For more than half a century I have worked with the production of more and better wheat for feeding the hungry people, but wheat is merely a catalyst, a part of the picture. I am interested in the total development of human beings. Only by attacking the whole problem can we raise the standard of living for all people in all communities, so that they will be able to live decent lives. This is something we want for all people on this planet.
- Norman Borlaug (1914-2009)
Through his scientific and humanitarian achievements, Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug (1914-2009) has been credited with saving millions of people from starvation in developing countries. His collaborative work with scientists in Mexico on a high-yielding, disease resistant dwarf wheat sparked the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Borlaug's distinguished career epitomized the qualities of leadership, scholarship, scientific achievement, international cooperation, mentoring, and passion. In 2005, with Dr. Borlaug's guidance, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) joined the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Texas A&M University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the University of California, Davis to create the Norman E. Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (Borlaug LEAP).
Dr. Borlaug was born in Iowa in 1914. At the age of 56, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime work to feed a hungry world, a prerequisite for peace. He was credited with saving more lives than any person who has ever lived. Although a scientist with outstanding contributions, perhaps Dr. Borlaug's greatest achievement was his unending struggle to integrate the various streams of agricultural research into viable technologies and to bring agricultural research advances to fruition in farmers' fields.
Born and raised in Cresco, a small farming community in northeast Iowa, Dr. Borlaug was of Norwegian descent. He learned his work ethic on a small mixed crop and livestock family farm and obtained his initial education in a one-room rural schoolhouse.
His skill as an athlete, mainly in wrestling, opened the path for him to attend the University of Minnesota, where he studied to be a forester, wrestled, and worked various odd jobs. After graduating in 1937 with a Bachelor of Science, he went to work for the US Forest Service, initially in Idaho and later in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He returned to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and took up the study of plant pathology, receiving his Ph.D. in 1942. He then worked as a Microbiologist for E.I. Dupont de Nemours, until being released from his wartime service.
In 1944, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation's pioneering technical assistance program in Mexico, where he was a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement. For the next 16 years, he worked to solve a series of wheat production problems that were limiting wheat cultivation in Mexico and to help train a whole generation of young Mexican scientists.
The work in Mexico not only had a profound impact on Borlaug's life and philosophy of agricultural research and development, but also on agricultural production, first in Mexico and later in many parts of the world.
It was on the research stations and farmer’s fields of Mexico that Dr. Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential. These wheats and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s and later in Asia and Latin America, sparking what today is known as the "Green Revolution."
By the mid-1960s, Dr. Borlaug was taking his high-yielding "Mexican" wheats and crop management technology to Asia, first to Pakistan and India, then Australia, indeed anywhere that spring-habit wheats were grown. The impact has been spectacular. Over the past 50 years, wheat production in India has increased from 12 to 76 million metric tons; in Pakistan, from 4.5 to 21 million metric tons; and in the world, from 300 to 600 million metric tons.
The high-yielding wheat varieties that Norman Borlaug and his many scientific colleagues developed are today grown on more than 75 million hectares (187 million acres) throughout the world and may well be responsible for saving tens of millions of people from starvation.
Dr. Borlaug always considered himself to be a teacher, as well as a scientist. Today, several thousand men and women agricultural scientists from more than 50 countries are proud to say they were "students" of Norman Borlaug. Not only was he a builder of individuals but he was also a builder of institutions dedicated to the service of humankind.
With the establishment of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico in 1966, Dr. Borlaug assumed leadership of the Wheat Program, a position he held until his "official" retirement in 1979; but where he continued to serve as a senior consultant until his death on September 12, 2009. From 1984 to 2009, Dr. Borlaug was a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A & M University, where he taught one semester each year.
In 1986, at the age of 72, Dr. Borlaug, along with Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa and former US President Jimmy Carter, launched the Sasakawa Africa Association’s Saskawa Global 2000 agricultural program. The program has worked with several million farmers in 15 countries of sub-Saharan Africa to increase food production. Until his death in 2009, Dr. Borlaug continued to strive for a "green revolution" in Africa.
Dr. Borlaug was also the driving force behind the establishment of the World Food Prize in 1986. He envisioned a prize that would honor those who have made significant and measurable contributions to improving the world’s food supply. Beyond recognizing these people for their personal accomplishments, Dr. Borlaug saw the World Food Prize as a means of establishing role models who would inspire others.
Dr. Borlaug has been honored by scores of governments, universities, scientific associations, farmer groups, and civic associations. He held 50 honorary doctorate degrees and belonged to the academies of science in 12 nations. He served on two US Presidential Commissions: on World Hunger (1978-79) and on Science and Technology (1990-92). He is also a member of the US Wrestling Hall of Fame.
In 2006, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, America's highest civilian honor, becoming one of only five individuals to receive the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
On September 12, 2009, Norman Borlaug died of lymphoma at the age of 95. His work continues through the numerous programs named in his honor.
Watch the video, "Freedom from Famine: The Norman Borlaug Story" to learn more about Dr. Borlaug's work
The following was provided by Dr. Borlaug to Susan Johnson, Program Director of the Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program during a 2004 meeting to design and develop the Borlaug LEAP Fellowship program.
1. Give a chance to aspiring agriculturists who donʼt fit the mold; like the marine biologist who asked and was selected by NEB to become a leader in the development and transfer of Mexican wheat technology throughout the world.
2. Develop a new cadre of scientific leaders to mentor a new generation of agriculture scientists and educators who can sustain scientific innovation for development.
3. Hands-on training is essential – not just limited exposure – but in-depth engagement in basic field operations in crops and animal research.
4. Pick the best chosen from proven performance in the field and laboratories – persons with intellect and passion.
5. Problems are solved through strongly integrated interdisciplinary teams, and person selected to teams must be fully open to cooperative team effort.
6. Get young scientists and extension workers out of their customary environment – set them on a path where they can see new ways of doing things.
7. Keep research and extension inseparably connected and imbedded in the mind set of scientists, and in the institutions where they work.
8. Trained scientists and extension workers must be committed and determined and ultimately successful in transforming the national institutions to which they return after training. We must train individuals to transform institutions.
9. International interaction while learning, and especially after returning to jobs in home institutions is essential to keeping scientists alive and innovative as researchers and extension workers.
10. Commitment and positive attitude to overcome new challenges to training and effective international collaboration, such as quarantine and terrorism.
11. Donʼt forget forestry – my first discipline – to which I have always wanted to return. New methods are making it possible to make rapid progress in developing new forest genotypes for rapid growth, strength, disease resistance and other attributes.
12. The numbers of persons being trained today in agriculture is no where near the levels that are needed if we are to meet the challenges of HIV/AIDS, increasing world population, declining resource base (water and land taken by cities), and changing diets in countries among vast populations whose incomes are increasing.
13. Agriculture must be defined broadly to include the wise use of natural resources, forestry, policy, agricultural business, and the many other inter- related areas to food and fiber production. The mistake of thinking that improvement in agriculture production technology comes at the cost of environmental quality has been very destructive to both the environment and peopleʼs welfare. The politics of environment versus agriculture must be changed to one of joined complementary forces.
14. Agronomy and soils research are the most neglected areas of agricultural progress. Why have geneticists and breeders assumed the responsibilities of plant environment adaptation? -- by default?
15. Reach for the best in various fields – persons who have the vision to incorporate wider experience. There should be no difference whether a person is labeled an “economist” or “agronomist” – he or she must understand agronomy. And agronomists must understand economics. And, donʼt forget these individuals must sell their views to policy makers. They canʼt be scientists alone, but must be advocates for agricultural science.