Inventor Imparts Seeds of Success

Norman Borlaug, the plant pathologist described by the Atlantic Monthly as having saved more lives than anyone else in the history of mankind, came within eight seeds of failure.

According to Kenneth G. Becker, the secretary of the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, Borlaug almost ran out of seeds before developing the dwarf variety of wheat that would revolutionize agriculture and win him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

“The theory at the time was that bigger wheat meant bigger yield,” Becker says. But Borlaug’s dwarf wheat used its energy to produce edible grain and not the inedible stalk, thus significantly increasing the yield of the crop.

Borlaug’s achievement has kept worldwide food production ahead of population growth and has preserved billions of acres of land in the developing world that otherwise would have become farmland.

“The work he did was seminal in the green revolution, which probably resulted in millions being fed,” says Institute of Politics Director Dan Glickman, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton.

Today, Borlaug will tell the Medical School Class of 2004 that although progress has been made, the one billion people in the world who remain malnourished should not be forgotten.

DWARF WHEAT

It was in the early 1960s in Mexico that Borlaug developed the high-yield strain of wheat that would more than double worldwide grain output over 40 years.

According to Christopher Dowswell, the director of communications at the Sasakawa Africa Association, Borlaug crossed high yield tall wheats with much shorter Japanese wheats to develop a plant which produced substanitally more grain.

Becker says that Borlaug conducted the experiments in Mexico because the country could support two growing seasons.

“When he showed up in Mexico [in the 1940s], the Mexicans didn’t trust him,” Becker says. “[But] he kept going.” Sixty years later, Borlaug maintains an office in Mexico.

Borlaug was able to convince nations around the world to adopt the dwarf wheat to supplement and even replace traditional grain crops.

“He’s a tenacious, dedicated person,” says Kenneth M. Quinn, the president of the World Food Prizes Foundation, which Borlaug helped start to reward achievements in agriculture. “[He] went to India and Pakistan and convinced leaders of both countries to change their approach to agriculture.”

In the midst of war and starvation in the late 1960s, the nations adopted Borlaug’s dwarf wheat and were able to avert both.

According to Glickman, nations that once were “huge recipients of food assistance” became self-sufficient as a result of the new wheat.

CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

At Borlaug’s 90th birthday party earlier this year, Colin Powell led the singing of “Happy Birthday” in his honor. But, according to Quinn, when Peter Jennings came to interview Borlaug, he had already left for Africa.

Borlaug divides his time between Mexico, where he is a senior consultant at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center; Texas, where he is a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M; and Africa, where he is president of the Sasakawa Africa Association.

In Africa, he’s trying to duplicate the success he had in combatting hunger in South Asia.

“A Japanese industrialist called him 16 years ago when he was thinking of retiring [and] asked why [progress in combatting hunger hadn’t been made] in Africa,” says Borlaug’s nephew, Ted Behrens, who founded the Heritage Foundation.

But Dowswell says that the African project has not had the same success as the South Asian campaign because Africa still does not have the infrastructure that India and Pakistan had in the 1960s.

ROOTS

Borlaug, who has received 54 honerary doctorate degrees, grew up on a farm, and spent his first eight years of school in a one-room schoolhouse near Cresco, Iowa.

“[He] grew up in the depression, influenced by those early years,” Behrens says.

Borlaug was a Big 10 wrestler at the University of Minnesota, and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.

He received a B.A. in forest management from the University of Minnesota, but according to Becker, he returned to the college when a job fell through.

Becker, the editor of the Cresco Times Plain Dealer, says that Borlaug was so taken by a seminar at the University of Minnesota on the genetics of grain that he decided to dedicate his life to science.

“He had a great desire to make a difference,” Behrens says. “He could be a very wealthy man if he wanted it. He passed it all on to others.”

—Staff writer Joseph M. Tartakoff can be reached at tartakof@fas.harvard.edu.