The Father Of the Green Revolution

By Joe Holley and J.Y. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 14, 2009

Norman E. Borlaug, 95, an American plant pathologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for starting the "Green Revolution" that dramatically increased food production in developing nations and saved countless people from starvation, died Saturday at his home in Dallas.

"More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world," the Nobel committee said in honoring him. "Dr. Borlaug has introduced a dynamic factor into our assessment of the future and its potential."

Edwin Price, director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, said his mentor died of cancer. Since 1984, Dr. Borlaug had been a distinguished professor of international agriculture there.

Dr. Borlaug was barely known in the country of his birth. But in India, Mexico and other nations susceptible to hunger and famine, he was known as one of the great Americans of modern times. Price accompanied Dr. Borlaug to Russia, where he visited a wheat research institute south of Moscow. "When Norm came in," Price said, "the scientists at the institute all cried."

From the 1970s until his death, he increasingly took the politically incorrect view that environmentalists were hampering world food production by indiscriminately attacking the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"They claim that the consumer is being poisoned out of existence by the current high-yielding systems of agricultural production and recommend we revert back to lower-yielding, so-called sustainable technologies," he said in a speech in New Orleans in 1993.

Unfortunately, he said, it is not possible to turn the clock back to the 1930s, when the population of the world was 2.2 billion. It was estimated at 5.6 billion in 1995 and was projected to rise to 8.3 billion by 2025.

Dr. Borlaug's career was defined on the one hand by the ability of science to increase food production at an exponential rate and on the other by the Malthusian nightmare of an exploding population outstripping its ability to feed itself. His work took him from the Iowa farm where he grew up to the primitively cultivated wheat fields of Mexico in the 1940s, the rice paddies of Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and to the savannas of Africa in the 1980s.

In his lecture accepting the Nobel Prize, he said an adequate supply of food is "the first component of social justice. . . . Otherwise there will be no peace."

He warned that the world could wind up with too many mouths to feed, and he offered only guarded hope that "since man is potentially a rational being . . . he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth and will adjust the growth rate to levels which will permit a decent standard of living for all mankind."

Norman Ernest Borlaug, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born on March 25, 1914, in his grandfather's farmhouse near a settlement called Saude, in northeastern Iowa. He went to high school in the nearby town of Cresco, and one of his teachers, Harry Shroeder, noticed his interest in the way things grow and encouraged him to study agriculture.

He was deeply affected by the ravages of the Great Depression on the American Midwest. "He often said that his dedication to solving issues of world hunger grew out of the bread lines and the suffering of the people that he saw during the Depression," Price said. "He saw the tension, and he recognized that hunger could cause people to behave violently."

During the Depression, he worked as a waiter while studying at the University of Minnesota, where he came under the influence of Elvin Charles Stakman, the head of the plant pathology department and an expert on plant diseases. He received his bachelor's degree from Minnesota in 1937 and master's and doctoral degrees in plant pathology in 1939 and 1942.

At the time, American scientists were rapidly developing chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that were dramatically increasing agricultural yields. The most famous of them was DDT, which was introduced in 1937. With the outbreak of World War II, food requirements skyrocketed, and so did the need for the agricultural products that were coming out of laboratories.

In 1941, he went to work for DuPont Co. in Wilmington, Del., as a researcher.

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. The group founded what became the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement. Corn was then Mexico's principal bread crop. Wheat had been introduced by the Spaniards in the early 16th century, but the methods by which it was grown included wooden plows and other techniques that had not changed in more than 400 years. About half of the country's wheat was imported.

In Mexico, he bypassed the usual practice of growing one crop a year. Instead, he grew two: one in the northwestern state of Sonora, near the sea, and the other 800 miles to the south in the mountains near Mexico City. He developed a variety that was widely adaptable and highly productive. By 1948, Mexico was growing enough wheat to meet its needs.

In the 1950s, yields leveled off. Mexican wheat had always had a rather long stalk that enabled it to compete with weeds for sunlight. With the use of fertilizers, it began to grow so tall that the stalks fell over, and the grain was lost. Dr. Borlaug countered this problem by crossing Mexican wheat with a dwarf Japanese variety. The result was a strain that was resistant to disease and capable of producing 10 times as much grain as the unimproved Mexican variety.

Those results made Dr. Borlaug's reputation, and other countries sought his help , including India and Pakistan. In the mid-1960s, the International Rice Institute in the Philippines developed a dwarf high-yield rice based on Dr. Borlaug's work with wheat. This started the Green Revolution in Southeast Asia. Over the next two decades, he started programs in six countries in Latin America, eight in the Middle East and two in Asia.

In 1977, Dr. Borlaug received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the U.S. government. He lived in Mexico City but was a member of a number of advisory committees in Washington.

Dr. Borlaug's wife, the former Margaret G. Gibson, died in 2007.

Survivors include two children, Jeanie Borlaug Laube and William Gibson Borlaug, both of Dallas; a sister; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Dr. Borlaug continued to write and receive students at his Dallas home until fairly recently, Price said.

"The Green Revolution hasn't been won yet," the Nobel laureate would tell them.

Former staff writer J.Y. Smith died in 2006.

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