Norman Borlaug – tireless advocate of research for development

In the 1960s the world faced a huge challenge: how to feed an ever-increasing population, especially in the poorer, developing countries with large agriculture-based societies.

One man, Dr Norman Borlaug, had the vision – and the energy – to do something about this, and spent his entire career, right up until the day he died at the age of 94, applying the best of plant science, and being a tireless advocate for agricultural research for development.

Widely hailed as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in breeding and releasing high-yielding varieties of wheat, in what became known as the Green Revolution. In 2007 he was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal.

For many years Borlaug was head of the Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City (a sister center to the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, where I worked for 19 years). Exploiting wheat genetic resources, and producing short-strawed wheat varieties that yielded much higher than farmers’ landrace varieties, Borlaug has been credited with saving over a billion lives.

Even after retiring from CIMMYT he continued to travel the world, pushing for the resources to make a difference to people’s lives. And in the last years of his life he pushed for a greater effort to bring a Green Revolution to Africa that had largely been bypassed in earlier decades.

Borlaug often said that he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because there was no such prize for agriculture. So he set about to rectify that and helped to set up the World Food Prize in 1986, which has been recognizing laureates each year since 1987 (five scientists associated with the International Rice Research Institute – IRRI – have won the prize including two former directors general, two plant breeders, and a member of the institute’s Board of Trustees).

In April 1999, I met Norman Borlaug for the first and only time, during his visit to IRRI. As one of IRRI’s department heads I was invited to an ‘audience’ with Dr Borlaug. I remember it was a Friday morning, and a group of us met with him – maybe 10 or so staff – ostensibly for a round-table discussion. However, the meeting turned into what I thought was a rambling and confused monologue by Borlaug, and we all came away rather disappointed and disillusioned. Quite frankly, I had the distinct impression that Borlaug (who was about 80 at the time) had lost his marbles. Consequently, I was not looking forward to a one-on-one session the following day to show him around the rice genebank (something I was expected to do rather often whenever VIPs visited the institute), especially since there would be no support staff on duty to show how we ran things.

How wrong first impressions can be! Our meeting had been scheduled for just 30 minutes. After 3 hours we decided to call a halt and let him move on to other colleagues who were waiting (im)patiently to meet him.

Discussing genetic conservation and related issues with Dr Borlaug was a delight. He was no longer ‘the great man’ expected to ‘perform’ in front of an audience, so-to-speak. Instead, we met as fellow scientists with a passion for agricultural research, for the conservation of genetic resources, and how these could be used for the benefit of humanity.

It also helped that we knew several people in common, such as Jack Hawkes and John Niederhauser (who had been a Rockefeller Foundation colleague of Borlaug’s in Mexico), and of course Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I had worked from 1973-1981.

The memory of that meeting has stayed with me. Borlaug’s energy and vision has inspired many scientists to embrace the challenge of agricultural research for development. His legacy endures through the World Food Prize Foundation and several other awards that bear his name.

In an interesting twist to the Borlaug story, American illusionists and comedians, Penn and Teller, have taken a sceptical look – through their Showtime network television show Bullshit! – at the role of pressure groups who are against the use of genetic modification (GM) to produce more food. In the video below (which contains some STRONG language) both pro- and anti-GM views are presented, and Norman Borlaug is featured (starting at about 1:50). It’s well worth spending 10 minutes to listen to the different perspectives. Borlaug’s arguments are compelling.