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
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.
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
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
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.”
From: The Tribune