Norman Borlaug, who has just died at age 95 in Dallas, was an exception among living Nobel Peace Prize beneficiaries: he actually deserved the award, which he received in 1970. This media-shy and extremely modest scientist, who served on the faculty at Texas A&M University, saved from hunger hundreds of millions of starving peasants around the world. Well known in Mexico and India as the Father of the Green Revolution, he never accepted this pompous title. He defined himself instead as a skillful plant breeder whose career had been defined by a tough childhood on an Iowa farm, where he first wondered why plants grew better in some places than others. When the Rockefeller Foundation began fighting hunger in Mexico in the 1950s, Borlaug joined the team. He took the initiative to cross Mexican wheat with fungus-resistant varieties from elsewhere. Mexican crops became fungus-free, and Mexican farmers could now feed themselves and sell the surplus.
Borlaug achieved a more spectacular breakthrough, obtained again by crossing varieties, in 1953. He grew a short wheat strain, initially from Hokkaido, Japan, with a large seed head; this strain could quadruple outputs. In 1967, when a famine struck India, M. S. Swaminathan, a plant scientist working in New Delhi, learned of Borlaug’s breakthrough. Indira Gandhi was then prime minister. A fierce nationalist, she wanted no help from abroad—and certainly not from the United States. Swaminathan, however, convinced Gandhi to listen to Borlaug. When Swaminathan reached him by phone in Mexico, Borlaug packed some of his miracle dwarf-wheat seeds into his attaché case and took the next plane to India. Together with Swaminathan, Borlaug adapted the semi-dwarf wheat to India’s local conditions. Later, Swaminathan would apply the same techniques to rice. The semi-dwarf wheat for northern India and semi-dwarf rice for southern India shifted the country from famine to agricultural surplus. Under the guidance of Swaminathan, with the constant supervision of his mentor, the semi-dwarf rice conquered the rest of Asia.
Borlaug saw Africa as his next frontier. Sudan, where he traveled extensively in the 1990s, seemed the perfect place, with the right land and climate conditions to start an African Green Revolution. Because of political circumstances in Sudan, however, he could only create some experimental farms. The results, while convincing, were never extended to the rest of the country, let alone the continent.
Borlaug was no innocent scientist: he knew that science could feed the world only when political conditions were right. In the case of India and Mexico, the semi-dwarf wheat and rice worked marvels because the farmers owned their own land. As private owners, they had a vested interest in using more expensive seeds that would produce a higher yield. Local authorities provided the water for irrigation: both the Mexican and Indian governments did it right, later followed by Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. But without private entrepreneurs, the Green Revolution would not have taken place. While touring the world, Borlaug always stressed that seeds by themselves could not eradicate hunger. Private property, entrepreneurship, and reliable governments were essential prerequisites.
Borlaug’s pro-market advocacy did not please everyone in the Third World. The Indian Left always saw the Green Revolution as an engine of injustice, and it attacked Borlaug for generating a social divide. It’s true that the most dynamic farmers in India did become wealthy, but the poor became poorer only relative to the new bourgeoisie. This quarrel about Borlaug’s influence is less relevant today, since poor farmers in Asia have begun leaving the countryside to work in urban industries. Moreover, in Asia, Swaminathan has been able to introduce new crops that do not require extensive land or water, like mushrooms.
Throughout his life, Borlaug never stopped training young teams of advanced plant breeders from around the world. His great joy was to be surrounded with a diverse crowd of researchers at his Mexico and Texas labs. The wonderful legacy of the Green Revolution that Norman Borlaug gave birth to should be better known, not only for what it brought to mankind, but also as a permanent lesson for the future. Honest science, when coupled with entrepreneurship and reliable government, can solve the major threats to human life. The oldest human plague, famine, has been eradicated through these means. The next human plague, whatever it may be, deserves similar treatment.