Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame


Dr. Norman Borlaug - 2010 Inductee

Harold Edward "Bud" FroehlichDr. Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist educated at the University of Minnesota and a Nobel laureate, is the University’s most distinguished alumnus.  His unconventional approach, overturning many formerly held beliefs about plant breeding, and his myriad of accomplishments in expanding the world’s food supply, warrant recognition as an exceptional innovator.

His life was one of unparalleled scientific, educational and diplomatic achievements in combating global hunger.  He helped to dramatically increase the food supply through agricultural innovation - the so-called “Green Revolution.”

Borlaug spent the better part of the five decades living in developing nations, researching and selectively breeding cereal grains, and teaching the techniques of high-yield agriculture.

Borlaug was born in the small Norwegian-American farming community of Saude, near Cresco in Iowa on March 25, 1914. He grew up on his father's small grain and livestock farm and, after graduating from Cresco High School, studied at the University of Minnesota where he earned  a degree in Forestry and was a member of the wrestling team.

After graduation, he worked for a time in the forestry service in Massachusetts and Idaho, but the job fell through. He returned to the University of Minnesota, where he received his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics. After three years of research work at Du Pont de Nemours in Delaware, he accepted an appointment to an agricultural research position and was assigned the task of organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program, a joint undertaking by the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation, set up to solve the problem of the devastation of the country's wheat harvests by stem rust.  He was assigned the task of organizing and directing the program.

Within twenty years, on the research stations and farmers' fields of Mexico, Borlaug
and his colleagues developed drought-hardy, disease strains of wheat, with broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with high yield potential.

Scientist.  Borlaug’s work involved research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. Through careful and unconventional breeding methods, he and his colleagues developed unique strains of cereal grains that resist a variety of plant pests and diseases and could be grown in a wide range of climates.  A pragmatic, goal-oriented scientist, Borlaugaccepted or discarded methods or results in a constant search for more fruitful and effective ones.

Borlaug used a number of approaches to improve Mexico's wheat. Foremost among them was the development of multiline varieties, in which several strains of wheat were developed together, which shared phenotype but differed in genotype. Pureline varieties, where the wheat is of a single genetic strain, are ravaged easily by disease. Borlaug found that breeding all of the strains in a multiline with a single parent could cause them to merge into a common phenotype much more quickly. The different strains could grow to the same height, germinate at the same time, and share other desirable characteristics, yet maintain the significant genetic differences necessary for disease resistance.

Another success was the cross-breeding of selected outside wheats into Mexico's traditional wheat strains. Norin 10, a dwarf strain from Japan, grew to two feet instead of four feet, a necessity if stalks are to support more grains. An American strain, Brevor 14, showed remarkably high yields. These and others, in combination with the multiline techniques, made for a formidable high-yielding wheat resistant to disease. Within 20 years of his starting, virtually all of Mexico was planting Borlaug's varieties.

Shuttle breeding.  While working in Mexico as a crop researcher, Borlaug had the notion that the then long-held principle of agronomy - the belief that wheat seeds needed to store energy for germination before being planted, seeds needed a rest period after harvesting -  was a myth.  His vision was that if he could harvest his disease-resistant strain of wheat in one part of the country, he could immediately take the seeds to another elevation, where he could take advantage of the difference in the altitudes and temperatures and get a second growing season. This was called "shuttle breeding."  His supervisors doubted him, and he came close to losing all of his seeds trying to cross a river- which nearly cost him his job.

Photoperiodism.  Normally, wheat varieties cannot adapt to new environments, due to photoperiodism - the plant’s response to changes of duration in daily, seasonal, or yearly cycles of light and darkness.  As an unexpected benefit of shuttle breeding, the new breeds did not have problems with photoperiodism. Borlaug later recalled, "As it worked out, in the north, we were planting when the days were getting shorter, at low elevation and high temperature. Then we'd take the seed from the best plants south and plant it at high elevation, when days were getting longer and there was lots of rain. Soon we had varieties that fit the whole range of conditions. That wasn't supposed to happen by the books.”  This meant the project would not need to start separate breeding programs for each geographic region of the planet.

Semi-dwarf plants.  By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth.  But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, these new wheat varieties grew tall and often fell over in high winds and rain, ruining the crop.

So, beginning in 1953, Borlaug began cross-breeding with a dwarf Japanese wheat strain containing an unusual gene.  It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety short enough to survive the wind and rain. These new "semi-dwarf" plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over.  Yields could be tripled or quadrupled on the same amount of land.

In his autobiography, Borlaug said: “I was put in charge of coordinating all the research going into wheat, and I worked on soil fertility too. Some of the soils in Mexico had been cultivated since long before the Spaniards came to Mexico, so they were at a low level of fertility and we developed methods of fertilizing that soil.”

By 1959, Mexico had become self-sufficient in grain production.  By the early 1960s, after many farmers in Mexico had embraced the full package of innovations from Borlaug’s breeding program, the wheat output in the country soared sixfold from the levels of the early 1940s. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963.

Borlaug and his colleagues then helped spread these new high-yielding wheat varieties to countries in South America, notably Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.  Once the Rockefeller's Mexican program was producing high-yield dwarf wheat for Mexico, Borlaug began to argue that farmers in other areas of the world would benefit from growing similar crops. The proposition was controversial since it implied replacing indigenous Indian and African crops such as lentils and cassava with "western" crops such as wheat.  The proposition was controversial then and remains so today, some environmental commentators asserting that farmers in the developing world should grow indigenous crops (lentils in India, cassava in Africa) rather than the grains favored in the West. Borlaug's argument was simply that since no one had yet perfected high-yield strains of indigenous plants, CIMMYT wheat would produce the most food calories for the developing world. Borlaug particularly favored wheat because it grows in nearly all environments and requires relatively little pesticide, having an innate resistance to insects.

Indian and Pakistan.  After World War II, on the Indian subcontinent in particular, a crisis developed.  The introduction of basic sanitation in many developing countries caused death rates to plunge.  As a result, the global population had exploded, putting immense strain on food supplies.  The population was growing so much faster than farm output that it was not clear how the masses could be fed.  Huge  grain imports were required to avert starvation.

In 1963, Borlaug went to Pakistan and India, at the invitation of their governments.  At first he failed to persuade the state-owned seed and grain monopolies to switch to high yield crops. But by 1965 famine was so bad that the governments agreed to try his dwarf wheat. A shipment was arranged from America, but the India-Pakistan war intervened.

Despite the institutional resistance Borlaug stayed in Pakistan and India, tirelessly repeating himself. By 1965 famine on the subcontinent was so bad that governments made a commitment to dwarf wheat.Borlaug arranged for a convoy of thirty-five trucks to carry high-yield seeds from CIMMYT to a Los Angeles dock for shipment. The convoy was held up by the Mexican police, blocked by U.S. border agents attempting to enforce a ban on seed importation, and then stopped by the National Guard when the Watts riot prevented access to the L.A. harbor. Finally the seed ship sailed. Borlaug says, "I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved, and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan."

Nevertheless Borlaug and local scientists planted the first crop of dwarf wheat, sometimes working to the sound of artillery. Sowed late, the crop germinated poorly, yet yields rose by 70 per cent. This prevented general starvation in the region, although there were riots in Kerala when local people were presented with sacks of wheat flour instead of the traditional rice.

Owing to the wartime emergency, Borlaug was given the go-ahead to try again the following year. The results exceeded all expectations.  Soon, India and Pakistan were ordering shiploads of Borlaug’s wheat seeds from Mexico.  Indian and Pakistani farmers took up the new varieties, receiving fertilizer and other aid from their governments. Just as in Mexico, harvests soared: the Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so bountiful that the government had to turn schools into temporary granaries.

By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production; India followed a few years later. Since the 1960s, food production in both countries has outpaced the rate of population growth and, in the mid 1980s, India even became a net exporter.  In 1968, the administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) wrote in his annual report that the phenomenal improvement in food production in the subcontinent looked like "a Green Revolution" – which was how it came to be known.  But Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” was not “green” in the modern sense.  High yields demanded artificial fertilizer, chemical pesticides and new soil technology.

Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1970s, that increased agriculture production around the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s.[1]

The initiatives involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

Rice.  As with the Mexican effort, the Rockefeller Foundation and other donors set up a project in the Philippines to work on rice - the International Rice Research Institute.  Borlaug’s methods were applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population.  It led to the creation of semi-dwarf varieties that caused rice yields to soar. Chinese scientists ultimately followed in the footsteps of Western researchers, using semi-dwarf varieties to establish food security in China and setting the stage for its rise as an industrial power.

Triticale.  Borlaug also conducted experiments with triticale, a man-made species of grain derived from a cross between wheat rye that shows promise of being superior to either wheat or rye in productivity and nutritional quality. 

Research.  In his later years, he marshaled efforts to tackle a new variety of rust that is threatening the world’s wheat crops.  The international research centers, where Borlaug 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 may use to feed future generations.

Humanitarian.  Borlaug worked to get his crops to the people who needed them.  Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted in the 1960s.  It has been estimated that 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.        

Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from dying from hunger.  It is often said that he has "saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived."  A 2006 book aboutBorlaug is titled "The Man Who Fed the World."

Borlaug freely shared his knowledge with the rest of the world by training young scientists in many under developed, poverty-stricken countries, showing them the best methods to raise cereal grains.

In 1984, at the age of 71, Borlaug was drawn out of retirement by the Japanese industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa who, with former American president Jimmy Carter, was working to improve African agriculture.  In 2005, at age 91, Borlaug made three trips to Africa and one each to India and Argentina in his continuing efforts to relieve hunger. He remained active well into his 90s, campaigning for the use of biotechnology to fight hunger. He also helped found and served as president of the Sasakawa Africa Foundation, an organization funded by Japanese billionaire Ryoichi Sasakawa to introduce the green revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1985, Borlaug was the driving force behind the establishment of the World Food Prize, a $250,000 award given each year to a person whose work improves the world's food supply.

Environmentalist.  Borlaug continually advocated increasing crop yields as a means to curb deforestation.  By producing more food from less land, Borlaug argued, high-yield farming would help preserve Africa's wild habitats from further depletion by slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture.

The world's 1950 grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres -- a 170 percent increase from one percent more land.

The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the "Borlaug hypothesis", namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland.  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.      

Philip Pardey, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, did an economic study on the impact of Borlaug’s work.  He reported that by the early 1990s in California, which is a large wheat producing state, either every variety came directly from that Borlaug’s research or both parents came from that program.  He calculated the value of this research to the United States alone at more than $13.6 billion from improved crop yields.

Athlete.  He brought to his work the body and competitive spirit of the trained athlete, which indeed he was in his high school and college days.  Borlaug was a member of the Gopher varsity wrestling team and was inducted in the national Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.

Recognition.  It was principally Borlaug's work in India and Pakistan that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing the food supply. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee believed his work helped millions escape famine and misery and averted wars and social upheaval.  Borlaug is the only agricultural scientist to win the Nobel Prize. 

Borlaug is one of only six people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.  In 1985, the University of Minnesota named the largest wing of the new science building on the St. Paul campus "Borlaug Hall" in his honor.

In addition to the doctorate decree he earned at the University of Minnesota, Borlaug was awarded more than 50 honorary doctorates from institutions in 18 countries and belonged to the academies of science in 12 nations. 

Borlaug remained Senior Scientist at the Rockefeller Foundation and, in 1984, joined the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University, where he served as Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.

NOTE: Information in this short biography has been obtained from many sources, including the nomination form submitted to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and from information available on the internet.   More articles about Dr. Borlaug’s work, accomplishments, and recognitions, are available on the internet.