Celebrating the Life of a Scientist that "Fed the World"

Norm Bourlag (center) consulting with IRRI researchers


Dr. Norman Borlaug passed away this weekend at 95.  He left behind an amazing legacy of contribution to humanity.  It is likely that he saved more human lives than any other person in history.  He did it by developing far more productive wheat than had ever been grown.  His “short stature” wheat had shorter, thicker stems so that it could hold bigger heads of grain that would otherwise “lodge” (collapse over on to the ground where it can’t be harvested).  It was also resistant to the devastating wheat disease called “Stem Rust.”  This wheat ended up feeding millions of people around the world, particularly in Pakistan and India in the 1960s.  Borlaug’s breakthrough was a key part of the “Green Revolution” and it did much to address the hunger and poverty issues of the time.  For this, and his life-time of additional work Bourlag recieved the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Metal .  Only Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa have received all of these commendations.  He was also awarded the National Medal of Science and a host of other awards from around the world.  There is an excellent article about the life and career of this remarkable man in the Des Moines Register.

Borlaug was originally trained as a “Plant Pathologist” and all of us who are similarly trained find special inspiration from his accomplishments as we pursue our much more modest contributions to feeding the world.  Borlaug was also a tireless spokesperson for the importance of science and technology in increasing the yield and sustainability of farming.  Many people mistakenly see technology as, at best, a necessary evil, but Borlaug understood that technology is what has has and what will continue to enable increasingly productive and environmentally sound farming.  

How Borlaug Made His Breakthrough

When Borlaug was doing his groundbreaking work in the 60s, he didn’t have the advanced tools that breeders have today.  He used something called “mutation breeding.”  That method uses radiation or mutagenic chemicals to increase the number of gene mutations in a population of seeds and then a search is made for the extremely rare cases where the mutation is beneficial.  Compared to modern biotechnology this is a pretty crude approach, but that was the only method Borlaug had to speed up the process of trait selection.  I’m sure that mutagenesis will sound scary to many readers, but there are quite a few mutation breeding advances that continue to play a role in agriculture (including some of my personal favorites like Ruby Red Grapefruit  and super sweet corn).  Don’t worry, there is no persistent presence of radiation or mutagens in the improved crops.  Still, modern biotechnology is a much better approach.

Further Progress

The “Green Revolution” was not without its own sustainability issues.  In some places this intensified farming was done in ways that led to water pollution and soil loss.  But the answer to these issues was not rejection of Borlaug’s technology break-through, it was the development of additional technologies like “No-Till” farming and improved fertilization practices.  

Today biotechnology (both through “GMOs” and through advanced breeding technologies that are not “GMO”) is generating crops with pest resistance, drought tolerance and higher nitrogen use-efficiency.  Borlaug was particularly saddened that biotechnology has still not been fully applied to his favorite crop, wheat (mostly because of European resistance to GMOs).  Wheat growers from around the world are working together to overcome irrational resistance to the use of these tools to improve one of the most important human food crops.  It is a little sad that Norm didn’t live to see that breakthrough, but as the Des Moines Register article quoted him saying:

I can’t be despondent, I have to be optimistic.  Pessimism has no place in action.”

Norm Borlaug was definitely a man of action that made a difference. We will miss his voice.


Image of Norm Bourlag (center) consulting with International Rice Research (IRRI) scientists from IRRI Images

Written by sdsavage

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