Tribute : Norman Borlaug(1914-2009): Prevented a Billion Deaths from Starvation


One would think that saving a billion lives in developing countries, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and being regarded in many parts of the world as among the leading Americans of this age would be enough to make someone a household name within America.

And yet, very few Americans would be able to say who Norman Borlaug is, leave alone list any of his groundbreaking accomplishments in solving the problems of world hunger.

Borlaug, a plant breeder who was born in Iowa, in 1914. He grew up on a farm in Iowa never knowing hunger. In 1933, he took a trip to Minneapolis and witnessed riots over food and milk. He realized that peace within a human population could not occur until the population was no longer hungry. He became a visionary plant breeder, developing new wheat varieties that were rust-resistant, strong and high yielding and that could be adapted to the local environment. The vast majority of his professional life has been spent living and working in the developing countries of the world–Mexico, Pakistan, India, China, and most recently, regions of Africa.

After World War II, failing harvests, famine and extreme poverty were haunting the Indian sub-continent – countries we know today as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others – as well as other parts of the world.

What happened in India?

In 1964, India was reeling from the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. The world watched anxiously to see how the fledgling democracy would handle this crisis of political succession. However, there was an ever greater crisis looming on the horizon–Nehru had tried to fashion India’s centralized economy by focusing almost exclusively on heavy industry, while seemingly intractable problems of food shortages and famines had arisen to plague the agriculture sector.

Two consecutive droughts in 1966 and 1967 threatened to bring on famine on a massive scale. The new prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, inherited a country on the brink of a human catastrophe.

Paul Ehrlich’s Prediction of Deaths

These developments seemed to confirm the worst fears of biologist Paul Ehrlich, who famously wrote in The Population Bomb, his 1968 bestseller: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” and “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich also said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.” He insisted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.” Little did Ehrlich know that Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of ‘crash program’ he had declared would never work.

Borlaug into action


Working in Mexico, Borlaug had developed a special breed of dwarf wheat that resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties.

C. Subramaniam, then minister of Food and Agriculture in India, came to know of Borlaug’s work. It was transparently obvious to him that this was the answer to India’s crisis. Acting with great urgency, the Indian government took the plunge, and several chartered Boeing 707s loaded with 16,000 metric tonnes of seeds of the new ‘miracle wheat’ headed for the eastern skies.

Borlaug Won

Wheat yields in developing countries, 1950 to ...
Wheat yields in developing countries, 1950 to 2004, kg/HA baseline 500 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Borlaug’s team began teaching local farmers in the region how to cultivate this new strain of wheat properly, in both India and Pakistan. Borlaug’s work is credited with sparking what has come to be known as the “Green Revolution” in these countries, defying all predictions and achieving an astounding increase in the production of wheat within the span of a few years.

Since Ehrlich’s dire predictions in 1968, India’s population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Pakistan progressed from harvesting 3.4 million tons of wheat annually when Borlaug arrived to around 18 million today, India from 11 million tons to 60 million.

In the mid-1980s, India even entered the world export market for grains. Soon after Borlaug’s success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

Not only did Ehrlich’s predictions of hundreds of millions of deaths in massive famines prove to be false, India fed far more than 200 million more people, and was close enough to self-sufficiency in food production by 1971. (Ehrlich discreetly omitted his prediction about that from later editions of The Population Bomb.)

Man who prevented a billion deaths

According to Gregg Easterbrook writing in The Atlantic, “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. The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.”

It would seem that there is very little in the world today that could be considered of greater consequence than the wide application of ideas and techniques with the potential to elevate masses of humanity that reside on the brink of starvation and death from malnutrition.

Attention towards Africa

Since 1984, Borlaug has turned his attention to the African continent, where starvation remains a most visible threat . He has been involved in Sub-Saharan African programs to revolutionize farming. As a result of his efforts, yields have been at the worst double, nearly always triple, and sometimes quadruple what the traditional practices are producing. African farmers are enthusiastic about these new methods.


But almost in keeping with these successes, Borlaug’s work has encountered a wall of resistance.

Borlaug’s name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution, against which many criticisms have been mounted over the decades by environmentalists and some nutritionalists. Throughout his years of research, Borlaug’s programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects. Borlaug’s work has been criticized for bringing large-scale monocultureinput-intensive farming techniques to countries that had previously relied on subsistence farming.

Borlaug dismissed most claims of critics, but did take certain concerns seriously. He stated that his work has been “a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia”.Of environmental lobbyists he stated, “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things”.

Borlaug hypothesis

Borlaug continually advocated increasing crop yields as a means to curb deforestation. The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the “Borlaug hypothesis”, namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland

Nobel Peace Prize


For his contributions to the world food supply, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Norwegian officials notified his wife in Mexico City at 4:00 am, but Borlaug had already left for the test fields in the Toluca valley, about 40 miles (65 km) west of Mexico City. A chauffeur took her to the fields to inform her husband. According to his daughter, Jeanie Laube, “My mom said, ‘You won the Nobel Peace Prize,’ and he said, ‘No, I haven’t’, … It took some convincing … He thought the whole thing was a hoax”. He was awarded the prize on December 10. In his Nobel Lecture the following day, he speculated on his award: “When the Nobel Peace Prize Committee designated me the recipient of the 1970 award for my contribution to the ‘green revolution’, they were in effect, I believe, selecting an individual to symbolize the vital role of agriculture and food production in a world that is hungry, both for bread and for peace”

Death of the Legend


Borlaug died of lymphoma at the age of 95, on September 12, 2009, in his Dallas home.  Borlaug’s children released a statement saying,

We would like his life to be a model for making a difference in the lives of others and to bring about efforts to end human misery for all mankind.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations said,

As we celebrate Dr. Borlaug’s long and remarkable life, we also celebrate the long and productive lives that his achievements have made possible for so many millions of people around the world… we will continue to be inspired by his enduring devotion to the poor, needy and vulnerable of our world.

Courtesy : Excerpts from A World Connected, written by Salil Singh and few sourced from Wikipedia , Google

Agriculture is still the world’s largest occupation and If all the occupation of the earth have to fade away one by one, I would wish agriculture to fade last, better I pray the only one at least to remain. 

Agriculture is life. Till it exists, Legends like Borlaug would be remembered forever!

– Words by Din


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