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Norman Borlaug and Nadilia Gomez

Norman Borlaug with Ph.D. student Nadilia Gomez

Feeding the world

Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug continues to do his best

By Martha Coventry

Published on October 13, 2005

Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug is far from a household name in the United States, yet his work may have saved a billion lives. Plant breeders are not exactly the most likely of celebrities, but in many developing countries, Borlaug is a hero.

More that 70 years after he first stepped on to the University of Minnesota campus, Borlaug is arguably the U's most famous graduate. There's Borlaug Hall, the largest building on the campus in St. Paul, the USDA Borlaug International Fellow program, and an extensive wheat-breeding program that continues his influence. He's a symbol of what history-changing magic can happen when just the right student (Borlaug) meets up with just the right professor (the renowned plant pathologist E. C. Stakman).

"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."

The entire state honors Borlaug each year on October 16. To commemorate Dr. Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Day this year, students in the U's College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences (COAFES) and College of Natural Resources organized the Borlaug Food and Fund Drive to benefit Second Harvest Heartland (see sidebar).

Borlaug's gift, which he is still using at 91, is a devotion to ending world hunger and figuring out how to get more food out of fewer acres. He has spent most of his life trying to help people all over the world live a decent life.

Food for the hungry

Food for the Norman Borlaug Food and Fund Drive to benefit Second Harvest Heartland is being collected this week in St. Paul in Room 495 Borlaug Hall, the Classroom Office Building Atrium, the first floor of Coffey Hall, and Room 135 Skok Hall. In Minneapolis, food is being collected at the first floor Information Desk in Coffman Union and Suite 220 in McNamara Alumni Center. Funds are accepted only in St. Paul at Room 495 Borlaug Hall, Room 190 Coffey Hall, and Room 135 Skok Hall.

"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," says Nadilia Gomez, a Ph.D. student in applied plant sciences and a native of Panama who has since become an acquaintance of Borlaug. "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. 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) and developed--through careful and unconventional breeding methods--short, strong varieties of wheat that led to a doubling and tripling of the yields of taller varieties, and were also resistant to disease, and could be planted 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 Prize in 1970 by helping those countries avert the famine in the 1960s and '70s that many 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.

If there is such a thing as a Midwestern character, Borlaug seems to have it in spades. Everyone who speaks of him mentions his connection to his family-he 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 is noticeably humble, tenacious, and single-minded about what he believes is the right thing to do.

Phil Pardey, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics who has worked with Borlaug, says Borlaug isn't just a plant breeder focused on his work in the field and the lab, but a rare type of scientist who does everything in his power to get his crops to the people who need them and freely share 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 in the impact of CIMMYT (Centro International de Mejormiento de Maiz y Trigo)--where Norm spent most of his career--not on the developing world, but on the developed world," say Pardey. "Turns out that in the early 1990s in California, which is a pretty big wheat state, every variety either directly came from that program or both parents came from that program. Just the value of this research the United States alone is upwards of $13. 6 billion from improved crop yields."

Hear more about Norman Borlaug

To listen to an audio vignette on Norman Borlaug's legacy, click on University of Minnesota Moment. University of Minnesota Moments are daily radio features highlighting University expertise on a wide range of timely topics.

People young enough to be Borlaug's great-grandchildren are inspired by his energy and commitment. Sangeetha Gummadi, a freshman majoring in agricultural education, wrote an essay on Borlaug as one of the requirements for the Siehl Scholarship she received from COAFES. "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.

Borlaug's work has a reach that hasn't really been appreciated yet. 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 while also conserving more than 670,000 samples of crop seeds in gene banks worldwide that today's crop breeders are using to feed future generations.

These days, Borlaug is a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M, senior consultant to the director general of CIMMYT, and lectures at universities worldwide. He has also turned his attention to Africa as president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, where he works with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to bring improved varieties of wheat, corn, and native crops to that continent.

With the world population expected to increase to 9.2 billion, from 6.4 billion today, in the next 50 years, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Population Fund estimate the need for a 75 percent increase in the world's food supply. The work Norman Borlaug has done in the last 50 years will undoubtedly help us get there.

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