Monday, October 19, 2009
Mexico, Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution
By Allan Wall
Last month saw the passing of Norman Borlaug, a man whose work changed the world. This brilliant agronomist, whose innovations sparked the “Green Revolution,”
received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Aztec Eagle (from the
Mexican government), and the Padma Vibhushan, the highest honor that India bestows upon a foreigner.
It has been calculated that Borlaug’s work (much of it carried out in Mexico) headed
off a world famine and saved a billion lives worldwide.
Dr. Borlaug died of cancer complications on September 12th, 2009, in Dallas,
Texas, at the age of 95. Coincidentally, my own grandfather also passed away
this year and was the same age as Borlaug.
The death of one we know or whom we know of elicits reflection upon his life and accomplishments. In the case of Norman Borlaug, his beginnings were in the great American Midwest,
where he was born in Cresco, Iowa in 1914.
Like my grandfather, Borlaug attended a one-room country schoolhouse, where he completed
his eighth-grade education. After high school, Norman attended the University
of Minnesota, eventually earning his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. (My grandfather also got a Ph.D. It seems those one-room country schoolhouses could be good launching pads for those
who went into higher education.)
In 1937, Borlaug married Margaret Gibson – the two were married 69 years, until
her death in 2007.
During World War II, as a microbiologist for DuPont, Borlaug and others developed a glue
that could withstand South Pacific saltwater. This made it possible for speedboats to resupply American troops on the Japanese-occupied
island of Guadalcanal by tossing the supplies in the water so they would drift ashore.
In 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to work at a new joint U.S.-Mexican wheat production
project, and he wound up working on related projects there until 1979.
The agronomist took advantage of Mexico’s varied climates and altitudes to breed wheat
in two growing seasons per year, in a process called shuttle breeding. In the summer he would work in Chapingo, in the central state of Mexico. Then, after harvest, he would take the seed wheat straight to the
Yaqui Valley station in northwestern Sonora. At the time this
ran counter to a then-observed (and later disproved) principle that seeds required a rest after harvest before being sown.
Borlaug was a real hands-on supervisor. He wasn’t
just crunching numbers in the office all the time, as he would spend plenty of time in the field with the workers. (For a photo of Borlaug in the field in 1943 click here, he’s on the left).
The result of Borlaug’s work was the development of semi-dwarf varieties of wheat
that were high-yield and disease-resistant. By 1963, Mexico had become a net
exporter of wheat.
In the 1960s, the wheat varieties and techniques were exported to India and Pakistan
where wheat yields nearly doubled from 1965 to 1970. It was called the Green
Revolution, and it’s credited with saving a billion human beings from starvation.
In 1968, Paul M. Ehrlich confidently predicted that, "The battle to feed all of humanity
is over.... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve
to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. I have yet to meet
anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…. India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."
Thanks to Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, Ehrlich was proven wrong. In fact, Pakistan was self-sufficient in its production of wheat by 1968, the same year as Ehrlich’s
prediction and by 1974 India had self-sufficiency in all its cereal production. In
both India and Pakistan, the rise in food production has been increasing faster than the population growth rate. In other countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, the Green Revolution has brought about
In 1970, Norman Borlaug was selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, on the grounds
that he had contributed to world peace by increasing the supply of food. The
Nobel committee called his house in Mexico, but he had already left for work, so his wife Margaret went to the field to give
him the news. At first he didn’t believe it! When he was finally convinced,
he just went back to work.
Aase Lionaes, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairwoman, said this of Borlaug during
the presentation of the award: "More than any other single person of his age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry
world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give
the world peace."
Of course, Borlaug and the Green Revolution have their critics. Such criticisms raise a variety of issues which are worthy of consideration. Given the complex nature of international agriculture, and its intersection with politics and culture,
untangling such issues requires some serious thinking.
Some criticize the Green Revolution because they oppose genetic crossbreeding. However, man has been genetically manipulating plants and animals for millennia. Indians in pre-Columbian Mexico developed corn (maize) from wild teosinte plants, so they were practicing
Other critics have accused the Green Revolution of replacing subsistence farming with
input-intensive farming, polycultures with monocultures, and changing traditional diets.
These changes are undeniable. Whether they are positive or negative might
be debated, but the same transformations have already taken place in the developed world and are now taking place in the developing
world. As for the diets, they may have changed anyway.
Green Revolution techniques do use a lot of water, and water management is a big problem
in today’s world. But that would be a challenge with or without the new techniques.
Proponents of organic agriculture have criticized it for its use of pesticides, herbicides
and inorganic fertilizer. There’s no doubt that chemicals can be dangerous
if used improperly. But the organic route is not currently practical for all
farmers. The pros and cons of every agricultural technique must be carefully
weighed based on local conditions and the goals to be achieved.
Ironically, the Green Revolution has been opposed for causing roads to be constructed
in the Third World. Honestly, I get the impression that some Western environmentalists
want the developing world to remain poor rather than modernize.
Borlaug has responded by calling the Green Revolution "a change in the right direction,
but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia." And he has criticized the
elitism of some environmentalists when he said that "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 fifty 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."
Borlaug relocated back to the U.S. in 1979, but he continued to spend several months
each year in Mexico. As well, he was involved in various projects, including
the promotion of the Green Revolution in Africa, in partnership with the Japanese Nippon Foundation, and with Jimmy Carter
and the Carter Center. The famed agronomist also served as a professor and researcher
at Texas A&M University from 1984 until his death.
It was there, on the Texas A&M campus, that Dr. Borlaug’s memorial service
was held on October 6th. The service was conducted by Lutheran minister
Dr. David Beckmann, president of Food for the World. The eulogies were delivered
by a diverse group. From the U.S. government, there was Secretary of Defense
Dr. Robert M. Gates, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; from the Nippon Foundation, Chairman Yohei Sasakawa; and an
old friend of Borlaug’s, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, a member of the Parliament of India.
And granddaughter Tiffany Rubi gave a short talk in which she shared two of Borlaug’s
favorite sayings. One was the Spanish expression “Vaya con Dios” (Go with God).
Another was about reaching for the stars: “Reach for the stars. Although you will never touch them, if you reach hard enough you
will find that you get a little 'star dust' on you in the process."
Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years. His website is located at www.allanwall.net.