The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives


The Second World War had reached its crescendo. The Japanese forces have fought their way through South East Asia and have already occupied Burma (Myanmar) and were inching towards Eastern India. In response, the British forces ruling India start to mobilize forces. The Indian Army goes from numbering just under 200,000 men to becoming the largest volunteer army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men by August 1945.

In the throes of this massive social and economic upheaval brought on by the war, the Bengal famine of 1943 strikes. By the time it is all over, over 3 million have died from starvation and epidemics. This is the very famine, which served as a case study for Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning Indian economist, in his groundbreaking work Poverty and Famines.

 As millions were dying during the Bengal famine, on a hot summer day in July 1944, a 30-year-old young American with a doctorate in plant pathology has just completed his war service at DuPont. After rejecting DuPont’s offer to double his salary, and temporarily leaving behind his pregnant wife and 14-month-old daughter, he is on a flight into Mexico City. He would later write in the epilogue to his book Norman Borlaug on World Hunger “It often appeared to me that I had made a dreadful mistake in accepting the position in Mexico.”

As he took flight on that fateful summer day, even he did not imagine in his wildest dreams that he would go on to save a billion human lives and counting!

The man… Norman Borlaug… the Father of the Green Revolution.

Here is his amazing story…

This flight for Borlaug was the culmination of a journey triggered by a chance lecture by Elvin Stakman (professor and soon-to-be head of the plant pathology group at the University of Minnesota) he heard in the waning days of his undergraduate education. This event was pivotal for Borlaug’s future. Stakman, in his speech titled “These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops”, discussed the manifestation of the plant disease rust, a parasitic fungus that destroys crops across the United States. His research greatly interested Borlaug, and when Borlaug’s job at the Forest Service was eliminated because of budget cuts, he asked Stakman if he should go into forest pathology. Stakman advised him to focus on plant pathology instead. Borlaug subsequently enrolled at the University to study plant pathology under Stakman, receiving a Master of Science degree in 1940 and Ph.D. in plant pathology in 1942.

As he was finishing his doctorate, there were parallel events occurring which conspired to put him on that fateful flight into Mexico City. In 1940, the Avila Camacho administration took office in Mexico. The administration’s primary goal for Mexican agriculture was augmenting the nation’s industrialization and economic growth. The US Vice President-Elect Henry Wallace (a story for another time), who was instrumental in persuading the Rockefeller Foundation to work with the Mexican government in agricultural development, saw Avila Camacho’s ambitions as beneficial to U.S. economic and military interests. The Rokefeller Foundation contacted Professor Stakman and two other leading agronomists. They developed a proposal for a new organization, the Office of Special Studies, as part of the Mexican government, but directed by the Rockefeller Foundation. It was to be staffed with both Mexican and US scientists, focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology. Stakman chose Dr. Jacob Harrar as the project leader who in turn set out to hire Borlaug as head of the newly established Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico and here he was on this summer day in 1944 heading to Mexico City to head the new program. The three other members were soil scientist William Colwell; maize breeder Edward Wellhausen; potato breeder John Niederhauser.

Initially, Borlaug’s work had been concentrate in the central highlands, in the village of Chapingo near Toxoco, where the problems with rust and poor soil were most prevalent. He realized that he could  speed up breeding by taking advantage of the country’s two growing seasons. In the summerhe would breed wheat in the central highlands as usual, then immediately take the seeds north to the Yaqui Valley research station near Cuidad Obregón, Sonora. Borlaug’s boss, George Harrar, was against this expansion and vetoed his plan. Borlaug resigned. Elvin Stakman, who was visiting the project, calmed the situation, talking Borlaug into withdrawing his resignation and Harrar into allowing the double wheat season. As of 1945, wheat would then be bred at locations 700 miles (1000 km) apart, 10 degrees apart in latitude, and 8500 feet (2600 m) apart in altitude. This was called “shuttle breeding”.He spent the first ten years breeding wheat cultivars resistant to disease, including rust.  In that time, his group made 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. By 1963, 95% of Mexico’s wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlaug. That year, the harvest was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico.

Borlaug…looking back on his life

More details…

Here is the Borlaug Rap…

Borlaug and the Indian connection…

India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947 was born on the background of the great Bengal famine, which had claimed 3 million lives. To sustain a growing population these countries were having to import large amounts of grains- a ship to mouth existence. The food supply situation was so precarious that these countries had been practically written off for their ability to exist in the future. Grain production at that time was complicated by low yields, and by strains that did not respond robustly to fertilizers and easily fell under its own weight. In the face of this crisis, MS Swaminathan, an agriculture scientist who had been given the charge to fix grain production crisis contacted Norman Borloug whom he had met during his doctorate in the early 1950s.Under these dire condition Borlaug arrived in India on March 25th, 1963- as a ray of hope for a young country. It was his birthday and was welcomed with Mexican music and food which Swaminathan’s wife had arranged…

Borlaug mentions that the hardest ‘wrestling’ match he faced was when he had to convince the Indian and Pakistani President’s that trying out the semi-dwarf seeds was the right thing to do. In 1965, after extensive testing, Borlaug’s team, under Anderson, began its effort by importing about 450 tons of semi-dwarf seed varieties: 250 tons went to Pakistan and 200 to India. They encountered many obstacles. Their first shipment of wheat was held up in Mexican customs and so it could not be shipped from the port at Guaymas in time for proper planting. Instead, it was sent via a 30-truck convoy from Mexico to the U.S. port in Los Angeles, encountering delays at the Mexico- United States border. Once the convoy entered the U.S., it had to take a detour, as the US National Guards had closed the freeway due to Watts riots in Los Angeles. When the seeds reached Los Angeles, a Mexican bank refused to honor Pakistan treasury’s payment of US$ 100,000, because the check contained three misspelled words. Still, the seed was loaded onto a freighter destined for Bombay, India, and Karachi, Pakistan. Twelve hours into the freighter’s voyage, war broke out between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region. Borlaug received a telegram from the Pakistani minister of agriculture, “I’m sorry to hear you are having trouble with my check, but I’ve got troubles, too. Bombs are falling on my front lawn. Be patient, the money is in the bank…”. These delays prevented Borlaug’s group from conducting the germination tests needed to determine seed quality and proper seeding levels. They started planting immediately, and often worked in sight of artillery flashes. A week later, Borlaug discovered that his seeds were germinating at less than half the normal rate. It later turned out that the seeds had been damaged in a Mexican warehouse by over-fumigation with a pesticide. He immediately ordered all locations to double their seeding rates. The initial yields of Borlaug’s crops were higher than any ever harvested in south Asia and finally led to food sufficiency in South East Asia.

As he accepted the Nobel Prize on December 10th, 1970, he was coming full circle back to his Norwegian roots- Borlaug was the great-grandchild of Norwegian immigrants to the United States.

Here is Swaminathan talking about the Indian food crisis and Borlaug…

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