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A true hero of agriculture - Norman Borlaug

April 3, 2009
By Wayne Schoper, Brown/Nicollet Extension Educator

I was a student at the University of Minnesota during the spring of 1974 when I had an opportunity to hear an address from a prominent alumnus of the University. I attended the lecture and was surprised to understand that our guest lecturer that day had received the Nobel Peace prize just a few years earlier in 1970.

The speaker's name was Norman Borlaug and I have been a fan of his ever since. In fact, part of the impetus for this article is the fact that Dr. Borlaug just celebrated his 95th birthday in late March.

The title of this article indicates just exactly what kind of place in history that Dr. Borlaug holds. We hear too much fluff in the news about this celebrity or some famous athlete. But their accomplishments are very minor compared to what people like Norman Borlaug have accomplished.

Norman Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa on March 25th, 1914. He grew up on a farm and later attended the University of Minnesota, graduating with a degree in plant pathology and a Masters of Science in 1940 followed by a PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. He took some time off from college to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the mid-1930's working with the unemployed on U.S Government projects.

Many of the people that he worked with were starving. He later recalled, "I saw how food changed them. All of this left scars on me."

His life was forever changed when he attended a lecture by E.C. Stakman, plant pathology professor at the University that talked about research conducted on the plant disease, rust. Rust in grain production can be very devastating. Rust is actually a fungus that attacks cereal grains such as wheat, effectively reducing yields or completely destroying the crops. Recurrent outbreaks of wheat rust had caused mass starvations and famine in many countries around the globe.

In 1944 Dr. Borlaug joined a project that was a cooperative venture between the U.S. and Mexican governments to develop new strains of wheat that were resistant to wheat scab and wheat rust, both fungus diseases that were devastating to world food production.

Dr. Borlaug rejected offers to go to work for some of the big agricultural companies in the U.S. to stay working for the public, land-grant universities to develop new strains of wheat and other grains to feed the world. Over the course of time, Dr. Borlaug and his team of scientists developed new crop varieties now planted around the world. His work in Mexico led to a series of new wheat varieties of high-yield, disease-resistant semi-dwarf wheat.

The dwarfing gene is very important in wheat production. Wheat used to have long, thin stalks that had severe problems with lodging. To prevent lodging, Borlaug bred wheat to favor shorter, stronger stalks that could hold larger seed heads. He also crossed these varieties with wheat cultivars that had exhibited resistance to the wheat rust that had been devastating wheat crops around the world. By 1963, new wheat varieties planted in Mexico yielded six times what they had yielded in 1944 and allowed Mexico to go from importing nearly all of their grain products to becoming a net exporter around the world.

Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. When he was notified that he had received the award he was working in his research plots and had to be convinced that the award was not a hoax. He has been called the father of the "green revolution," which is responsible for saving billions of people from starvation around the world. He is one of five people in the world to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.

And by the way, that spring of 1974, my dad planted "Era" wheat on our farm. This was a new, semi-dwarf wheat variety developed at the University of Minnesota by Dr. Borlaug.



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