Celebrating the Life of a Scientist that “Fed the World”

Norm Bourlag (center) consulting with IRRI researchers


Dr. Norman Borlaug passed away this weekend at 95.  He left behind an amazing legacy of contribution to humanity.  It is likely that he saved more human lives than any other person in history.  He did it by developing far more productive wheat than had ever been grown.  His “short stature” wheat had shorter, thicker stems so that it could hold bigger heads of grain that would otherwise “lodge” (collapse over on to the ground where it can’t be harvested).  It was also resistant to the devastating wheat disease called “Stem Rust.”  This wheat ended up feeding millions of people around the world, particularly in Pakistan and India in the 1960s.  Borlaug’s breakthrough was a key part of the “Green Revolution” and it did much to address the hunger and poverty issues of the time.  For this, and his life-time of additional work Bourlag recieved the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Metal .  Only Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa have received all of these commendations.  He was also awarded the National Medal of Science and a host of other awards from around the world.  There is an excellent article about the life and career of this remarkable man in the Des Moines Register.

Borlaug was originally trained as a “Plant Pathologist” and all of us who are similarly trained find special inspiration from his accomplishments as we pursue our much more modest contributions to feeding the world.  Borlaug was also a tireless spokesperson for the importance of science and technology in increasing the yield and sustainability of farming.  Many people mistakenly see technology as, at best, a necessary evil, but Borlaug understood that technology is what has has and what will continue to enable increasingly productive and environmentally sound farming.  

How Borlaug Made His Breakthrough

When Borlaug was doing his groundbreaking work in the 60s, he didn’t have the advanced tools that breeders have today.  He used something called “mutation breeding.”  That method uses radiation or mutagenic chemicals to increase the number of gene mutations in a population of seeds and then a search is made for the extremely rare cases where the mutation is beneficial.  Compared to modern biotechnology this is a pretty crude approach, but that was the only method Borlaug had to speed up the process of trait selection.  I’m sure that mutagenesis will sound scary to many readers, but there are quite a few mutation breeding advances that continue to play a role in agriculture (including some of my personal favorites like Ruby Red Grapefruit  and super sweet corn).  Don’t worry, there is no persistent presence of radiation or mutagens in the improved crops.  Still, modern biotechnology is a much better approach.

Further Progress

The “Green Revolution” was not without its own sustainability issues.  In some places this intensified farming was done in ways that led to water pollution and soil loss.  But the answer to these issues was not rejection of Borlaug’s technology break-through, it was the development of additional technologies like “No-Till” farming and improved fertilization practices.  

Today biotechnology (both through “GMOs” and through advanced breeding technologies that are not “GMO”) is generating crops with pest resistance, drought tolerance and higher nitrogen use-efficiency.  Borlaug was particularly saddened that biotechnology has still not been fully applied to his favorite crop, wheat (mostly because of European resistance to GMOs).  Wheat growers from around the world are working together to overcome irrational resistance to the use of these tools to improve one of the most important human food crops.  It is a little sad that Norm didn’t live to see that breakthrough, but as the Des Moines Register article quoted him saying:

I can’t be despondent, I have to be optimistic.  Pessimism has no place in action.”

Norm Borlaug was definitely a man of action that made a difference. We will miss his voice.


Image of Norm Bourlag (center) consulting with International Rice Research (IRRI) scientists from IRRI Images

  1. Diane Davis

    RE: “modern biotechnology” not available to Norman Borlaug.
    The increasing percentage of people allergic to wheat is a symptom of something going awry in the use of genetic changes to produce food. Highly processed food and imbalanced lifestyle also make their contributions, but this aside, to alter the genetic code of our food sources does not support our own cellular DNA in transcription and protein synthesis. A good artist knows when to stop working on the painting; a good scientist knows when to let the fundamental building blocks of our food, bodies, and minds, the elemental composites of molecules, assemble themselves by themselves!

  2. Steve Savage

    Diane, there is more awareness of Celiac disease today, but there is no increase in allergy related to wheat breeding. The food we eat does not influence our own DNA transcription in any way and only effects protein synthesis if we are short of an essential amino acid. Some bilogical molecules “self assemble” but most are formed by enzymatic processes. Fortunately for humanity, Norm Borlaug and other scientists don’t think the “painting is finished” as long as there are hungry people and a limited supply of land and water to grow it

  3. Steve Savage

    Tom Philpott sort of acknowledges that the issues are very complex (subsidies, corruption…) that have effected poverty in Mexico, India etc. Increasing yield per acre and per unit of input (fertilizer, fuel, labor…) are always good. To the extent that there are other environmental issues, it is unseemly to blame Borlaug for those. There have been a lot of other innovations like Borlaug’s that are dealing with those issues today (no-till, controlled wheel traffic, precision fertilization, biotechnology…) and he spent his long life promoting those technologies.

    Growing more from every farmed acre is unquestionably a good thing from a sustainability point of view.

    Tom can’t claim to have fed anyone.

  4. nancylee

    This was published july 1, 2009…

    “A Minnesota study using frozen blood samples taken from Air Force recruits 50 years ago has found that intolerance of wheat gluten, a debilitating digestive condition, is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s.

    The findings contradict the prevailing belief that a sharp increase in diagnoses of wheat gluten intolerance has come about because of greater awareness and detection.”

    For more info research Dr. Joseph Murray of the Mayo Clinic.

  5. Steve Savage


    I checked that out and indeed the article showed an increase from 0.2% of a Minnesota population 50 years ago to 0.9% today in a group matched for age. The authors don’t offer an explanation for this 4x increase but I’ll try writing to them to ask if they have a theory. It could represent some change in wheat, but also, 50 years ago the population of Minnesota was extremely homogeneous and consisting of northern Europeans who tend to have lower rates of gluten intolerance. There could be other reasons as well, but it would be great to figure it out in any case. Thanks for the information

  6. Sam

    All that means is that more people with medical issues such as celiac’s are joining the easiest branch of the military for the medical benefits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *