Matt Curry and Betsy Blaney, AP, September 13, 2009
Agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in combating world hunger and saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday in Texas, a Texas A&M University spokeswoman said. He was 95.
The Nobel committee honored Borlaug in 1970 for his contributions to high-yield crop varieties and bringing other agricultural innovations to the developing world. Many experts credit the green revolution with averting global famine during the second half of the 20th century and saving perhaps 1 billion lives.
Thanks to the green revolution, world food production more than doubled between 1960 and 1990. In Pakistan and India, two of the nations that benefited most from the new crop varieties, grain yields more than quadrupled over the period.
Borlaug began the work that led to his Nobel in Mexico at the end of World War II. There he used innovative breeding techniques to produce disease-resistant varieties of wheat that produced much more grain than traditional strains.
He and others later took those varieties and similarly improved strains of rice and corn to Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa.
During the 1950s and 1960s, public health improvements fueled a population boom in underdeveloped nations, leading to concerns that agricultural systems could not keep up with growing food demand. Borlaug’s work often is credited with expanding agriculture at just the moment such an increase in production was most needed.
His successes in the 1960s came just as books like “The Population Bomb” were warning readers that mass starvation was inevitable.
“Three or four decades ago, when we were trying to move technology into India, Pakistan and China, they said nothing could be done to save these people, that the population had to die off,” he said in 2004.
Borlaug often said wheat was only a vehicle for his real interest, which was to improve people’s lives.
In Mexico, Borlaug was known both for his skill in breeding plants and for his eagerness to labor in the fields himself, rather than to let assistants do all the hard work.
He remained active well into his 90s, campaigning for the use of biotechnology to fight hunger and working on a project to fight poverty and starvation in Africa by teaching new drought-resistant farming methods.
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born March 25, 1914, on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, and educated through the eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse.
He left home during the Great Depression to study forestry at the University of Minnesota. While there he earned himself a place in the university’s wrestling hall of fame and met his future wife, whom he married in 1937. Margaret Borlaug died in 2007 at the age of 95.
After a brief stint with the U.S. Forest Service, Norman Borlaug returned to the University of Minnesota for a doctoral degree in plant pathology. He then worked as a microbiologist for DuPont, but soon left for a job with the Rockefeller Foundation. Between 1944 and 1960, Borlaug dedicated himself to increasing Mexico’s wheat production.
In 1963, Borlaug was named head of the newly formed International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, where he trained thousands of young scientists.
Borlaug retired as head of the center in 1979 and turned to university teaching, first at Cornell University and then at Texas A&M, which presented him with an honorary doctorate in December 2007.