(portrait by Trond Isaksen)
Norman Borlaug
FTLComm - Washington - Monday, July 30, 2007

When the world news seems far more interested in drunken starlets and storms that took place two years ago it is not any wonder that I had never heard of this man and when a contributor to this web site pointed him out to me I was stunned. This guy is important and you really need to know about him. You can read through the extensive biographies and the lists of achievements and awards given Norman Borlaug but I will just try to give you some basic idea of his importance.

Some of the headlines about him claim that he has saved the lives of a billion people, that seemed like a pretty wild exaggeration until I began to realise just what he is responsible for and the profound and long term results of his success.

Norman Borlaug is from Iowa, a farm boy who grew up in the dirty thirties but because of his grandfather's encouragement he headed off to college and in 1942 got his PHD from the University of Minnesota. He was noticed in graduate work as an exceptional character and after the war when the Rockefeller Foundation and the government of Mexico created a research project to do something about the crop problems in Mexico Dr. Borlaug was brought to Mexico. At the time Mexico was forced to import grain to feed its people and the problems they were having with their crops with rust was severely limiting their chances of feeding themselves.

Borlaug did not do it all himself but it was his systematic approach and his insistence on training agronomists to follow his pattern that paid off. Growing two crops a year at different altitudes and growing conditions allowed him to double the speed of plant development as he bred disease resistant strains of wheat in combination with one another then mixed them with dwarf sized wheat from Japan so that the crop would be shorter and thus carry larger more productive heads.

He was so determined to do something about starvation that he decided from the beginning to use every tool possible for the cultivation of large yield crops and by 1962 Mexico was exporting surplus wheat. He made extensive use of chemical fertilizers and chemicals to get the results needed and though he was aware of the dangers of chemical abuse he was single minded in doing everything possible to prevent famine.

The Rockefeller Foundation gave him the support to spread his work to Asia and in India and Pakistan during their shooting war he set about training agronomists and using technology and the seed varieties he and his co-workers had developed to free India and Pakistan of having not enough food. In only a few years both countries went from famine to exporters of grain.

Many refer to the "green revolution" it was for his part in that movement that he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and most agree that it was his methods and the use of technology that prevented the massive dying off of the planet predicted in the late 50s and early 60s as the population explosion was almost certain to decimate the world's population. That did not happen and most agree that the reason it did not happen was this one man, now 93 years old, Norman Borlaug.

He has worked with other crops including maze and rice and through out China the methods he developed are now standard practice. Those methods are really quite simple, breed crops that will flourish and are disease resistant, use the present land available to the greatest extent, provide the growth with chemical fertilizers as needed and in effect move agriculture in the third world from subsistence to modern farming productive practices.

Oddly enough it was not until the last two decades has efforts of his been used in Africa. There has been political and social backlashes to the Norman Borlaug technologies but he is strident in pointing out that the planet can feed its population but he admits there are limits to the expansion of productivity and populations must control their growth.

Most of his work has been at the farm and lab level but he is pretty outspoken about the politics of world food. He greatly opposes the subsidisation of agriculture in the developed world that is a contributing factor to magnetizing agriculture in the underdeveloped world.

Ultimately history alone will look at the 20th century and weigh the profound affects of the green revolution on humanity. But for us here and now we should know who this man is and understand what he has done.

Timothy W. Shire

Wikipedia, Norman Borlaug, July 17, 2007, Wikipedia


Haberman, Frederick editor, Norman Borlaug, 1972, from Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970


Alter, Jonathan, How superficial Has Our culture Become? (pdf) July 30, 2007, Newsweek Magazine

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