Green Giant

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. So why is a small cadre of activists bent on tarnishing his legacy?

Borlaug was able to earn enough money to return to school, and after graduation his work with the Forestry Service brought him to the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, the most isolated piece of wilderness in the lower 48 states at the time. Yet his career in forestry changed after he heard a lecture titled "These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops" by E. Charles Stakman, the renowned plant pathologist from the University of Minnesota. Stakman studied the movement of rust spores that had devastated wheat, oat and barley production across the United States. His research on the hybridization of the rust and its movement via the jet stream compelled Borlaug. "Hell, I was flabbergasted," he says.

Borlaug entered graduate school in 1938 to study under Stakman. A few years later, he took a job as a microbiologist at du Pont de Nemours in Delaware to work on agricultural chemical development, just as he was beginning his coursework for a doctorate in plant pathology. Within months a torrent of Japanese planes rained devastation on Pearl Harbor, altering his plans.

His tasks changed from fertilizers and pesticides to camouflage, canteen disinfectants and insulation for small electronics. One of his first projects was to develop glue that could withstand the warm saltwater in the South Pacific. The Japanese had isolated Guadalcanal, controlling the air and seas by day. The only way U.S. naval forces could supply the Marines stranded there was by approaching the island by speedboat at night and pitching boxes of canned food and other supplies into the surf so that they could wash ashore, but the glue holding the containers together disintegrated in saltwater. Borlaug and his team developed the adhesive within weeks. It was his first major offensive against hunger.

Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.

Borlaug's largest battles were yet to come. In 1940, Vice President Henry Wallace received a request by Mexican government officials for assistance in developing a program to train a new generation of Mexican agricultural scientists. The agrarian reforms that had been instituted in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had not been going well. Yields were abysmal, and the Mexican leadership believed their agricultural industry was being left behind.

In 1943 the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program was inaugurated. Its goal was to develop the three most crucial crops in Mexican culture--corn, wheat and beans--with one overriding mandate: boost yields. When Borlaug arrived in Mexico a year later with his wife and daughter Jeanie, just a year old, he was assigned to develop a wheat research and production program.

Borlaug says those first couple of years in Mexico were unbearable. There was an acute lack of trained scientists and equipment. The farmers were hostile toward the wheat program because of serious crop losses in 1939-1941 from stem rust. He also found himself pitted against elements of Mexican culture, most notably the conviction among some of his Mexican counterparts that they were above getting dirty. His inability to speak Spanish compounded his frustrations. "It often appeared to me that I had made a dreadful mistake in accepting the position in Mexico," Borlaug writes in the epilogue to his book Norman Borlaug on World Hunger.

But he found his stride and quickly embarked on a crash plan to develop an improved stem-rust resistant strain of tall wheat. His impatience led to the development of a "shuttle breeding system" whereby wheat varieties were tested and bred in two different environments and then shuttled back and forth between the winter and summer seasons, permitting two breeding cycles per year instead of one. As a result, Borlaug and his team were able to introduce several new varieties in less than four years.

But his rapid progress drew scowls from fellow wheat breeders and geneticists who maintained wheat strains could only be bred within one specific environment. This wouldn't be the last time Borlaug's sense of urgency drew carping from the establishment.

Dramatic progress came when Borlaug hit upon the idea of incorporating Japanese dwarf wheat varieties into his breeding program. Nature favored tall wheat grasses as they can better compete for sunlight. But tall wheat is inefficient from a grain standpoint and has a tendency to fall over, resulting in spoilage, especially when the plant sustains vigorous growth spurts from nitrogen fertilizer. So Borlaug bred his wheat for shorter, stronger stalks that could better support fatter seed heads, allowing growers to charge the plant with water and fertilizer. Yields tripled.

When Borlaug set foot in Mexico in 1944, it imported 60 percent of the wheat it consumed. By 1956, it was self-sufficient. This "quiet revolution" was the forebear of the Green Revolution that swept South Asia a decade later.

It's startling to consider that 30-plus years ago many prominent thinkers recommended abandoning famine-threatened India and Pakistan as hopeless causes. They advocated a "lifeboat" theory of survival, a sort of global triage whereby desperate basket cases would be allowed to perish so that precious resources could be funneled to those nations deemed salvageable.

Others believed more food would fuel escalating population growth and wreak greater damage on the environment. "Human population growth had become a cancer on the earth," says Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, where Borlaug serves as chairman emeritus. "We had removed the famine constraint. At that time we didn't know that affluence, particularly urban affluence, was going to lower birthrates the way it has."

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