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Norman Borlaug dies at 95; started 'Green Revolution'

Borlaug created a system of plant breeding and crop management in the 1940s that created huge harvests. The system was a huge success and was exported to countries around the world.

September 14, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

Norman Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution" who is widely credited with saving millions of lives by breeding wheat, rice and other crops that brought agricultural self-sufficiency to developing countries around the world, died Saturday in Texas. He was 95.

Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and was hailed by Time magazine in 1999 as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century, died at his home in Dallas from complications of cancer, a Texas A&M University spokeswoman said.

In the 1940s, when the specter of famine was stalking much of the world, Borlaug collected thousands of strains of wheat from around the globe and tediously crossbred them to produce varieties that were much higher yielding and resistant to the diseases that were destroying crops.

He spearheaded efforts to spread these new strains around the world, sparking an explosion in crop yields that helped lead devastated countries toward food self-sufficiency.

In 1960, before his techniques were widely adopted, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, largely as a result of Borlaug's pioneering techniques, it was producing 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people -- using only 1% more land. India and Pakistan are now agriculturally self-sufficient as a result of his intervention.

His efforts did not go unrecognized: Borlaug became one of only five people in history to score the trifecta of humanitarian achievement, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal -- placing him in the company of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel.

On Borlaug's 90th birthday, former President Carter said that he "has been demonstrating practical ways to give people of the entire world a higher quality of life. . . . He is a true humanitarian."

Former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern added that Borlaug's "scientific leadership not only saved people from starvation, but the high-yield seeds he bred saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed down. He is one of the great men of our age."

Ever since 19th century British economist Thomas Malthus first predicted that the world's population would eventually outstrip its capacity for growing food, prophets of doom had envisioned catastrophe right around the corner.

Such a disaster was actually quite near beginning in the late 1930s. Between 1939 and 1942, Mexico's wheat harvest had been halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, causing the grain to shrivel. India, Pakistan, China and other countries were also facing the prospect of widespread starvation.

Alarmed by how food shortages might affect the war effort, the Rockefeller Foundation -- largely at the instigation of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace -- established the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. It later became known as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Borlaug signed on in 1944 after finishing his wartime obligations as a chemist at E.I. du Pont de Nemours.

Borlaug collected wheat strains from around the world and began crossbreeding them, a process he later recalled as "mind-warpingly tedious." To speed things up, he planted two crops per year, a summer crop in the low-quality, high-altitude soils near Mexico City and a winter crop hundreds of miles to the north in the low-lying Yaqui Valley.

Within five years, Borlaug had produced a strain that was resistant to rust, was more productive than existing strains and grew in both climates when given adequate fertilizer and water.

But there was still one problem. Evolution had favored wheat strains with long, slender stalks that allowed the wheat to rise above the shade of nearby weeds. With the added weight of the extra grain of Borlaug's strain, the stalks tended to collapse when irrigated or rained on, reducing yields.

After thousands of fruitless attempts to produce wheat with shorter stalks, Borlaug encountered a Japanese dwarf variety. After thousands more attempts, by 1954 he had succeeded in producing a short-stalked variety that was rust-resistant and high-yielding.

Using the new strains, Mexico, which had imported 60% of its wheat in the early 1940s, became self-sufficient by 1956.

In 1954, a rust epidemic hit the American Midwest, destroying three-quarters of the durum wheat crop that was used for making pasta and accelerating use of the new strains in the United States. There has not been a similar outbreak since.

Using Borlaug's techniques, scientists soon developed similar high-yield strains of rice and corn.

In the early 1960s, India and Pakistan were confronting famine, and the International Wheat and Maize Project sent Borlaug to intervene.

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