Rotary International Award for World Understanding, and America’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal. Borlaug has saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived. Today, Borlaug divides his time among CIMMYT, where he teaches young scientists seeking still-more-productive crop strains for the developing world; Texas A&M, where he teaches international agriculture every fall semester; and the Sasakawa Global 2000 projects that continue to operate in 12 African nations.