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A tribute to Norman Borlaug

September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug.

University alumnus and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug fought hunger by breeding high-yield wheat.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

The University graduate wrestled with world hunger and won

By Deane Morrison

He was never a household name in the United States, but the work of Nobel laureate and University alumnus Norman Borlaug may have saved a billion lives. When Borlaug died Saturday (September 12, 2009) at age 95, he left a legacy of accomplishment and caring for others that few people in the world have equaled.

Plant breeders are unlikely celebrities, but in many developing countries, Borlaug is a hero. By breeding higher-yield varieties of wheat, he is credited with playing the key role in staving off starvation in India and Pakistan.

Borlaug's gift, which he used up until his death, was a devotion to ending world hunger and figuring out how to get more food out of fewer acres. He spent most of his life trying to help people all over the world live a decent life.

It was more than 70 years ago that Borlaug first stepped onto the University of Minnesota campus. A member of the wrestling team, he earned a bachelor's degree in forestry and went on to receive master's and doctoral degrees in plant pathology.

Today, his name lives on at his alma mater and far beyond its borders. Examples include Borlaug Hall, the largest building on the St. Paul campus; the USDA Borlaug Fellows program; and an extensive wheat-breeding program. 

In 2007 the Department of Plant Pathology established the Norman E. Borlaug Fellowship for International Agriculture. When fully endowed, the fellowship will provide a stipend for graduate fellows to complete part of their studies in an underdeveloped country while obtaining their degrees from the University of Minnesota.

“Norman Borlaug remains one of the University’s most distinguished alumni—a scientist, educator, humanitarian, and Nobel laureate whose work made him a hero around the world,” says University President Robert Bruininks. “From his early wheat research in Mexico to his ongoing advocacy for modern farming practices and policy, he saw the human face of hunger in the world and never strayed from his principles.

“Even in recent years, Dr. Borlaug continued to push the University—and me personally—to a greater understanding of the world’s food needs in the face of growing environmental concerns. Without a doubt, he was still the tough-minded grappler from Iowa who first came to the University more than 75 years ago.”

“Norman Borlaug was extremely dedicated to the University of Minnesota,” says Allen Levine, dean of the U's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS). “He returned for various events and recently visited for the 100th anniversary event, even though his health was not ideal. He understood the importance of his education at the University and was a hero of many of our faculty and students.”

All the top prizes

On July 17, 2007, Norman Borlaug received the Congressional Gold Medal, joining Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, and Nelson Mandela as the only people to have been honored with this award, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also won the National Medal of Science.

Read more about Borlaug's life and triumphs from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

The entire state honors Borlaug each year on October 16. In 2005, to commemorate Dr. Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Day, students in what is now CFANS organized the Borlaug Food and Fund Drive to benefit Second Harvest Heartland, a hunger relief organization in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“I heard him give a lecture to undergrads and I was struck by what an accessible, down-to-earth person he was, even with such a distinguished title and so many accomplishments,” said Nadilia Gomez in 2005. The Panama native was a doctoral student in applied plant sciences who met Borlaug that year.

“So many of us go into grad school hoping we'll have a significant impact on the world, but he didn't start out like that,” she continued. “He started out interested in plants, in learning about plant physiology, and just by being in the moment and doing what he wanted to do, he got there. His work has been controversial, but he's a man who still has his convictions and above all feels strongly about trying to do your best. That's what inspires me.”

Borlaug is called the father of the Green Revolution, a dramatic increase in crop yields due to improved seeds, the use of fertilizers, and irrigation. Through careful and unconventional breeding methods, he developed short, strong varieties of wheat that led to a doubling and tripling of the yields of taller varieties and that were also resistant to disease and capable of growing in a wide range of climates. Beginning in 1944, it took him two decades, working in test plots in Mexico, to develop this “semi-dwarf variety” wheat, so called because of its short stature.

Impatient with only one crop per season, he started growing the same wheat varieties in two different locations in a method now called “shuttle breeding.”

“The way he did his research is still having an impact on researchers today,” says Jim Anderson, associate professor in agronomy and plant genetics and a wheat-breeding expert. “When he was in Mexico, he did his breeding at two locations quite distinct in latitude and temperature. Up until then, it was thought that you needed locally adapted varieties, so you needed to do your breeding in the areas where the crop would eventually be grown. But he showed us that you could breed for wide use.”

Although this highly adaptable wheat variety allowed Mexico, in a few short years, to move from being heavily dependent on wheat imports to being a wheat exporter, it was principally Borlaug's work in India and Pakistan that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. During the 1960s and 1970s, his work helped those countries avert the famine that many had thought inevitable due to population growth. India's wheat yield nearly doubled from 1965 to 1970; Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968. Parallel methods were also used in developing short-statured high-yield rice and, now, other varieties of crops around the world.

“There is a song that says, ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.’ I think this was the basis of the Nobel Peace Prize to Norman Borlaug.”

If there is such a thing as a Midwestern character, Borlaug had it in spades. Almost everyone who ever spoke of him mentioned his connection to his family. He once told Minnesota magazine that when he worked in Mexico, he would drive 300 miles home to Mexico City on “miserable” roads on a Friday night to coach his son's Little League games, and drive 300 miles back to the test plots on Sunday night. He was noticeably humble, tenacious, and single-minded about what he believed to be the right thing to do.

“My personal respect for Norman Borlaug was tremendous,” says Ronald Phillips, Regents Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics and McKnight Presidential Chair in Genomics. “But everyone respected him, as we all watched him continue to work well into his 90s on behalf of the world’s starving people, extending his influence nearly 38 years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

“In addition to promoting food production, he continuously warned the world of what he called the ‘population monster’ and the need to work on food and population constraints at the same time. More recently, he took opportunities in the New York Times and the Washington Post to state the need and value of biotechnology in agriculture, criticizing the activists who never experienced hunger.

“At the University of Minnesota, he stood on the shoulders of giants—E.C. Stakman of the Department of Plant Pathology and H.K. Hayes of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. Now, we will miss standing on the shoulders of this giant.”

'A rare type of scientist'

Phil Pardey, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics who has worked with Borlaug, says Borlaug wasn’t just a plant breeder focused on his work in the field and the lab, but a rare type of scientist who did everything in his power to get his crops to the people who need them and freely shared his knowledge with the rest of the world. In an analogy with open source software, Pardey sees Borlaug as an “open source” scientist who, along with his colleagues, had a global impact on wheat production by fostering the international flow of improved crop varieties.

“We did an economic study on the impact of CIMMYT (Centro International de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo)—where Norm spent most of his career—not on the developing world, but on the developed world,” says Pardey. “Turns out that in the early 1990s in California, which is a pretty big wheat state, either every variety came directly from that program or both parents came from that program. The value of this research to the United States alone is upwards of $13.6 billion from improved crop yields.”

People young enough to be Borlaug's great-grandchildren are inspired by his energy and commitment. As a freshman majoring in agricultural education, Sangeetha Gummadi wrote an essay on Borlaug to fulfill a requirement for the Siehl Scholarship she received from CFANS.

“I did a ton of research and I just loved learning about what he did and how he went about learning it,” says Gummadi. “I focused on the science of his work and how he just didn't give up. In high school, he really inspired me to keep trucking along.” Gummadi made it to the top five in the National FFA Agriscience Fair for her work on the effect of sucrose on plant protoplasts.

In February 2006, Borlaug visited the White House to receive a rare honor for American scientists: the National Medal of Science, conferred by President George W. Bush.

Administered by the National Science Foundation, the National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 as a presidential award to be given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.” In 1980 Congress expanded this recognition to include the social and behavioral sciences.

An inspiration for future generations

Borlaug's work has a reach that may never be fully appreciated. The historically unprecedented increase in crop yields that his research helped bring about has protected millions of acres of fragile land from being plowed because, with high-yield crops, more food can be grown on fewer acres. The international research centers where he did much of his work continue that research. They also conserve, in gene banks worldwide, more than 670,000 samples of crop seeds that today's breeders are using to feed future generations.

“The world has lost a great man, but Dr. Borlaug’s life work and humanitarianism will continue to inspire future generations of plant pathologists and plant scientists,” says Carol Ishimaru, head of the Department of Plant Pathology. “Human hunger, which he so passionately worked to alleviate, still exists, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the greatest enduring acknowledgments of his accomplishments we could give is to continue the fight against this devastating condition.”

In 1984 Borlaug joined Texas A&M as a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture. He continued to serve as senior consultant to the director general of CIMMYT and to lecture at universities worldwide. He also turned his attention to Africa as president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, where he worked with former President Jimmy Carter to bring improved varieties of wheat, corn, and native crops to that continent.

With the world population expected to increase from 6.4 billion to 9.2 billion in the next 50 years, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. Population Fund estimate the world’s food supply will have to grow by 75 percent. The work Norman Borlaug has done in the last 50 years will undoubtedly help us get there.

“There is a song that says, ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,’” says Phillips. “I think this was the basis of the Nobel Peace Prize to Norman Borlaug.”

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