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The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives

The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives

Norman Borlaug was an American biolgist and humanitarian, known as “the father of the green revolution” and “the man who saved a billion lives”. Through his work as a plant pathologist and geneticist, he had a major impact on

Norman Borlaug is credited as "The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives" through his work in agricultural science.
Norman Borlaug is credited as “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives” through his work in agricultural science.

revolutionizing global agricultural science. He is one of only 7 to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Today, 12th September, marks the 4th anniversary of his death and it is only fitting that I give as good a discussion of his achievements as I can.

Borlaug’s family were of Norweigan descent. Having settled in the Norweigan-American community of Saude, Iowa, his great-grandparents established a 108 acre farm, on which Borlaug later worked. Here, he learned to fish, hunt and raise crops. While developing this closeness with the natural world, he attended a rudimentary, one-teacher, one-classroom school nearby. Upon reaching eighth grade, Borlaug had reached a turning point in his life – was he to carry on with his studies or focus on inheriting the family farm? Almost prophetically, his grandfather gave him this advice:

You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later.

His grand-father would never have believed how true this advice would ring. Having been inspired by a speech given by Elvin Charles Stakman about the attempts to curb the spread of rust, a parasitic fungus that was devastating wheat, oat and barley crops in the United States, Borlaug went on to study plant pathology and genetics with Stakman at the University of Minnesota, where he also went on the receive a Master of Science and a Ph.D.

This was a bold and exciting field for Borlaug to join at the time. After all, genetic inheritance had only been discovered by Gregor Mendel 80 years prior and DNA was yet to be identified as the carrier of genetic information, let alone have its structure elucidated.


After leaving the University of Minnesota, Borlaug served in a lab that was enlisted during wartime to produce products greatly needed in the campaign in South-Eastern Asia: a new generation of glue that wouldn’t dissolve in salt water and insecticides and disinfectants to curb the spread of malaria and food spoilage suffered by soldiers. By the time the war was over, Borlaug already had a good reputation in the scientific community. Therefore, through the Rockefeller Foundation, he was recruited by the Camacho administration to modernise Mexico’s agricultural sector, which Camacho hoped would augment the nation’s industrialisation and economic growth after the revolution that had ended only 20 years prior. Borlaug was recruited to the Wheat Research Program, created in 1944, which aimed to boost Mexican wheat production, as Mexico imported most of its grain at the time. As part of the program, Borlaug headed 3 major breakthroughs:

Double Wheat Production

Borlaug’s first project was ambitious, looking to double Mexico’s wheat production by taking advantage of Mexico’s two growing seasons – one in the high altitude of the central highlands during the summer, when the days were long and there was plenty of rainfall and another in the north of the country at lower altitudes during winter, where sunlight was at a premium and temperatures were higher. Borlaug’s technique, known as shuttle harvesting, would see wheat crops grown in summer in the highlands and then see the seeds immediately taken up north, ensuring almost year-round production. In bringing about this technique, Borlaug not only produced strains of wheat that did not show photoperiodism – a process by which plants become specialised to specific lengths of day/night cycles and are hence limited to growing in a specific place at a specific time – he also disproved the belief that seeds needed a ‘rest period’ to ensure ample germination.

Disease Resistance

While it was one thing to bring about increased crop growth, it was another to ensure that these were resistant to the diseases that consistently blighted crops in this period during the 1940s. Because pure line, that is to say genetically indentical, plant varieties tend to only have 1 or a few major disease-resistance genes and plant diseases such as rust are continually producing new races that can quickly overcome a pure line’s resistance, Borlaug underwent a process of producing multiline varieties which he hoped would bring about a new generation of wheat with multiple resistance genes. In order to create these multiline wheat plants, he needed favourable lines for each resistance gene, which he created using back-crossing:   Backcrossing


Now that Borlaug was in a position to start rolling out a high yield, highly disease resistant form of wheat, he needed to ensure that these would also be compatible with a successful harvest. He had previously seen that wheat grown with a high-yield fertilizer tended to display long, thin stalks. Though this was good for yield, as there would be natural competition between the wheat plants to reach sunlight, it meant that eventually the stalks would be unable to support the weight of the seed heads and snap. Therefore, Borlaug begin a process of ‘dwarfing’, to produce wheat that grew with shorter, but thicker stems. Borlaug crossed a Japanese dwarf variety known as Norin 10 (which itself had been bred with a high yield Brevor 14 variety) with his disease resistant varieties. What he produced was a semi-dwarf disease-resistant variety of wheat that would go on to revolutionise first Mexican agriculture, then the rest of the world.

The effect the introduction of this variety of wheat had on Mexican agriculture was astonishing. S. Sanderson writes in The Transformation of Mexican Agriculture:

Mexican wheat production stayed at or below 500,000 tons until the late 1940s…total wheat production skyrocketed in the mid-1950s to achieve levels exceeding 2.5 million tons.

Borlaug’s influence on Mexican agriculture carried on into the 1960’s. By 1963, 95% of Mexico’s wheat crops were using Borlaug’s variety and harvests were 6 times higher than in 1944, the year of Borlaug’s arrival. Mexico had also in this time become self sufficient in the production of wheat and was a net exporter of the grain.

South Asia and The Green Revolution

After the success of his projects in Mexico, Borlaug was drafted in to tackle the agricultural crisis enveloping the Indian subcontinent in the early 1960’s. The skirmishes and eventual war between India and Pakistan, the stifling bureaucracy in these countries and the resistance to agricultural industrialization meant that despite the United States sending millions of tons of grain, amounting to 20% of their own production, in aid the situation had become untenable.

The yield from Borlaug’s Sonora 64 and Lerma Rojo 64 crop varieties was the largest ever seen in the region. As such, the demand for Borlaug’s varieties skyrocketed as India, Pakistan and Turkey put in some of the largest orders ever seen. In 1966, India ordered 18,000 tons of seeds and in the 5 years between 1965 and 1970 they had increased their wheat output from 12.3 million tons to 20.1 million tons. Pakistain saw a similar increase from 4.5 million tons to 7.3 million, having ordered 42,000 tons in 1967. Additionally, this single import produced enough wheat to seed the entire nation’s wheatland. Borlaug expanded his work throughout Asia, turning his eye to the production of semi-dwarf high-yield rice cultivar at the International Rice Research Institute and China’s Hunan Rice Research Institute. Land devoted to these varieties of rice expanded under Borlaug’s watch expanded from 200 acres in 1965 to over 40 million acres in 1970.

That same year, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the world food supply. In his Nobel lecture the following day, the full transcript of which can be found here, Borlaug remained stoical, reminding the world that his ‘green revolution’ had simply given man “breathing space”and to be completely successful in the long term the “road of irresponsible population growth” had to stopped. Borlaug was keen to remind the world that his work was absolutely not over and indeed would go to waste if humanity did not embrace the other global changes that must be brought about to augment the astounding work Borlaug had already done.


By the 1980’s, most of Africa was gripped by the shortages of food that still cause severe problems today. However, environmental groups were opposed to the implementation of Borlaug’s techniques and technologies on the continent, claiming that ‘natural’ solutions should be preferred. This opposition was one of the main reasons for the worsening of the crisis in countries such as Ethiopia, whose famine in 1984 reached such a severe level that Ryoichi Sasakawa, the outspoken chairman of the Nippon corporation in Japan, to contact Borlaug in another attempt to bring his expertise to the continent. Subsequently, Sasakawa founded the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA), with Borlaug as chairman. Within a matter of years the SAA had projects in 7 countries and in just two years Ethiopia was experiencing hugely increased yields of wheat, cassava and cowpeas.

Norman Borlaug spent his final working years in Africa, despite opposition to his techniques by environmental groups.
Norman Borlaug spent his final working years in Africa, despite opposition to his techniques by environmental groups.

Borlaug continued to work in Africa right up to his final years, overseeing the training of some 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques, which has doubled or tripled agricultural output, and introducing non-organic fertilizers, such as potassium phosphate. Ethiopia, the country that Borlaug first worked in in Africa, saw its largest harvest of major crops in its history in 1994, 10 years after he arrived there. Until his death, Borlaug used Ethiopia to support his belief that the food crisis in Africa is a solvable one.


Throughout his career, Borlaug was acutely concerned with the future of global food supply; he was also aware of what the next crisis might be and what the next breakthrough would have to be. Throughout the 21st century he warned of an impending global crisis:

We will have to double the world’s food supply by 2050, with 85% of future growth in food production coming from land already in use.

Borlaug championed the use of genetically modified organisms as the solution to this issue, dreaming for example of “transferring the immunity of rice [to the rust fungus] to cereals such as wheat, maize, sorghum and barley”. He also reminded his fellow agricultural scientists of their moral obligation to stand up to the “antiscience zealotry” that so hampered his efforts in Africa and even today threaten the production of generically modified plants and grains.

Upon his death of lymphoma 5 years ago, Borlaug had made an astonishing contribution to a global increase in crop production, directly revolutionising the agriculture of Latin America, Asia and Africa. His achievements were testament to the difference that the intellect, compassion and persistence of one man can make to the world. Borlaug’s contribution to our world should serve as a model for how we should all use whatever intellect and drive we have with absolute compassion. It is unlikely we will ever see someone have such a large impact on the lives of so many people.

It is hard to see Borlaug, having achieved all he did, back in small-town Iowa. But it is worth remembering that it is here that he received the advice from his grandfather that would go on to define his life:

You’re wiser to fill your head now so you can fill your belly later.

If only his grandfather could have seen Borlaug’s achievements as he filled not only his belly, but those of billions more. He truly was a modern day hero.

‘Til next time…


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