Man who fought hunger: Dr Borlaug was a leader with a mission

by Dr Manjit S. Kang, Vice Chancellor, PAU

ACUTELY aware of hunger and poverty around the globe, Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug dedicated himself to a life of service to humanity. He was trained like most other scientists, receiving a Ph.D. in plant pathology in 1942 from the University of Minnesota under the tutelage of Dr. E. C. Stakman; yet, he was different.

He was a scientist and a leader with a mission. His mission is reflected in a lecture that he delivered at the American Society of Agronomy meetings in New Orleans, Louisiana, in November 2007. There, he exhorted the scientists to “think more boldly and humanely about the Third World and to see what each of you can do to help.”

This was perhaps his last professional speech. He himself was bold and humane. He envisioned a world without hunger and poverty. He spent almost his entire career helping developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In the 1960s, Dr. Borlaug worked in the Rockefeller Foundation’s wheat breeding program in Mexico. He distributed seeds of some dwarf varieties of wheat developed there to Indian scientists.

While the Mexican varieties yielded much higher than those grown then in India, the red color of these varieties was not to the liking of the Indian consumer. Scientists at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) hybridized these high-yielding Mexican varieties with local varieties and developed new high yielding varieties that also had the acceptable amber colored grain.

Dr. D.S. Athwal was the leader of the wheat-breeding program at PAU. ‘Kalyan’ a wheat variety developed by Athwal and named after his village ‘Kalyanpur’ is an example. Dr. Borlaug would visit PAU to check on how his wheat was doing and would get very excited to see the excellent progress that the PAU scientists had made.

Dr. Borlaug complimented PAU’s wheat research program in a letter dated March 13, 1996, to Dr. G.S. Nanda, the then head of the wheat research section at PAU. He wrote, “The breeding program is diverse and dynamic and, undoubtedly, will continue to produce varieties which will be highly productive, disease-resistant and of good quality. I was also very much impressed by the agronomic research and plant pathology work, which is an integral part of the wheat research program at your Institute.”

Dr. Borlaug further wrote, “When I left Ludhiana for New Delhi, we travelled by train and I was immensely pleased to see the extensive fields of beautiful wheat, as far as the eye could reach, over virtually all parts of southern Punjab and also equally good into northern Haryana. When I began to collaborate with Indian scientists in 1963, I never imagined that I would live to see such fantastic change in yield and production of wheat which I have been privileged to see on this occasion. Congratulations!”

Leon F. Hesser writes about what happened in India in the Preface of his 2006 book, entitled ‘The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger’. There, Hesser wrote, “A comparable program using Borlaug’s seeds and associated technology in India where starvation had turned to famine in parts of the country in the mid-1960s, resulted in a ‘wheat revolution’ that, together with similar efforts for rice, brought the country to self-sufficiency in wheat in 1972 and in all cereals by 1974.”

As the diffusion of new wheat and rice technology spread rapidly across Asia in the late 1960s, William Gaud, the USAID Administrator, dubbed this phenomenon “Green Revolution” in a talk given in March 1968. He said, “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.” Thus began the ‘Green Revolution’.

Recognising his contribution, PAU bestowed upon Dr. Borlaug an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in March 1969. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970. Jimmy Carter, Former U.S. President, sums up Dr. Borlaug’s contributions, “My good friend Norman Borlaug has accomplished more than any one individual in history in the battle to end world hunger.”

Mr. Carter further wrote, “Norman Borlaug’s scientific achievements have saved hundreds of millions of lives and earned him the distinction as one of the 100 most influential individuals of the 20th century.”

India awarded him “Padma Vibhushan” – the second highest civilian honour given by the Government of India. He was also given a ‘Congressional Gold Medal’ in 2007 by the U.S. Congress – the highest honor for a civilian.

Dr. Borlaug recognised water as being important in future. He wrote, “In order to expand food production for a growing world population within the parameters of likely water availability, the inevitable conclusion is that humankind in the 21st century will need to bring about a “Blue Revolution” to complement the “Green Revolution” of the 20th century. In the new Blue Revolution, water-use productivity must be wedded to land-use productivity.” He suggested conservation agriculture to preserve and protect natural resources, such as soil and water.

Dr. Borlaug was benevolent and caring. Knowing that there was no Nobel Prize for Agriculture per se, he established, in 1986, the ‘World Food Prize’ to recognise individuals who have improved the quality, quantity, or availability of food around the world.

The first Indian scientist to receive this coveted Prize was Dr. M.S. Swaminathan (1987) followed by Dr. Verghese Kurien (1989), Dr. Gurdev Khush (1995), B.R. Barwale (1998), Dr. Surinder K. Vasal (2000) and Dr. Modadugu Gupta (2005).

Dr. Borlaug was a staunch proponent of biotechnology. The following statement reflects his strong support for this modern science, “The majority of agricultural scientists including myself anticipate great benefits from biotechnology in the coming decades to help meet our future needs for food and fiber. Indeed, the commercial adoption by farmers of transgenic crops has been one of the most rapid cases of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture.…. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called “organic” methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.”

In “Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,” Dr. Borlaug wrote about his wish – his dream – if you will, “I would like to share one dream that I hope scientists will achieve in the not-too-distant future. Rice is the only cereal that has immunity to the Puccinia spp. of rust. Imagine the benefits if the genes for rust immunity in rice could be transferred into wheat, barley, oats, maize, millet, and sorghum. The world could finally be free of the scourge of the rusts, which have led to so many famines over human history.” He was a perpetual mentor to agricultural scientists!

In a 2002 journal article, Dr. Borlaug spoke of unchecked population growth. He wrote, “…With the global population currently increasing by one billion each decade, meeting future food demand is becoming evermore challenging and worrisome.” He warned, “The rise and fall of ancient civilizations in the Middle East and Meso-America were directly tied to agricultural successes and failures, and it behooves us to remember that this axiom still remains valid today.”

If we wish to have continued successes, we must invest in agricultural research and development. We should put our money where our mouth is! This is what Dr. Borlaug would want to stave off hunger and poverty. Complacency or the status quo cannot be the answer to keep Dr. Borlaug’s legacy alive. The best way we can honour him now is by continuing his fight against hunger and poverty with vigour.

From: The Tribune