Borlaug’s life was one of extraordinary paradoxes: A child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who grew up on a dirt-poor farm, attended a one-room school and flunked the university entrance exam but went on to become one of most renowned plant breeders in history – and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the premature death of hundreds of millions. (That was at a time when the award meant more than political correctness.)
Borlaug introduced several revolutionary innovations. First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20% to 40%.
Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties, which were smaller than the old shoulder-high varieties that bent in the wind and touched the ground (thereby becoming unharvestable); the new waist or knee-high dwarfs stayed erect and held up huge loads of grain. The yields were boosted even further.
Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”– growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.
Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide both improved seeds and the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.
In his professional life, Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.
How successful were Borlaug’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield per acre of more than 150 percent. India is an excellent case in point. In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 lb per acre. By 1968, thanks to Borlaug’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6000 lb per acre.
Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation — with losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion.
Borlaug recalled afterwards without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: “bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions.”
The need for additional agricultural production and the obstacles to innovation remains, and in his later years, Borlaug turned his efforts to ensure the success of this century’s equivalent of the Green Revolution: the application of gene-splicing, or “genetic modification” (GM), to agriculture. As Borlaug and other plant scientists realized, the use of the term “genetic modification” to apply only to the newest genetic techniques is an unfortunate misnomer, because plant scientists had been using crude and laborious techniques to obtain new genetic variants of wheat, corn and other crops for decades, if not centuries. Products now in development with gene-splicing techniques offer the possibility of even higher yields, lower inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.
Borlaug observed that the enemies of innovation might create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.” After slowing the progress of gene-splicing technology by advocating excessive regulation, filing lawsuits to prevent the testing and commercialization of gene-spliced plants and even vandalizing field trials, activists have had the audacity to accuse the scientists and companies of having over-promised technological advances.
Borlaug’s story is a saga of American 20th Century exceptionalism – of opportunity, individuality, tenacity, courage and monumental achievement. He strove to exploit new technology in a way that was based on good science and good sense. Although he worked under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, this was no pampered boffin working in sparkling, state-of-the-art labs; Vietmeyer’s account describes vividly the primitive and sometimes dangerous conditions that Borlaug endured in Mexico and how, lacking animals — let alone tractors — he and his few Mexican helpers plowed experimental plots harnessed like beasts of burden.
I was privileged to know Norman Borlaug personally during the last two decades of his life. As remarkable as his scientific and humanitarian accomplishments were, Borlaug’s modesty, guilelessness, and desire to contribute to society were also among his salient qualities.
Borlaug’s world-view was shaped by his roots and by his experiences as a young man. He applied throughout his professional life what he had learned during the late 1930′s when he saw Iowa corn farming transformed by the advent of new hybrid corn seeds and appropriate amounts of fertilizer. These advances boosted yields from the traditional ceiling of 30 bushels per acre to an astonishing state average of 75, which in turn transformed Iowa farming from subsistence to a more assured, civilized existence.
Borlaug had been shocked by what he saw when he arrived at the University of Minnesota as a freshman in the fall of 1933: “I saw these people out there on the streets in the cold, mostly grown men and whole families too, sleeping on newspapers, hands out, asking for a nickel, begging for food. This was before the soup lines.” Perhaps as a result of having gone hungry himself often during his childhood and college years, Borlaug’s modus vivendi might be summed up in several observations that he made about the importance of food and the application of science to feeding the hungry.
First: “There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse.” Second: “You can’t eat potential.” In other words, you haven’t succeeded until you get new developments into the field and actually into people’s bellies. And finally: “It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don’t know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be.”
Jonathan Swift wrote, “Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind than the whole race of politicians put together.” Norman Borlaug was such a person.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and former director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, is the Robert Wesson Fellow of Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University‘s Hoover institution.