Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity

Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose discoveries sparked the Green Revolution, has saved literally millions of lives, yet he is hardly a household name

AmericaNorman Borlaug has three living winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, two universally renowned and the other so little celebrated that not one person in a hundred would be likely to pick his face out of a police lineup, or even recognize his name. The universally known recipients are Elie Wiesel, who for leading an exemplary life has been justly rewarded with honor and acclaim, and Henry Kissinger, who in the aftermath of his Nobel has realized wealth and prestige. America's third peace-prize winner, in contrast, has been the subject of little public notice, and has passed up every opportunity to parley his award into riches or personal distinction. And the third winner's accomplishments, unlike Kissinger's, are morally unambiguous. Though barely known in the country of his birth, elsewhere in the world Norman Borlaug is widely considered to be among the leading Americans of our age.

Borlaug is an eighty-two-year-old plant breeder who for most of the past five decades has lived in developing nations, teaching the techniques of high-yield agriculture. He received the Nobel in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted—for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine—1975! The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.

Yet although he has led one of the century's most accomplished lives, and done so in a meritorious cause, Borlaug has never received much public recognition in the United States, where it is often said that the young lack heroes to look up to. One reason is that Borlaug's deeds are done in nations remote from the media spotlight: the Western press covers tragedy and strife in poor countries, but has little to say about progress there. Another reason is that Borlaug's mission—to cause the environment to produce significantly more food—has come to be seen, at least by some securely affluent commentators, as perhaps better left undone. More food sustains human population growth, which they see as antithetical to the natural world.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the World Bank, once sponsors of his work, have recently given Borlaug the cold shoulder. Funding institutions have also cut support for the International Maize and Wheat Center—located in Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT —where Borlaug helped to develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world's population now depends for sustenance. And though Borlaug's achievements are arguably the greatest that Ford or Rockefeller has ever funded, both foundations have retreated from the last effort of Borlaug's long life: the attempt to bring high-yield agriculture to Africa.

The African continent is the main place where food production has not kept pace with population growth: its potential for a Malthusian catastrophe is great. Borlaug's initial efforts in a few African nations have yielded the same rapid increases in food production as did his initial efforts on the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Western environmental groups have campaigned against introducing high-yield farming techniques to Africa, and have persuaded image-sensitive organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to steer clear of Borlaug. So far the only prominent support for Borlaug's Africa project has come from former President Jimmy Carter, a humanist and himself a farmer, and from the late mediagenic multimillionaire Japanese industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa.

Reflecting Western priorities, the debate about whether high-yield agriculture would be good for Africa is currently phrased mostly in environmental terms, not in terms of saving lives. By producing more food from less land, Borlaug argues, high-yield farming will preserve Africa's wild habitats, which are now being depleted by slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture. Opponents argue that inorganic fertilizers and controlled irrigation will bring a new environmental stress to the one continent where the chemical-based approach to food production has yet to catch on. In this debate the moral imperative of food for the world's malnourished—whether they "should" have been born or not, they must eat—stands in danger of being forgotten.

The Lesson of the Dust Bowl

Norman Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa, in 1914. Ideas being tested in Iowa around the time of his boyhood would soon transform the American Midwest into "the world's breadbasket," not only annually increasing total production—so methodically that the increases were soon taken for granted—but annually improving yield, growing more bushels of grain from the same amount of land or less. From about 1950 until the 1980s midwestern farmers improved yields by around three percent a year, more than doubling the overall yield through the period. This feat of expansion was so spectacular that some pessimists declared it was a special case that could never be repeated. But it has been done again, since around 1970, in China.

Entering college as the Depression began, Borlaug worked for a time in the Northeastern Forestry Service, often with men from the Civilian Conservation Corps, occasionally dropping out of school to earn money to finish his degree in forest management. He passed the civil-service exam and was accepted into the Forest Service, but the job fell through. He then began to pursue a graduate degree in plant pathology. During his studies he did a research project on the movement of spores of rust, a class of fungus that plagues many crops. The project, undertaken when the existence of the jet stream was not yet known, established that rust-spore clouds move internationally in sync with harvest cycles—a surprising finding at the time. The process opened Borlaug's eyes to the magnitude of the world beyond Iowa's borders.

At the same time, the Midwest was becoming the Dust Bowl. Though some mythology now attributes the Dust Bowl to a conversion to technological farming methods, in Borlaug's mind the problem was the lack of such methods. Since then American farming has become far more technological, and no Dust Bowl conditions have recurred. In the summer of 1988 the Dakotas had a drought as bad as that in the Dust Bowl, but clouds of soil were rare because few crops failed. Borlaug was horrified by the Dust Bowl and simultaneously impressed that its effects seemed least where high-yield approaches to farming were being tried. He decided that his life's work would be to spread the benefits of high-yield farming to the many nations where crop failures as awful as those in the Dust Bowl were regular facts of life.

In 1943 the Rockefeller Foundation established the precursor to CIMMYT to assist the poor farmers of Mexico, doing so at the behest of the former Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, of the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company family, who had been unable to extract any money from Congress for agricultural aid to Mexico. Soon Borlaug was in Mexico as the director of the wheat program—a job for which there was little competition, backwater Mexico in the 1940s not being an eagerly sought-after posting. Except for brief intervals, he has lived in the developing world since.

The program's initial goal was to teach Mexican farmers new farming ideas, but Borlaug soon had the institution seeking agricultural innovations. One was "shuttle breeding," a technique for speeding up the movement of disease immunity between strains of crops. Borlaug also developed cereals that were insensitive to the number of hours of light in a day, and could therefore be grown in many climates.

Borlaug's leading research achievement was to hasten the perfection of dwarf spring wheat. Though it is conventionally assumed that farmers want a tall, impressive-looking harvest, in fact shrinking wheat and other crops has often proved beneficial. Bred for short stalks, plants expend less energy on growing inedible column sections and more on growing valuable grain. Stout, short-stalked wheat also neatly supports its kernels, whereas tall-stalked wheat may bend over at maturity, complicating reaping. Nature has favored genes for tall stalks, because in nature plants must compete for access to sunlight. In high-yield agriculture equally short-stalked plants will receive equal sunlight. As Borlaug labored to perfect his wheat, researchers were seeking dwarf strains of rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, another of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations' creations, and at China's Hunan Rice Research Institute.

Once the Rockefeller's Mexican program was producing high-yield dwarf wheat for Mexico, Borlaug began to argue that India and other nations should switch to cereal crops. The proposition was controversial then and remains so today, some environmental commentators asserting that farmers in the developing world should grow indigenous crops (lentils in India, cassava in Africa) rather than the grains favored in the West. Borlaug's argument was simply that since no one had yet perfected high-yield strains of indigenous plants (high-yield cassava has only recently been available), CIMMYT wheat would produce the most food calories for the developing world. Borlaug particularly favored wheat because it grows in nearly all environments and requires relatively little pesticide, having an innate resistance to insects.

CIMMYT's selectively bred wheat, no longer a wholly natural plant, would not prosper without fertilizer and irrigation, however. High-yield crops sprout with great enthusiasm, but the better plants grow, the more moisture they demand and the faster they deplete soil nutrients. Like most agronomists, Borlaug has always advocated using organic fertilizers—usually manure—to restore soil nutrients. But the way to attain large quantities of manure is to have large herds of livestock, busily consuming the grain that would otherwise feed people. Inorganic fertilizers based on petroleum and other minerals can renew soil on a global scale—at least as long as the petroleum holds out.

Presented by

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

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