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Norman Borlaug's Legacy


Norman Borlaug, an American plant breeder credited with saving millions from starvation in the 1960s and 1970s, died September 12 at the age of 95. Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work breeding disease-resistant wheat plants, which spawned the so-called "Green Revolution" in global agriculture.

Borlaug's legacy can be seen today as agriculture officials around the world race to protect wheat crops against a major new threat.

A fungal disease called Ug99 has devastated wheat in Africa and is moving across central Asia. Well into his 90s, Borlaug still heard the call for help.

"This is a new strain of stem rust organism that has the power to destroy most of the wheat varieties being grown around the world," he told VOA last year. Borlaug chaired an institute devoted to fighting the disease.

The Green Revolution

It was a return to his roots.

He began his work in the 1940s in Mexico, breeding wheat crops that were immune to another type of wheat rust that had devastated crops there.

But his big breakthrough came later, breeding high-yielding wheat varieties that more than tripled the harvest.

Breeders replicated that success with rice, and the Green Revolution was born, averting famines that were predicted in Asia in the 1960s and '70s, and winning Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize.

According to Ren Wang, director of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Borlaug's legacy is his scientific approach to crop breeding.

"Through his contributions and his example and personal effort, this approach to crop breeding has scaled up to a global effort," he says. CGIAR is an internationally-funded network of 15 crop and livestock research centers -- most of them in developing countries -- that is an outgrowth of Borlaug's work.

"Unwavering commitment"

Wang was a senior Chinese agricultural official in the 1970s when he first met Borlaug. He says Borlaug was a personal inspiration as well.

"What impressed me was his high level of energy. [His] untiring, unwavering commitment and passion to...talk to farmers in the field also influenced all of us...to be determined to improve the lives of farmers."

Borlaug's energy and commitment lasted all through his life. On his 95th birthday, he told VOA that the work to improve crop yields must continue.

"We are adding 84 million people to the population each year," he said. "We have a big job on our hands."

Environmental Critics

Throughout his life, Borlaug was a firm believer that the job of feeding the world could not be done without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. That view drew strong criticism from environmentalists.

In a 1971 interview, he responded to opponents of the insecticide DDT, which was later banned in the United States.

"[If we] Remove DDT," he said, "next will be all insecticides, after that it will be all the weedkillers and the fungicides and then the fertilizers, if the hysteria prevails. And when this happens, the U.S. will be importing food, only there won't be any place from where to import it."

Borlaug tempered his views somewhat in his later years and led efforts to discourage overuse of insecticides and fertilizers.

But his commitment to feeding the world was what drove him. And that legacy lives on, among plant breeders on the front lines of the fight to nourish a hungry planet.

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