Norman E. Borlaug, the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday night. He was 95 and lived in Dallas.
The cause was complications from cancer, said Kathleen Phillips, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University, where Borlaug had served on the faculty since 1984.
Storied life: Norman Borlaug at Texas A&M University in 1996. Bill Meeks / AP.
Borlaug’s advances in plant breeding led to spectacular success in increasing food production in Latin America and Asia and brought him international acclaim. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
He was widely described as the father of the broad agricultural movement called the Green Revolution, though decidedly reluctant to accept the title. “A miserable term,” he said, characteristically shrugging off any air of self-importance.
Yet his work had a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of people in developing countries. His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history. Largely because of his work, countries that had been food deficient, such as Mexico and India, became self-sufficient in producing cereal grains.
“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”
The day the award was announced, Borlaug, vigorous and slender at 56, was working in a wheat field outside Mexico City when his wife, Margaret, drove up to tell him the news. “Someone’s pulling your leg,” he replied, according to one of his biographers, Leon Hesser. Assured that it was true, he kept on working, saying he would celebrate later.
The Green Revolution eventually came under attack from environmental and social critics who said it had created more difficulties than it had solved. Borlaug responded that the real problem was not his agricultural techniques, but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary.
“If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species,” he declared.
Travelling to Norway, the land of his ancestors, to receive the award, he warned the Nobel audience that the struggle against hunger had not been won.
“We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts,” he said. Twice more in his lifetime, in the 1970s and again in 2008, those words would prove prescient as food shortages and high prices caused global unrest.
His Nobel Prize was the culmination of a storied life in agriculture that began when he was a boy growing up on a farm in Iowa, wondering why plants grew better in some places than others. His was also an unlikely career path, one that began in earnest near the end of World War II, when he walked away from a promising job at DuPont, the chemical company, to take a position in Mexico trying to help farmers improve their crops.
The job was part of an assault on hunger in Mexico that was devised in Manhattan, at the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation, with political support in Washington. But it was not a career choice calculated to lead to fame or honour.
On first seeing the situation in Mexico for himself, Borlaug reacted with near despair. Mexican soils were depleted, the crops were ravaged by disease, yields were low and the farmers could not feed themselves, much less improve their lot by selling surplus.
“These places I’ve seen have clubbed my mind—they are so poor and depressing,” he wrote to his wife after his first extended sojourn in the country. “I don’t know what we can do to help these people, but we’ve got to do something.”
The next few years were ones of toil and privation as Borlaug and his colleagues, with scant funds or equipment, set to work improving yields in tropical crop varieties.
He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed up the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslides and sometimes slept in tents.
He was by then a trained scientist holding a doctoral degree in plant diseases. But as he sought to coax better performance from the wheats of Mexico, he relied on a farm boy’s instinctive feel for the plants and the soil in which they grew. “When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together,” he told another biographer, Lennard Bickel. “They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.”
Borlaug’s wife of 69 years, the former Margaret Gibson, died in 2007. He is survived by a sister, Charlotte Borlaug Culbert; a daughter, Jeanie Borlaug Laube; a son, William Borlaug; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Gary H. Toenniessen, director of agricultural programmes for the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that Borlaug’s great achievement was to prove that intensive, modern agriculture could be made to work in the fast-growing developing countries where it was needed most, even on the small farms predominating there.
By Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.
“He knew what it was they needed to do, and he didn’t give up,” Toenniessen said. “He could just see that this was the answer.”
©2009/The New York Times
Gerald Jonas and Sarah Wheaton contributed to this story.