Honoring Dr. Norman E. Borlaug

by Keith Nunes
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March 25, 2014, marks the centennial of Normal Borlaug’s life and accomplishments. So it is fitting to devote space in this magazine to his achievements and to reflect on the current state of agriculture and food science, and the chasm that has opened between the fields and the perception of some consumers.

In 1944, Dr. Borlaug participated in the Rockefeller Foundation’s technical assistance program in Mexico, where he was a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement. For the next 16 years, he worked to solve a series of wheat production problems that were limiting wheat cultivation in Mexico and to help train a generation of young Mexican scientists.

One of the first problems Dr. Borlaug addressed in Mexico was stem rust, which was killing wheat crops. To solve other problems with wheat, Dr. Borlaug and his associates developed Mexican semi-dwarf varieties, which had multiple benefits. The shorter wheat produced stronger stalks and two to three times more grain than standard varieties. The new varieties changed the picture of wheat production in Mexico. By 1963, 95% of the wheat grown in the country came from Dr. Borlaug’s breeding programs. The wheat harvest that year was six times larger than the harvest in 1944, when Dr. Borlaug arrived in Mexico.

He took his work to India and Pakistan, bringing new seeds to help feed the world’s poor. Between 1965 and 1970, India’s wheat production ballooned to 21 million metric tons from 12 million. Soon his ideas and principles were being replicated in China and Africa.

The new wheat varieties and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production throughout the world, sparking what today is known as the Green Revolution. For his achievements, Dr. Borlaug was rightly honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. In addition he was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of Science.

The World Food Prize, which has been awarded annually since 1986, emanated from Dr. Borlaug’s career. He was instrumental in establishing the prize, which he envisioned would honor those who have made significant and measurable contributions to improving the world’s food supply. Dr. Borlaug saw the prize as a means for shining a light on role models, allowing them to inspire others.

The winners of the 2013 World Food Prize are Marc Van Montagu, chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach, Ghent, Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and distinguished science fellow, Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., Triangle Park, N.C.; and Robert T. Fraley, executive vice-president and chief technology officer, Monsanto Co., St. Louis. The three are being honored for their molecular research on how a plant bacterium may be adapted as a tool to insert genes from another organism into plant cells, which could produce new genetic lines with highly favorable traits. Their work was instrumental in furthering biotechnology and the creation of bioengineered ingredients.

Ironically, the fruits of their work are also under attack as some consumers and consumer groups press food and beverage companies to reject ingredients sourced from bioengineered crops. Rather than celebrate progress and the achievements of Dr. Borlaug and those who have followed in his footsteps — achievements that allow foodstuffs to be produced in large quantities in regions of the world where it was not possible a century ago — those who reject the science of bioengineering often choose to denigrate it as unsafe and unsound.

Agriculture and food production must keep pace with population growth, and scientists must look to the example of Dr. Borlaug for inspiration. Because of his achievements to prevent hunger, famine and misery around the world, it may be said he saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived. Yet the challenge he faced remains and must be addressed with a vision of further progress.
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