doi:10.1038/nindia.2009.304 Published online 30 September 2009
"More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace." These were the sentiments of the Nobel Committee as they presented the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize to Norman Borlaug.
What led Borlaug to make such a significant contribution to fighting hunger? The secret of his success is reflected in his last spoken words on the night of Saturday, 12 September, 2009: "Take the tracer to the farmer." Earlier in the day, a scientist had shown him a nitrogen tracer developed for measuring soil fertility.
This life-long dedication to reach scientific innovation to farmers without delay set Borlaug apart from other farm scientists carrying out equally important research.
Borlaug's early upbringing in an Iowa farm and experiencing hardship during the 1930s US Depression instilled in him the desire to use science to address the problems of low farm productivity, poverty and hunger. His early training was in forest ecology, and his love of forests shaped his research strategy — fostering productivity-based agriculture, making it unnecessary to divert forest land to farming.
After his Ph.D in plant pathology in 1942, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation's agricultural programme in Mexico, leading to the birth of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). There he began work on wheat, trying to control rusts of the stem, stripe and leaf — important crop diseases. He introduced a multi-pronged approach to manage the rust fungus. It included the development of composite varieties with same phenotypes but diverse genotypes to resist different races of the pathogen. The approach conferred enduring resistance as a result of reduced pressure on the fungus to mutate and create more virulent strains. He undertook 'gene pyramiding' and 'gene deployment' to interrupt the movement of the pathogen.
The Norin 10 dwarfing gene from Japan was available after World War II. Borlaug launched a programme to breed semi-dwarf high-yielding varieties of wheat, which responded well to irrigation and fertilisers. Traditional wheat varieties were tall and lodged when grown in highly fertile soil. By the late 1950s, Borlaug had developed several semi-dwarf spring wheat varieties capable of yielding 5 to 6 tonnes per hectare. Since conditions for good crop growth also aid spread of pathogens, Borlaug intensified research on how to combine high yield with high resistance to major diseases, particularly rusts, through gene pyramiding. With the help of the US Department of Agriculture, he organised International Wheat Rust Nurseries to identify varieties which remain resistant under diverse growing conditions.
Borlaug fought the battle against virulent races of wheat rusts till his dying day. Worried about the rapid spread of a new race of stem rust (Puccinia graminis) from Uganda, named UG 99, he organized a Global Rust Initiative in 2007 to check the spread of such virulent strains through basic research, surveillance and breeding. In March 2009, aged 95, Borlaug assembled over 300 wheat breeders and pathologists from around the world in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico and told them, "There is no room for complacency. Let us get on with the job of eliminating the rust menace"1.
Way back in the fifties, Borlaug initiated a shuttle breeding programme for semi-dwarf wheat involving different generations, such as F2 and F3, in two diverse growing conditions — a summer crop in the cooler highlands near Mexico City and a winter crop in the warmer Sonora in northwestern Mexico. This led to the breeding of semi-dwarf wheat strains with broad adaptation such as Sonora 63, Sonora 64, Lerma Rojo 64 and Mayo 64. The varieties had high yield potential (5 to 6 tonnes per hectare), could resist rusts and showed wide adaptation. These were the catalysts of the wheat revolution witnessed in Mexico, India and Pakistan in the 1960s.
In 1966, India imported 18,000 tonnes of seeds of Lerma Roja 64 A and a few more varieties from Mexico with the help of Borlaug, as a part of a "purchase time" strategy, resulting in a quantum jump in wheat production from 12 million tonnes in 1965 to 17 million tonnes in 1968. Similar results were being obtained in rice, as a result of the introduction of the Dee-gee-woo gen dwarfing gene from China in tall varieties of indica rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. William Gaud of USA coined the term, "green revolution" in 1968 to denote productivity-led advances in production.
For example, India produced 80 million tonnes of wheat from 26 million hectares in 2009. If this production was to be achieved at the pre-green revolution yield level of 1 t/ha, 80 million hectares would be needed. This is why the green revolution is also referred to as land or forest saving agriculture. Though a plant breeder, Borlaug always emphasised that for the plant to reveal its full genetic potential for yield, appropriate agronomic practices were needed. "Breeding" for high yield, he used to stress, must be accompanied by "feeding" for high yield.
Having significantly shaped the agricultural destiny of many countries in Asia and Latin America, Borlaug turned his attention to Africa in 1986. With support from President Jimmy Carter, the late Ryoichi Sasakawa and the Nippon Foundation, he organised a programme known as Sasakawa-Global 2000. Numerous small scale farmers were helped to double and triple the yield of maize, rice, sorghum, millet, wheat, cassava and grain legumes. Unfortunately, the spectacular results in demonstration plots did not lead to significant production gains at the national level due to lack of infrastructure such as irrigation, roads, seed production and remunerative marketing systems. This made him exclaim, "Africa has the potential for a green revolution, but you cannot eat potential". The blend of professional skill, political action and farmers' enthusiasm needed to ignite a green revolution was lacking.
In 1984, Borlaug accepted a part-time Professorship at Texas A&M University, where for over 15 years, he taught a graduate course in international agriculture. Concerned with the lack of adequate recognition to contributions of farm and food scientists, he had the World Food Prize established in 1987, which he hoped would come to be regarded as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture. Throughout his professional career, he spent time in training young scholars and researchers. This led him to promote the World Food Prize Youth Institute programme which helps high school students to work in other countries to widen their understanding of the human condition – a life-changing experience for them.
Borlaug was always a great supporter of biotechnology research including recombinant DNA technology. He believed strongly in making full use of the uncommon opportunities opened up by genetic engineering to create novel genetic combinations and meet the challenges arising from climate change.
He was a strong advocate of 'public good research' and pleaded for free exchange of genetic material and the continuous development of new germplasm by approaches such as hybridisation between winter and spring wheats. In 2006, the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture was set up at Texas A&M to promote science-based solutions for the new challenges facing global agriculture.
An important outcome of the wheat revolution triggered by the introduction of the Mexican Dwarf wheat in 1963 is the union of brain and brawn in rural areas. In India, it was on explicit display as evident from one of my observations in 1969 in the Illustrated Weekly of India: "Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has been the backbone of the revolution. Revolutions are usually associated with the young, but in this revolution, age has been no obstacle. Farmers, young and old, educated and uneducated, have easily taken to the new agronomy. It has been heart-warming to see young college graduates, retired officials, ex-armymen, illiterate peasants and small farmers queuing up to get the new seeds. At least in the Punjab, the divorce between intellect and labour, which has been the bane of our agriculture, is vanishing."
Borlaug was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret, who can be aptly described as the "unsung heroine of the green revolution". But for her meaningful and unwavering support, Borlaug might not have accomplished so much.
On the occasion of his receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from the US Congress on 17 July 2007, Borlaug said: "The Green Revolution was a great historic success. In 1960, perhaps 60 percent of the world's people felt hunger during some portion of the year. By the year 2000, the proportion of hungry in the world had dropped to 14 percent of the total population. Still, this figure translates to 850 million men, women and children who lack sufficient calories and protein to grow strong and healthy bodies. Thus, despite the successes of the Green Revolution, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of poor people is far from won".
He urged the US Congress "to launch a new version of the Marshall Plan, this time not to rescue a war-torn Europe, but to help the nearly one billion, mostly rural poor, still trapped in hunger and misery". This then is the unfinished task bequeathed by Borlaug to scientists and political leaders worldwide.