Norman Borlaug was an American original who saved more lives than anyone else in history.
By the mid-1900s, one in six people in the world didn’t have enough to eat. As population growth outstripped available food, Norman Borlaug decided to do something about it. Borlaug, who died recently at age 95, grew up in farm country near Cresco, Iowa, and witnessed the effects of hunger while leading a Civilian Conservation Corps team of unemployed workers in 1935. “I saw how food changed them,” he later wrote. After earning a PhD in plant pathology at the University of Minnesota in 1942, he made it his life’s mission to develop crop yield techniques that dramatically increased the production of cereal grains. His efforts earned him the nickname “Father of the Green Revolution” and a Nobel Peace Prize.
I first became aware of Borlaug in 1960 when President John F. Kennedy set out to share the surplus of U.S. crops with the rest of the globe and appointed me director of a Food for Peace program. Meanwhile, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug was already creating conditions that would allow other countries to improve their own farm production. His research into crop yields began nearly two decades earlier in the wheat fields of Mexico, where he found the farmers handicapped by rust—a fungus that destroyed much of the wheat crop. After years of toil he discovered rust-resistant wheat varieties that he crossed with the Mexican wheat. A second problem he solved was related to increased use of growth-boosting nitrogen as a fertilizer. The stems on the wheat plants grew taller but would then break, dumping the wheat head onto the ground, where the plant would die. Borlaug discovered a wheat plant with a shorter and tougher stem. Crossing the plant with Mexican wheat allowed farmers to make full use of nitrogen in growing their crops. Soon so many farmers were using the scientific breakthroughs that Mexico’s wheat production increased six fold.
The news of the Borlaug revolution in Mexico quickly spread to other countries with food shortages. In South Asia, Borlaug initially faced cultural opposition to his efforts to introduce new agricultural techniques. But as the Indian subcontinent erupted in war in the mid-1960s and famine spread through the region, the governments of both India and Pakistan stepped in and allowed the planting of his new wheat strains. Wheat yields subsequently increased between 1965 and 1970 from 12.3 million tons to 20.1 million tons in India, and from 4.6 million tons to 7.3 million tons in Pakistan. His techniques were also adapted to rice production in the Philippines and China.
When Borlaug was awarded his Nobel in 1970, his benefactors said that he had led the way in providing “bread for a hungry world.” They then added: “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”
In March 2009, I flew to Dallas, Texas, to attend Borlaug’s 95th birthday party. He was surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and others who loved him. He talked that night as though he had unlimited time ahead and how he would like to see the people of Africa lifted by the kind of biotechnology he had given to Latin America and Asia. I couldn’t help but marvel at a man of 95 still dreaming after so many hard years working in sun and rain, heat and cold, wind and calm.
Borlaug is said not to have liked the title Father of the Green Revolution. Perhaps he would have preferred Harry Truman’s chosen epitaph: “He did his damndest,” which he surely did. Thank God on behalf of the human race.
George McGovern, a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential nominee, is currently the U.N. Ambassador on Global Hunger.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.