Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution“, “agriculture‘s greatest spokesperson” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”. He is one of seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal and was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India‘s second highest civilian honor.
Borlaug received his B.Sc. Biology 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963.
Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations. These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. Later in his life, he helped apply these methods of increasing food production to Asia and Africa.
The eldest of four children; Borlaug was born to Henry Oliver (1889–1971) and Clara (Vaala) Borlaug (1888–1972) on his grandparents’ farm in Saude in 1914. From age seven to nineteen, he worked on the 106-acre (43 ha) family farm west of Protivin, Iowa, fishing, hunting, and raising corn, oats, timothy-grass, cattle, pigs and chickens. He attended the one-teacher, one-room New Oregon #8 rural school in Howard County, through eighth grade.
He attributed his decision to leave the farm and pursue further education to his grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug (1859–1935), who strongly encouraged Borlaug’s learning, once saying, “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” Through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, he was able to enroll at the University of Minnesota in 1933. Borlaug failed the entrance exam, but was accepted to the school’s newly created two-year General College. After two quarters, he transferred to the College of Agriculture’s forestry program.
To finance his studies, Borlaug had to put his education on hold periodically to take a job. One of these jobs, in 1935, was as a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps, working with the unemployed on U.S. federal projects. Many of the people who worked for him were starving. He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”. From 1935 to 1938, before and after receiving his Bachelor of Science in forestry in 1937, Borlaug worked for the United States Forest Service at stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. He spent one summer in the middle fork of Idaho’s Salmon River, the most isolated piece of wilderness in the lower 48 states at the time.
In the last months of his undergraduate education, Borlaug attended a Sigma Xi lecture by Elvin Charles Stakman, a professor and soon-to-be head of the plant pathology group at the University of Minnesota. The event was pivotal for Borlaug’s future. He had discovered that special plant breeding methods created plants resistant to rust. His research greatly interested Borlaug, and when Borlaug’s job at the Forest Service was eliminated because of budget cuts, he asked Stakman if he should go into forest pathology. Stakman advised him to focus on plant pathology instead.
Borlaug subsequently enrolled at the University to study plant pathology under Stakman, receiving a Master of Science degree in 1940 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942. Borlaug was a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity.
The Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program, a joint venture by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, involved research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. The goal of the project was to boost wheat production in Mexico, which at the time was importing a large portion of its grain. During the sixteen years Borlaug remained with the project, he bred a series of remarkably successful high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat.