Norman Borlaug (1914-2009): Nobel Winner and Father of Pakistan’s ‘Green Revolution’

Posted on September 14, 2009
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Economy & Development, Environment, Food, People, Science and Technology
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Adil Najam

Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and father of the ‘Green Revolution‘, including in Pakistan, died in Texas at age 95. Few in Pakistan have ever heard his name, but no one has had a deeper impact, for good as well as bad, on agriculture in Pakistan as we know it today than Dr. Norman Borlaug.

In reporting Dr. Borlaug’s death, Dallas News writes:

The Nobel committee honored Dr. Borlaug in 1970 for his contributions to high-yield crop varieties and bringing agricultural innovations to the developing world. Many experts credit the green revolution with averting global famine during the second half of the 20th century and saving perhaps 1 billion lives. “More than any other single person of his age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world,” Nobel Peace Prize committee chairman Aase Lionaes said in presenting the award to Dr. Borlaug. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

The Los Angeles Times adds:

Borlaug was one of only five people in history to score the trifecta of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal — placing him in the company of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel. He was also named by Time magazine in 1999 as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century.

Despite all this, he has been amongst the least well known winners of the Nobel Peace Prize ever, even in his native USA. But given the totally transformative impact that the green revolution had on agrarian Pakistan it is even more sad that so few Pakistanis even know who he was or just how and how much he effected their lives.

To understand just how important he was in shaping agriculture in Pakistan – no, it was not Ayub Khan, it was Norman Borlaug who shaped it – a reading Gregg Easterbrook’s 1997 profile of Norman Borlaug is instructive. It is recommended that you read the full profile, but here are some specially telling excerpts:

He received the Nobel in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. 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… The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.

Entering college as the Depression began, Borlaug worked for a time in the Northeastern Forestry Service, often with men from the Civilian Conservation Corps, occasionally dropping out of school to earn money to finish his degree in forest management. He passed the civil-service exam and was accepted into the Forest Service, but the job fell through. He then began to pursue a graduate degree in plant pathology. During his studies he did a research project on the movement of spores of rust, a class of fungus that plagues many crops… He decided that his life’s work would be to spread the benefits of high-yield farming to the many nations where crop failures as awful as those in the Dust Bowl were regular facts of life.

In 1943 the Rockefeller Foundation established the precursor to CIMMYT to assist the poor farmers of Mexico, doing so at the behest of the former Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, of the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company family, who had been unable to extract any money from Congress for agricultural aid to Mexico. Soon Borlaug was in Mexico as the director of the wheat program — a job for which there was little competition, backwater Mexico in the 1940s not being an eagerly sought-after posting. Except for brief intervals, he has lived in the developing world since. The program’s initial goal was to teach Mexican farmers new farming ideas, but Borlaug soon had the institution seeking agricultural innovations. One was “shuttle breeding,” a technique for speeding up the movement of disease immunity between strains of crops. Borlaug also developed cereals that were insensitive to the number of hours of light in a day, and could therefore be grown in many climates.

Borlaug’s leading research achievement was to hasten the perfection of dwarf spring wheat. Though it is conventionally assumed that farmers want a tall, impressive-looking harvest, in fact shrinking wheat and other crops has often proved beneficial. Bred for short stalks, plants expend less energy on growing inedible column sections and more on growing valuable grain. Stout, short-stalked wheat also neatly supports its kernels, whereas tall-stalked wheat may bend over at maturity, complicating reaping. Nature has favored genes for tall stalks, because in nature plants must compete for access to sunlight. In high-yield agriculture equally short-stalked plants will receive equal sunlight. As Borlaug labored to perfect his wheat, researchers were seeking dwarf strains of rice at the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, another of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ creations, and at China’s Hunan Rice Research Institute.

Once the Rockefeller’s Mexican program was producing high-yield dwarf wheat for Mexico, Borlaug began to argue that India and other nations should switch to cereal crops. 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 (high-yield cassava has only recently been available), 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…

In 1963 the Rockefeller Foundation and the government of Mexico established CIMMYT, as an outgrowth of their original program, and sent Borlaug to Pakistan and India, which were then descending into famine. He failed in his initial efforts to persuade the parastatal seed and grain monopolies that those countries had established after independence to switch to high-yield crop strains.

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 many local scientists who were his former trainees in Mexico planted the first crop of dwarf wheat on the subcontinent, sometimes working within sight of artillery flashes. Sowed late, that crop germinated poorly, yet yields still rose 70 percent... Owing to wartime emergency, Borlaug was given the go-ahead to circumvent the parastatals. “Within a few hours of that decision I had all the seed contracts signed and a much larger planting effort in place,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for the war, I might never have been given true freedom to test these ideas.” The next harvest “was beautiful, a 98 percent improvement.” By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production. India required only a few years longer.

Of course, the green revolution – and Normal Borlaug – are not without controversy. Many, including myself, have argued that the architects of the green revolution were so fixated on yields that they underestimated its social and ecological consequences. In recent years, there have also been concerns about Dr. Borlaug’s unconditional advocacy of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There is much that can and should be debated about the impacts of the green revolution. But what is beyond debate is that Pakistan agriculture post-Norman Borlaug was a radically different reality than Pakistan agriculture pre-Norman Borlaug.

Of course, there were many in the Pakistan agriculture establishment who took it from there and without whom things would never have moved on, but Borlaug’s impact was pivotal – as had been the impact of the late Roger Revelle on Pakistan’s irrigation system. This is not to take away credit from all the others, but it is to give credit due to him.

Legitimate debates on the green revolution notwithstanding – and for those of us who work on these issues, these debates must continue – no one can doubt Dr. Borlaug’s deep commitment and single-minded efforts for eradicating world hunger and the phenomenal impact of the green revolution across the globe, but especially in South Asia. In the years since its creation, few people have changed the lives of as many Pakistanis as deeply as he did and are as unknown by those they impacted as Dr. Norman Borlaug.

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17 responses to “Norman Borlaug (1914-2009): Nobel Winner and Father of Pakistan’s ‘Green Revolution’”

  1. Shabbir says:

    I heard about his death on the television today and Pakistan was mentioned, but I am embarrassed to say that I did not know about him and certainly did not realize how important he was to Pakistan’s agriculture.

    Thank you for writing this. One always learns something new at ATP.

  2. Zaheer Chaudhry says:

    he was a true explorer…..a true earth lover….a teacher… a friend…his vision and words will remain always wd us…..tributes….he is still some where in ds world…
    love for Sir Borlaug from all Pakistani explorers.

  3. Yahya says:

    i have not heard about him before….. obviously embarrasse…. but am happy to know about these facts and Sir Borlaug…

    thanks for sharing…..

  4. Haider says:

    Amazing. Sorry that I never knew about him.

    So, this man comes all the way and helps us from starvation and makes our agriculture stronger. And what do our fellow Muslim Saudis do. They come to steal our land and deprive our future children of food.

    So who is friend and who is enemy!

  5. S.A.F. says:

    Adil, glad you wrote this post. Glad that you also mentioned the negative aspects of the green revolution. He was an amazing man certainly, but the unintended aspects of the green revolution have been bad in many areas. Although the food production increase was really tremendous and I do not know what we would have done without that. But I wish they had also thought of its other effects.

  6. Dr. Ishtiaq Ali says:

    Thanks for writing this. I have heard a lot about green revolution but it was always about Ayub Khan and not about Dr. Norman. And the writeup about how the war made this possible is amazing.

    May he rest in peace.

  7. Faraz Shams says:

    He is indeed the forgotten benefactor.

    Touring the subcontinent in the late 1960s and encountering field after field of robust wheat, Forrest Frank Hill, a former vice-president of the Ford Foundation, told Borlaug, “Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won’t be able to get permission for more of these efforts.”

  8. Ali says:

    Great post Prof Adil!

    I also never heard of this great scientist, until after his death. I didn’t know his Pakistan connection, until I read this morning’s Dawn. And now, your profile has really enlightened the great (and a few controversial) aspects of Dr Norman Borlaug.

    However, there is one thing I wanted to mention. I might be wrong, but you mentioned in the article that Easterbrook’s article was published in 1977. The link you provided has it published 1997. I am just trying to make sure, as some of the aspects discussed in it are time-dependent.

    Thanks, in advance, for your feedback.

  9. Tina says:

    Green revolution leading to high wheat yields, followed by a population explosion that leads to people getting trampled to death as they struggle to gain access to free wheat flour….because, green revolution notwithstanding, the children are hungry.

    So what have we learned?

    Seriously, how did it happen?

  10. Ghulam Ali says:

    Tina, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. So because poor people had food now they will have more babies. These are humans, not animals. the evidence has been very clear that if you erase poverty and hunger the birth rates go DOWN

    There are plenty of good reasons to criticize the green revolution, like the impact on small farmers, the ecological impacts of higher chemical use, loss of traditional agricultural practices and crops. But to stoop to such an inhuman Malthusian argument is disgraceful.

  11. Sajjad Junaidi says:

    Thank you Adil for sharing this important part of our history. I agree with allot of commentators here that its really embarrassing not knowing about him. I think Norman Borlaug’s green revolution should be taught in primary school Social Studies and then once again later in secondary school with its pros and cons.

  12. Tina says:

    Ghulam and Fawad,

    Thanks for your reply… see that, in spite of this great scientist’s success, the wished for results were not achieved. Now we should be asking, why?

    You criticize my statement, but you cannot deny that it is the truth. Poverty was not eliminated, and birth rates did not go down (the connection between the two is not a generalized truth, btw, but something specific to Western post-war economic conditions). Rather the population exploded, like so many rats in a barn in a good year. Yet as Ghulam points out, humans are not animals, so why?

    Education failed, for starters, then religious conservatism did the rest. Which brings me to Fawad’s point….my parents would not have used birth control since they believed it was from the devil and it is Gods plan to bring as many babies into the world as possible, regardless of whether or not you can feed, clothe, or educate them. A few condoms would not have been amiss as my Grandmother had 16 pregnancies yet only 12 children survived the journey into adulthood, the deaths and the misery of the surviving children being entirely due to poverty. My sister and mother married and had children as teenagers.

    I don’t support any interpretation of religion that teaches that God wants this. Humans are not exempt from the rules of Nature, and the sooner we realize that the happier we will be. Our species is not special or exceptional in the sense that we can live without food and water. If a Green Revolution could not prevent starvation in Pakistan a mere 50 years after it came about, what will? This is the closest thing to having food magically appear that will ever happen to the developing world, and it looks like many countries have taken great pains to squander the opportunity.

    People are not rats, but they are doomed to die like them if they refuse to use their God-given brains. Borlaug used his, but other unfortunately don’t use theirs.

  13. Ghulam Ali says:

    Tina, maybe there is NO Link between food and population!

    That is certainly the consensus amongst social scientists who study this. To the extent there is a link it is with affluence. Greater affluence does reduce fertility.

    By the way, in EVERY COUNTRY that went through the green revolution the fertility today is LOWER than it was before the green revolution. But that is correlation, not causality.

    Lets not read things that are not there.

    The fact is that food production DID go up. And dramatically. In each of the country where the green revolution happened the per capita income also went up but that too is correlation not causality.

    What IS causality is that food production went up dramatically.

    What frustrates me here is that I am not a fan of the green revolution, but your arguments force me to defend what I do not think of as being a great good, because the comments are so patently wrong. There are plenty of real reasons to worry about the green revolution, lets focus on them.

    Population control may be your hobby horse and it is important to me too but lets not make a link with this here.

    A bad argument is a bad argument even when it supports something you believe in (I support population control)…. if you want to control population control, give girls education… that has proved to be the most powerful factor in reducing population all over the world.

  14. Tina says:

    Hi Ghulam,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, and see where I could be mistaken.

    However the population in many countries has been growing rapidly, and there must be some reasons for it….I have no doubt that medical advances , which save children who would otherwise perish, account for much of it, but am sure that greater availability of food counts too. Not that I would want to deny the needy that food…but….

    However I can’t argue with your conclusion (about educating girls) and am glad you made that point.

  15. haroon says:

    Great post ATP.

    You are an educational site.

    I also did not know about him and am glad that I read through all of this and learnt much.


  16. Fawad says:

    Thank you for this writeup. It is great to see you raise issues and people who we all have forgotten. Keep it up ATP.

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