Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution

Norman Ernest Borlaug (1914-2009)

Norman Ernest Borlaug (1914-2009)

On March 25, 1914, American biologist and humanitarian Norman Ernest Borlaug was born. Borlaug led initiatives worldwide that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production termed the Green Revolution and has been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug is often called “the father of the Green Revolution“, and is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa, USA, the eldest of four children to Henry Oliver Borlaug and his wife Clara (née Vaala). From age seven to nineteen, he worked on the family farm, fishing, hunting, and raising corn, oats, timothy-grass, cattle, pigs and chickens. He attended a rural school in Howard County, followed by Cresco High School. Through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, he was able to enroll at the University of Minnesota in 1933. Borlaug failed the entrance exam, but was accepted to the school’s newly created two-year General College. After two quarters, he transferred to the College of Agriculture’s forestry program.

Immediately before and immediately after receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937, he worked for the U.S. Forestry Service at stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. Returning to the University of Minnesota to study plant pathology, receiving a master of science degree in 1940 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. From 1942 to 1944, he was a microbiologist on the staff of the du Pont de Nemours Foundation where he was in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives.[1]

In 1944 he accepted an appointment as geneticist and plant pathologist assigned the task of organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. This program, a joint undertaking by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, involved scientific research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. Within twenty years he was spectacularly successful in finding a high-yielding short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat.[1] Seeking to assist impoverished farmers who struggled with diseased and low-producing crops, Borlaug experimented with novel varieties of wheat, creating disease-resistant strains that could withstand the harsh climate. That work was founded on earlier discoveries of ways to induce genetic mutations in plants, and his methods led to modern plant breeding.[4]

The Green Revolution resulted in increased production of food grains (especially wheat and rice) and was in large part due to the introduction into developing countries of new, high-yielding varieties, beginning in the mid-20th century with Borlaug’s work. At a research station at Campo Atizapan, he developed a short-stemmed (“dwarf”) strain of wheat that dramatically increased crop yields. Previously, taller wheat varieties would break under the weight of the heads if production was increased by chemical fertilizers. Borlaug’s short-stemmed wheat could withstand the increased weight of fertilized heads and was a key element in the Green Revolution in developing countries. Wheat production in Mexico multiplied threefold owing to this and other varieties.[4]

Following Borlaug’s success in Mexico, the Indian and Pakistani goverments requested his assistance, and with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Borlaug began his agricultural revolution in Asia. With India and Pakistan facing food shortages due to rapid population growth, the importation of Borlaug’s dwarf wheat in the mid-1960s was responsible for a 60 percent increase in harvests there, helping both countries to become agriculturally self-sufficient. His work in developing countries, especially on the Indian subcontinent, is estimated to have saved as many as one billion people from starvation and death.[4]

Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968; India was self-sufficient in all cereal crops by 1974. Since then, grain production in both countries has consistently outpaced population growth. Borlaug’s achievements in Mexico, India and Pakistan were hailed as a Green Revolution. The scientists Borlaug had trained in Mexico and Asia spread his techniques and grains to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Indonesia, to continental South America and to Africa. Around the world, infant mortality rates fell and life expectancy rose. In many countries, the rising standard of living reduced social tensions and political violence.[5]

For his contributions to the world food supply, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Borlaug continually advocated increasing crop yields as a means to curb deforestation. The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the “Borlaug hypothesis”, namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high-yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction.

Following his retirement, Borlaug continued to participate in teaching, research and activism. Borlaug died of lymphoma at the age of 95, on September 12, 2009.

At yovisto academic video search engine, you can learn more about agriculture in the presentation of Dr. David Zoldovski on The Future of Irrigated Agriculture: Where is the Water? from the California Colloquium on Water at UC Berkeley.

References and Further Reading:

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