Life can sometimes imitate art. Noel Vietmeyer’s Our Daily Bread, a gripping, touching, meticulously researched biography of Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution, accurately portrays the kind of nobility, idealism and courage epitomized by Jimmy Stewart in the title role of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
Borlaug’s life was one of extraordinary paradoxes: He was a child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who worked on the family farm, attended a one-room school, flunked the university entrance exam—but went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work that ultimately prevented worldwide malnutrition, famine, and the premature death of hundreds of millions. (That was at a time when the award was more than a mere exercise in political correctness.)
Photo credit: CIMMYT
Borlaug introduced several revolutionary innovations into plant breeding and agronomics. First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20 to 40 percent.
Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties, which were smaller than the old shoulder-high varieties that bent in the wind and touched the ground (thereby becoming unharvestable); the new waist or knee-high dwarfs stayed erect and held up huge loads of grain. The yields were thereby boosted even further.
Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”—growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the time required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes, and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.
Without Borlaug's high-yield agriculture, millions would have starved.
Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide their farmers both improved seeds and the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation. Borlaug liked to recall one strategy that he used:
Whenever I reached New Delhi the first question I was asked was: “How are the Mexican wheats doing in Pakistan?” And whenever I reached Lahore the first question was: “How is India doing with the new varieties?”
To each I always answered the same: “They are doing very well, very well indeed. You are going to have to work as hard as you can just to keep up with them.”
In his professional life, Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that, in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.
How successful were Borlaug’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland—an extraordinary increase in yield-per-acre of more than 150 percent. India is an excellent case in point. In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 pounds-per-acre. By 1968, thanks to Borlaug’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6,000 pounds-per-acre.
Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through the drastic expansion of land under cultivation—with major losses in pristine wilderness.
Borlaug recalled afterward, without rancor, the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: “Bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions.” About his experience in India (in the early 1960's), he said:
When I asked about the need to modernize agriculture, both scientists and administrators typically replied, “Poverty is the farmers’ lot; they are used to it.”
I was informed that the farmers were proud of their lowly status, and was assured that they wanted no change. After my own experiences in Iowa and Mexico, I didn’t believe a word of it.
In Pakistan and Egypt, government research directors actually sabotaged trials of Borlaug’s seeds in order to discredit his work. As a result, people starved; as Borlaug recalled: “In Bombay during those terrible days I saw miserable homeless kids clustered around hotels pleading not for money but for scraps of bread. Each morning trucks circled the streets, picking up corpses.” Surely, those bureaucrats were guilty of what our judicial system would call “reckless disregard for human life.”
There is no commodity more essential than food.
The need for additional agricultural production and the obstacles to innovation remain, and in his later years, Borlaug turned his efforts to ensuring the success of this century’s equivalent of the Green Revolution: the application of gene-splicing, or “genetic modification” (GM), to agriculture. As Borlaug and other plant scientists realized, the use of the term “genetic modification” to apply only to the newest genetic techniques is an unfortunate misnomer because plant scientists had been using crude and laborious techniques to obtain new genetic variants of wheat, corn, and innumerable other crops for decades, if not centuries. Products now in development with gene-splicing techniques offer the possibility of even higher yields, lower inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.
However, small numbers of dedicated extremists in the environmental movement have been doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in national and United Nations-based regulatory agencies are more than eager to help. Activists have trotted out the same kinds of rumors to frighten rural illiterates that confronted Borlaug a half-century earlier—that gene-spliced plants cause impotence or sterility, or that they harm farm animals, for example. As Borlaug observed about opposition to modernizing agricultural practices in India in 1966, “The situation was tailor-made for demagogues, fear-mongers, second-guessers and hate groups. We heard from them all.” In the twenty-first century, they continue to spew their lethal venom.
Occasionally, spurious reports about modern genetic engineering manage to enter even the peer-reviewed literature; a recent example is an absurd, nearly psychotic rant about the supposed negative impacts of gene-spliced soybeans in Argentina. As my colleagues Kent Bradford and Bruce Chassy wrote about that article, “The text is largely a rambling discourse of unfounded and subjective opinion. It contains inadequate and erroneous documentation. Many of the claims made are either not supported by references, or are based on non-peer reviewed references, including press articles.”
Borlaug was concerned that these kinds of attacks were examples of history repeating itself:
At the time [of the Green Revolution], Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, “Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won’t be able to get permission for more of these efforts.” Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later. . . . The naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available” [emphasis in original].
Borlaug observed that the enemies of innovation might create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.” After slowing the progress of gene-splicing technology by advocating excessive regulation and after filing lawsuits to prevent the testing and commercialization of gene-spliced plants and even vandalizing field trials, activists have had the audacity to accuse the scientists and agribusiness companies of having overpromised technological advances.
The governments of Pakistan and Egypt tried to sabotage Borlaug's work.
Borlaug’s story is a saga of twentieth-century American exceptionalism—of opportunity, individuality, tenacity, courage, and monumental achievement. He strove to exploit new technology in a way that was based on good science and good sense. Although working under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, he was no pampered scientist; Vietmeyer’s account describes vividly the primitive and sometimes dangerous conditions that Borlaug endured in Mexico and how, lacking animals—let alone tractors—as beasts of burden, he and his few Mexican helpers plowed experimental plots in a harness.
I was privileged to know Borlaug personally during the last two decades of his life. As remarkable as his scientific and humanitarian accomplishments were, Norman’s modesty, guilelessness, and desire to contribute to society were also among his salient qualities.
Borlaug’s worldview was shaped by his roots and by his experiences as a young man. Throughout his professional life, he applied the lesson he had learned when, during the late 1930s, he saw Iowa corn farming transformed by the advent of new hybrid corn seeds and appropriate amounts of fertilizer. These advances boosted yields from the traditional ceiling of 30 bushels per acre to an astonishing state average of 75, which in turn converted the lifestyles of Iowa farmers from subsistence to a more assured existence.
Borlaug had been shocked by what he saw when he arrived at the University of Minnesota as a freshman in the fall of 1933: “I saw these people out there on the streets in the cold, mostly grown men and whole families too, sleeping on newspapers, hands out, asking for a nickel, begging for food. This was before the soup lines.” Perhaps as a result of often going hungry during his childhood and college years, Borlaug’s modus vivendi might be summed up in several observations that he made about the importance of food and the application of science to feeding the hungry.
First: “There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse.” Second: “You can’t eat potential.” In other words, you haven’t succeeded until you get new developments into the field and actually into people’s bellies. And finally: “It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don’t know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be.”
Borlaug had a great deal of good fortune along his path, in the form of unexpected and unlikely confluences of people and circumstances. That brings to mind the observation of microbiologist Louis Pasteur that “luck favors only the prepared mind.”