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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Norman Ernest Borlaug: Peace Provider Through Bread

Norman Ernest Borlaug, the Karma Yogi from the Midwest of the US, who “has helped provide bread for a hungry world—more than any other single person of this age,” died on 12th September, at a ripe age of 95, in his Dallas home owing to complications from cancer.

Borlaug, joining The Cooperative Wheat research Production Program, a joint venture of Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government that was established to boost wheat production in Mexico, and driven by his insatiable curiosity, adopted ‘shuttle breeding’—breeding wheat in the summer in the central highlands of Mexico and then immediately taking the seeds north to grow in its Yaqui Valley—that enabled him to not only speed up the whole breeding program, but also avoid starting separate breeding programs for each geographic region. To increase the resistance of wheat for diseases such as rust, he developed multi-line varieties through backcross methods. Similarly, to combat the problem of ‘lodging’—the phenomenon of the seed head of wheat growing so large and heavy with the application of fertilizers that the plant would fall over, thereby ruining the crop—prevalent in taller wheat grasses, he undertook crossing of dwarf variety of wheat with high-yielding American cultivars.

Obviously, it is his love for the sweet “whispering music of the ripening wheat sheaves” that enabled him to withstand the blazing Mexican Sun that turned him ‘as brown as a nut’ and continue with his mission of crossing different wheat varieties to come up with an answer to the dwindling wheat production in Mexico. All that labor has, of course, paid rich dividends that he deserved most and the developed world needed badly: he could release semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat varieties that increased wheat yields in Mexico by six times by 1963, as against the output in 1944, the year of commencement of the breeding program. His success in Mexico attracted the attention of India of the 1960s that was importing huge stocks of grain to avert starvation. It is the introduction of the dwarf varieties of wheat developed by him in Mexico that changed India’s food production pattern for good—India’s wheat production in 1968 was so bountiful that the government had to use school buildings as warehouses. Indeed, it is his scientific contributions that enabled India disprove Paul R Ehrilch’s statement: “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.”

Indeed, it is his idea of increasing the yields by shrinking the plants that has become the central underpinning of the subsequent ‘Green Revolution’ all over the world, including the development of high-yield semi-dwarf
indica and japonica rice varieties at the International Rice Research Institute. No wonder, he has been described as the father of green revolution, a description which of course Borlaug is reluctant to accept. Nevertheless, his contribution to the developing world is “multidimensional—scientific, political and humanistic”.

Yet, many environmentalists alleged that his legacy of over-reliance on chemicals had resulted in adverse social and environmental consequences. Borlaug had, however, silenced them, of course, with no rancor, saying, in 1950 “the world’s grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland,” as against the “1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres, a 170% increase from just 1% more land,” which means, “without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increase in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation—loss of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion.”

It is not for nothing that the Nobel committee had chosen him—the only agricultural scientist to have ever been chosen for the Nobel—for its peace prize: “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”


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