Norman Ernest Borlaug

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Norman Ernest Borlaug

Norman Ernest Borlaug (born 1914) was a biochemist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing varieties of cereal grains that would produce high yields in developing countries.

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, near Cresco, Iowa, in the part of that state known as "little Norway." His Norwegian immigrant parents were farmers, but when he graduated from high school in 1932 he left to attend the University of Minnesota. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1937, majoring in forestry. The same year he married Margaret G. Gibson. His graduate work in plant pathology at Minnesota earned him a Master of Science degree in 1940 and a Ph.D. in 1941.

Having received his doctorate, Borlaug became an assistant professor at Minnesota in 1942, but left the following year to work as a biochemist with the chemical firm of E. I. du Pont de Nemours. In 1944 he joined a new team of scientists sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation to "export the United States agricultural revolution to Mexico." Their work resulted in the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) whose goal was the development of varieties of cereal grains (wheat, rice, and corn) that would produce higher yields in the developing countries of the world.

The Green Revolution

The agricultural revolution in the United States was based largely on the massive introduction of new varieties of plants and animals, new machinery, and the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, all supported by a massive reorganization of agribusiness and rural life. In 1944, Borlaug and his colleagues found in Mexico exhausted fields, sometimes dating back to Aztec times. Their initial aim was to develop a variety of wheat which was adaptable to many different areas, resistant to a particular disease called rust, and responsive to the application of fertilizers.

The wheat used by Mexican farmers had long stems, naturally evolved over the ages in an effort to rise above the shade of surrounding weeds. When the yield of this wheat was increased, the heavy heads bent the thin stems over, a problem called "lodging" by farmers. Using two experimental plots, one in the north of Mexico and the other near Mexico City, Borlaug and the CIMMYT team drew upon Japanese short-stemmed wheat and developed a HYV (high yielding variety) that greatly increased production.

The success of the Rockefeller team with wheat and later rice led to the enthusiastic proclamation of a "Green Revolution, " the notion that world hunger could be solved, at least in the short run, by the adoption of these new varieties of grains and the cultivation methods that would allow them to work their miracles. Borlaug became much sought after as a consultant by India, Pakistan, Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, and similar countries with large populations and small crop yields. In 1970 the work of CIMMYT was recognized when Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. He was the 15th American to win the prize, but it was noted at the time that it was significant that he was a scientist, rather than a politician or statesman. The Nobel Prize was only one among many citations and honorary degrees which he received for his work.

Borlaug remained a researcher at the Mexican experiment station of CIMMYT until 1960 when he also became the associate director assigned to the Inter-American Food Crop Program of the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1964 he was made director of the wheat research and production program of CIMMYT and, that same year, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation. He retired in 1983 but remained as a consultant. In 1984 he completed a tour of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, using his knowledge and prestige to press for adoption of CIMMYT's new hybrid corn. This variety, like the earlier ones of wheat and rice, was bred specifically to maximize the production of maize in those parts of the world where it remained the most important cereal crop.

Criticism of Borlaug's Methods

Over his long career Borlaug saw his Green Revolution go through periods of vast praise and harsh criticism. Initially, when applied carefully to the most suitable lands (especially lands easily irrigated), crop increases were spectacular. By the mid-1970s about 90 percent of Mexico's wheat crop was made up of HYVs, and in Asia and North Africa 35 percent of the wheat and 20 percent of the rice was HYV. At first, crop yields were up to 400 percent larger than with traditional varieties, but within a few years yields had dipped by nearly half. In part this was caused by bad weather, but energy prices were driving up the cost of fertilizers (so that less was used), and pests were finding the new cultivation methods to their advantage. Because they were both energy and labor intensive, the new crop varieties crowded out small farmers who could not afford to raise them. It was even charged that crop innovations made social conflict more certain by widening the gap between the rich and the poor farmers of the world. During the 1980s environmentalists criticized Borlaug's high-yield dependence on inorganic fertilizers and effectively pressured donor countries and philanthropic organizations to back away from such programs in Africa. Borlaug responded by saying, "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

Sasakawa-Global 2000 Projects

Borlaug was lured out of retirement in 1984 by Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa who, along with former president Jimmy Carter, wanted to improve agricultural production in Africa. Borlaug's association with Sasakawa and Carter produced the Sasakawa-Global 2000 project. Although environmentalists still opposed his methods, yields of corn, wheat, cassava, sorghum, and cow peas were greatly increased in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo. During the 1995-96 season, Ethiopia recorded the greatest harvest in its history. Borlaug even made headway in Sudan, near the dry Sahel, until project efforts there were terminated in 1992 with the onset of civil war.

Borlaug continues to lead an active life by dividing his time between the CIMMYT where he advises young scientists, Texas A&M where he teaches international agriculture, and the Sasakawa-Global 2000 projects that operate in 12 African nations.

Further Reading

A brief first-hand account can be found in Norman E. Borlaug, Land Use, Food, Energy and Recreation (1982). A more technical description is Haldore Hanson, Norman E. Borlaug, and R. Glenn Anderson, Wheat in the Third World (1982). The standard secondary source is Lennard Bickel, Facing Starvation: Norman Borlaug and the Fight Against Hunger (1974), which deals also with the personalities involved in the early days of the Green Revolution.

An excellent account of Borlaug's contributions to the world can be found in the Atlantic Monthly (January 1997). □

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Borlaug, Norman E.

American Microbiologist and Agronomist

Norman E. Borlaug, perhaps the world's best-known plant breeder, was born on a small farm near Cresco, Iowa, in 1914. He studied plant pathology at the University of Minnesota.

In October 1944 Borlaug began work with the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico. The foundation had begun a new program in Mexico in 1943 aimed at increasing the agricultural yields of the country. Borlaug's primary scientific achievements were as an applied wheat geneticist with the foundation. He oversaw a highly successful use of Mendelian genetics to create new varieties of wheat.

His work involved the identification of parent varieties with useful traits, such as disease resistance and high yield. He then dusted pollen (male reproductive cells) from the flowers of one variety onto flowers from another variety, from which the stamen had been removed. The transferred pollen cells fertilized the ovules (female reproductive cells) of the recipient flowers. The wheat seeds produced by the female parent were harvested and grown into new plants. Borlaug and his team then identified offspring with desired, novel combinations of traits and used them for further crosses. They released offspring offering high promise and reliability to farmers for commercial cultivation .

Borlaug used a practice considered controversial at the time: shuttle breeding. This involved shuttling breeding stock between two different geographic regions in order to achieve two crossings per year rather than just one. With this technique, he successfully shortened the time needed to obtain new varieties from about ten years to about five years. His shuttle breeding also enabled him to create new wheat varieties that were widely adaptable. In wheat, this wide adaptability was due in part to eliminating day-length sensitivity (photoperiodism) in flowering.

Borlaug's work was of profound significance. Within ten years, he and his team were able to create varieties of wheat well suited to different regions of Mexico, which enabled Mexican wheat farmers to more than triple production, from 365 thousand tons (750 kilograms per hectare) in 1945 to 1.2 million tons (1,370 kilograms per hectare) in 1956. As a result, Mexico stopped importing wheat and began exporting it.

In 1953 wheat varieties bearing semidwarfing genes came to Borlaug from Orville Vogel in Washington State. Vogel had successfully incorporated these genes, obtained from Japanese varieties, into wheats suited to Washington. These varieties responded well to fertilizer and gave substantially higher yields. Borlaug incorporated the semidwarfing genes into his already successful new varieties, which enabled Mexican wheat growers by the early 1960s to obtain over 6,000 kilograms per hectare. In 1963 Borlaug subsequently recommended that India import the new semidwarf varieties, and these plants were equally successful there.

Borlaug's scientific work led to his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. His successes, plus those of his other colleagues in wheat and rice breeding, are often referred to as the Green Revolution. High-yielding varieties of wheat and rice are now grown in all parts of the world. They are very significant in the production of food supplies adequate for the growing human population.

see also Breeder; Breeding; Grains; Green Revolution; Photoperiodism.

John H. Perkins


Easterbrook, Gregg. "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity." Atlantic Monthly 279 (January 1997): 75-82.

Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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Borlaug, Norman (born 1914) American plant scientist; Nobel Prize 1970, for development of high yielding strains of wheat and rice.