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Obituary: Norman Borlaug helped feed the world

By Tony Fischer - posted Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Dr Norman Borlaug has died, in Texas at the age of 95 on September 12, 2009. He was already widely known for his achievements in lifting wheat productivity in the developing world, as the “father of the Green Revolution”, and for what followed, namely a huge impact on thinking and action in the application of agricultural science to developing world problems. He was deservedly recognised through many prestigious awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize (1970), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2006), but also through honours in more than 25 developing countries.

Norman Borlaug’s life and achievements are widely recorded (e.g. see the excellent book by Australian Leonard Bickel (1974) Readers Digest Press, or see Ortiz et al (2007) Plant Breeding Reviews 28: 1-37 for a recent compilation). Thus I will give here my personal impressions of him, garnered over the more than 40 years since we first met, and including the five years from 1970 that I worked in his team in his team at CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico.

Norm was always focused on impact of his wheat breeding, namely getting improved varieties into farmers’ fields and raising their yields and incomes, and reducing hunger. The breeding itself in Mexico always targeted better rust resistance, earliness through daylength insensitivity, yield, and quality - all essential traits for performance in the developing world in general - and later by the mid 1950s, it successfully added the semidwarf trait for shorter wheats and additional yield. He ran a very tight program which emphasised long hours, hard work and “hands on” assessment of wheat performance in the field, first in Mexico, but then throughout the world via the novel international testing.


Norm was always close to farmers, a natural position adopted no doubt in response to his upbringing on a small Iowa farm and well before anthropologists and other academics ever gave much attention to the importance of on-farm or participatory research for influencing small farmers. Heavy field focus didn’t mean he was against science: but he was challenging of its conventions and fashions. Indeed he introduced valuable innovations such as the growing of two selection cycles a year in Mexico, the widespread, and ultimately global, use of multilocation yield testing, and the application of wide crossing, for example reflected in his early embracing of triticale (a product of a wheat by rye cross).

The other unique feature of the early years in Mexico was strong emphasis on practical training of wheat scientists from Mexico, and then from other developing countries, an activity to which Norm personally dedicated much time and which inspired an “army of hunger fighters” returning to countries where they were later very effective.

Norman Borlaug’s commitment to impact meant that as the potential of the Mexican wheats was revealed by testing around the world, but especially in South Asia, he became a powerful, courageous and generally effective advocate for radical policy change in the face of opposition. He pushed for importing thousands of tons of improved seed from across the world, boosting of fertiliser supplies, creating floor prices for grain, and promoting agriculture as the way forward instead of heavy industry.

His stories of encounters with conservative bureaucrats, Harvard and World Bank economic advisers, and even sceptical Prime Ministers and other national leaders, were legendary. But with the help of his army, and some supportive local agricultural leaders, he won the day and the revolution in wheat productivity got under way in South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Despair had been turned into optimism regarding productivity increases, and the almost four-fold increase in developing world wheat yields since 1964 (from 0.8 to 3.0 t/ha) was undoubtedly catalysed by Borlaug’s early successes. To witness the warmth of the welcome Norm would receive from crowds of small farmers and officials alike in the Punjab of India and of Pakistan was as exhilarating as it was undeniable proof of his impact. And this impact reached Australian wheat farmers in the form of more productive varieties, and benefited consumers worldwide in the form of cheaper food.

Announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize was cause for a huge fiesta in the old CIMMYT office at Londres 40 in the Zona Rosa of Mexico City, in which I recall Norm quoting at length from the epic Argentine poem, Martín Fierro, about the virtues of sweat of the brow and hard work. More significantly the Nobel greatly expanded the audience who wanted to hear from him, or criticise him, and inevitably drew him into debate on broader agricultural issues in the developing world.


He was well prepared and I don’t think his judgment, based on agricultural science and a good dose of common sense, was ever off the mark over the almost 40 years of public life which he willingly, I believe, embraced after the Prize. He had no illusions about the huge task of feeding the world in the face of an unconquered “population monster”, against which he advocated economic development, education and family planning.

He relentlessly opposed critics of modern agriculture for the developing world, such as advocates of low input or organic farming and opponents of agricultural chemicals, as being at best naïve and ill informed, or at worst, hypocritical ideologues. It was from Norm in the 1980s that I first heard the irrefutable “land-saving” argument in favour of increased crop productivity: feeding the world today at the yields of 1960 would take up all the current forest lands of the globe and more!

Taking on technical leadership of Sasakawa-Global 2000 foundation, Dr Borlaug at the age of 71 plunged into the challenge of increasing food production in sub-Saharan Africa, and over the next 20 years, became a tireless traveller and advocate in that region for agricultural modernisation, in particular via agronomy, better rural infrastructure and policy investment. These efforts, combined with those of many other like-minded scientists, many Africans, are starting now to bear dividends.

He has also been a reasoned and strong supporter of genetically modified (GM) crops as another tool in the fight against hunger. But more than anything he was always ready to speak out on behalf of the hungry and poor and the role of agricultural science, as he did with moving effect at Grains Week in Adelaide a few years ago on a rare visit to Australia, and as he last did at a wheat rust meeting this March in his beloved north-west Mexico. His ability to thus challenge and inspire people around him, especially young scientists, will surely be our greatest loss with the passing of Dr Borlaug, one of the 20th century’s great humanists.

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First published in The Canberra Times on September 15, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Fischer is well known internationally as a wheat cropping scientist and is the winner of the 2007 Farrer Memorial medal. Currently an Honorary Fellow with CSIRO’s Division of Plant Industry, Dr Fischer’s award recognises his outstanding contribution to agricultural research in Australia, and in particular, his worldwide renowned work in cropping physiology. He is the Coordinator of the Crawford Fund ACT Committee.

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