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The Story of Norman Borlaug, the American Scientist Who Helped Engineer India’s Green Revolution

The varieties of dwarf wheat developed by Borlaug are credited for saving millions of Indians from starvation.

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By the time Norman Borlaug was a teenager and ready to head off to college, he had already lived through one of the most harrowing times in American history – the Great Depression. He has seen suffering. He had witnessed starvation and extreme poverty. And he had only one goal as a result of it – to help as many as he could and help humanity as a whole.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why this scientist spent so much of his life dedicated to teaching the world how to feed itself. A large part of the work he did in plant breeding is credited as the main catalyst of India’s Green Revolution – a movement that ended up saving the lives of millions across the country in the 60s and the 70s. As a result of his contributions, he would end up with a Nobel Peace Prize and the moniker of Annadaata in India.

This is the extraordinary story of how one man saved millions across the world through innovation, science and a drive to address the great problems faced by developing countries.

Image source: Wikimedia 

Growing up in a farm

Unsurprisingly, Borlaug’s childhood began in a farm where he was one of four children.His growing years were informed by him working on his family’s 106-acre farm and taking part in a number of sports in school. However, while he would have continued his life in the farm, his grandfather encouraged him to pursue higher education before returning to be a farmer. That decision likely impacted the lives of millions across Asia and in Mexico in the years to come.

Despite the fact that he would become one of the most renowned scientists in the world, he actually failed the entrance exam for the University of Minnesota. Luckily for him, he would be accepted into the two-year General College, which was also part of the university and his higher education began in earnest.

By 1942, he would receive his PhD in plant pathology.

Image source: Twitter

Saving lives in Mexico

In 1994, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation where he was put in-charge of wheat improvement, especially to help farmers in Mexico who were struggling with yield. For 16 years he would not only help improve the yield of wheat in Mexico but would also work closely with farmers and scientists from the country training them as well.

It was during his extensive work related to farming in Mexico that Borlaug developed a number of wheat varieties that not only promised great yield but also were resistant to diseases and pests.

Many of these varieties would play a key role in addressing famine in India and Pakistan later.

Image source: Twitter

The Indian Green Revolution

Ever since the independence, the Indian government had to come up with ways to feed its ever growing population. Even though the government had focused on increasing farming land in the country, it still couldn’t meet with the demands.

That was when Indian geneticist M.S Swaminathan took matters into his own hands and wrote a letter to the director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, asking them to invite Borlaug to India in order to improve the conditions in within the country.

In 1963, the invitation was sent to Borlaug, who immediately came down to the country to study and understand the farming system that existed here.

Image source: Twitter

While in India, this unassuming scientist from America, would head to the fields every morning. He would spend a considerable amount of time inviting discussions with Indian scientists not just in wheat but also in other crops such as chickpea and rice and he would share his ideas on development as well. He set off on tour across the North Indian belt along with Swaminathan to understand India’s agricultural belt.

Six months later, Borlaug would send four selected varieties of wheat to India that he thought would work well in the Indian conditions. During 1965 and 1966, as a result of severe drought, wheat production was down and India had to import 21 million tonnes of wheat to feed the population. And even then, there reached a point where there was only stock for two weeks left. Authorities then had to send what can only be described as distress calls to the nearest ships taking wheat to other countries and had them bring in that wheat to India in order to prevent large-scale death due to starvation.


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And they also sent a request for 18,000 tonnes of dwarf seeds to Borlaug.

Image source: Twitter

What India needed at the time was a miracle. And that’s exactly what it got. The seeds sent across by Borlaug, which had been created for Mexico, worked perfectly in Indian climate and additionally was resistant to rust. A report in the New York Times notes, “In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there (in India) in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 lb 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 lb per acre.”

Reflecting on his life’s work, Borlaug would later state, “For more than half a century I have worked with the production of more and better wheat for feeding the hungry people, but wheat is merely a catalyst, a part of the picture. I am interested in the total development of human beings. Only by attacking the whole problem can we raise the standard of living for all people in all communities, so that they will be able to live decent lives. This is something we want for all people on this planet.”

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By 1970, he would win the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions towards humanity.

Image source: Wikimedia

And while he helped save the lives of millions in India at a time when it was needed the most, through his correspondence with Swaminathan, he never stopped worrying about India. He was especially concerned about the growing rate of farmer suicides in India. Upon his death in 2009, Swaminthan would open up about his equation with Borlaug. He said, “…In recent years I haven’t been satisfied with the growth rate. Borlaug had also been concerned in recent years with the farmer suicides in India. He used to say: ‘No time to relax. Continue the work,’ and so on. Those were always his favourite words. ‘No time to relax.'”

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