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The legacy of Norman Borlaug

October 9, 2009
From Wayne Schoper, Brown/Nicollet Extension Educator

One of the great agricultural researchers passed away recently. Norman Borlaug died on September 12 of this year, and he left behind one of the most impressive legacies of plant disease research and humanitarian work that the world has seen. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work developing disease resistant wheat varieties in Mexico. He was a very modest man who avoided the limelight and preferred working in his research plots to attending meetings and receiving awards. In fact, he was working in his research plots when he was notified that he had received the Nobel Peace Prize. His wife had to convince him that it was not a hoax and he had, indeed, won the award. Borlaug went on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold medal in 2006 for his efforts. Only six people in history have accomplished this feat.

Borlaug showed us that we can produce more food on less land by being more efficient and decreasing losses through modern technological innovations. He attended the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in plant pathology and Masters of Science in 1940 and a PhD in plant pathology in 1942. He had taken some time off from college to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the mid-1930s 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 of Minnesota. Stakman talked about his research conducted at the University on plant disease rust. Rust is a fungal disease that can be very devastating in grain production. Rust attacks cereal grains such as wheat and reduces yields by 50 percent or more often times completely destroying the crop. Recurrent outbreaks of wheat rust had caused mass starvation and famines in many countries around the globe.

In 1944, Borlaug joined a project that was a cooperative venture between the U.S and Mexican government to develop new strains of wheat that were resistant to wheat scab and wheat rust, both devastating diseases affecting world food production. His work in Mexico during the 1950s and 1960s brought that country from the verge of famine into a net exporter of wheat by 1963. He focused on developing disease resistant wheat varieties by breeding for "semi-dwarf" varieties that featured strong stems and roots. These varieties were resistant to the fungal rust diseases that devastated crop yields and left much of Mexico without enough food to go around. He went on from there to work in Pakistan and other countries of the world and has been hailed as the "Father of the Green Revolution."

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So where does this leave us? Borlaug's work along with many others must be carried on as we go along in the 21st century. There are almost 6.5 billion people on earth with projections of 10 billion by the end of the century. Borlaug once said that his work was a temporary success in the war against hunger and deprivation. Population growth has slowed in almost every developing nation where high-yield agriculture has been introduced, when people realize that they no longer need added man-power to produce more food. By continuing agricultural research we can continue to feed the world and carry on the legacy and work of people like Norman Borlaug.



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