Norman Borlaug: the man who saved a billion people from starvation


Pulling a cultivator across a barren field in the midday heat with a rope harness strapped across his chest, Dr Norman Borlaug was clearly not a conventional scientist. He had given up his comfortable life in Delaware in 1944, leaving a cosy family life behind to sleep on the floor of a rat-infested warehouse in a Mexican wheat field. Only able to drive into town once a week, he lived in uncomfortable conditions, with poor-quality water causing regular episodes of dysentery. Over the next 16 years, he would dedicate his life to solving the wheat production problems plaguing the country and train a whole generation of young scientists, transforming agricultural production worldwide. Borlaug went from Iowa farm boy to pioneering the ‘green revolution’, his commitment and devotion saving countless lives the world over in his pursuit to end world famine.

From the age of seven, Norman Borlaug had worked on his family’s farm in Iowa, spending his days hunting,fishing and rearing livestock, in addition to learning how to cultivate corn and oats. His education was confined to a one-room one-teacher rural school house in Howard County, but from these humble beginnings he would go on to change the world. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1937, working between his studies with the unemployed on Federal projects.

He began working as a microbiologist at DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware – originally to research industrial pesticides and preservatives – but his laboratory was converted into a research station in response to the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack. He worked under the United States armed forces until 1944, when he accepted a position as a geneticist and plant pathologist leading the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico.

Throughout the country, Borlaug witnessed barren land that had been completely stripped of nutrients after centuries of ploughing. His project sought to create crops to suit the challenges of the local soil. He started by exploring the potential of breeding a strain of wheat that was resistant to the fungal ‘wheat rust’; a disease that could devastate crops. Within 20 years Borlaug was successful, developing a high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat that would completely revolutionise global food production.

The resulting seeds were a miracle. They could return a high yield of double or treble a conventional crop when accompanied with chemical fertilisers. However, Borlaug was not content simply working the fields and within his laboratory – instead he chose to step up as a humanitarian to distribute the new strains to feed the hungry around the world. His discoveries and creations generated a sensational enhancement of agricultural productivity that swept the globe in the 1960s. This revolution allowed countries including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to avert famine and establish an economy in exporting grains. His work relieved millions of people from the clutches of hunger. He would die in 2009 in Dallas, Texas, at the age of 95, arguably having helped save more lives than anyone else in human history.

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