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Originally published Monday, September 14, 2009 at 12:07 AM

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Obituary

Norman Borlaug, researcher behind 'Green Revolution'

Norman Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution" who is widely credited with saving more than a billion lives by breeding wheat, rice and other crops that brought agricultural self-sufficiency to developing countries, died Saturday in Texas. He was 95.

Los Angeles Times

Norman Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution" who is widely credited with saving more than a billion lives by breeding wheat, rice and other crops that brought agricultural self-sufficiency to developing countries, died Saturday in Texas. He was 95.

Mr. Borlaug died at his home in Dallas from complications of cancer, a Texas A&M University spokeswoman said.

Mr. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal — placing him in the company of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel. He was also named by Time magazine in 1999 as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century.

That influence showed itself in earnest while Mr. Borlaug was working in the 1940s in Mexico, where he created a system of plant breeding and crop management that became the basis for the Green Revolution. The system was a huge success and was exported to countries around the world.

In 1960, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, largely as a result of Borlaug's pioneering techniques, it was producing 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people — using only 1 percent more land.

Former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., said Borlaug's "scientific leadership not only saved people from starvation, but the high-yield seeds he bred saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed down. He is one of the great men of our age."

Ever since 19th century British economist Thomas Malthus first predicted the world's population would eventually outstrip its capacity to grow food, prophets of doom had envisioned catastrophe.

Such a disaster was actually quite close beginning in the late 1930s. Between 1939 and 1942, Mexico's wheat harvest had been halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, causing the grain to shrivel. India, Pakistan, China and a host of other countries were also facing the prospect of widespread starvation.

Alarmed by how food shortages might impact the war effort, the Rockefeller Foundation — largely at the instigation of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace — established the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico.

Mr. Borlaug signed on in 1944, after finishing his wartime obligations, as a chemist at E.I. du Pont de Nemours.

Mr. Borlaug collected wheat strains from around the world and began crossbreeding them, a process he later recalled as "mind-warpingly tedious." To speed things up, he planted two crops per year, a summer crop in the low-quality, high-altitude soils near Mexico City and a winter crop hundreds of miles to the north in the low-lying Yaqui Valley.

Within five years, Mr. Borlaug had produced a strain that was resistant to rust, more productive than existing strains, and that grew in both climates when given adequate fertilizer and water.

But there was still one problem. Evolution had favored wheat strains with long, slender stalks that allowed the wheat to rise above the shade of nearby weeds. With the added weight of the extra grain, however, the stalks tended to collapse when irrigated or rained on, reducing yields.

Using a a Japanese dwarf variety, by 1954 he had succeeded in producing a short-stalked variety that was rust resistant and high yielding.

Using the new strains, Mexico, which had imported 60 percent of its wheat in the early 1940s, became self-sufficient by 1956.

Using Borlaug's techniques, scientists soon developed similar high-yield strains of rice and corn.

In the early 1960s, India and Pakistan were confronting famine. Mr. Borlaug planted demonstration plots of the new dwarf variety, but was unable to convince the state-owned seed companies to adopt them.

By 1965, however, famine in the region was so bad that the governments acquiesced. Borlaug organized a shipment of 35 truckloads of dwarf wheat seeds.

After many delays, the new crop was 98 percent bigger than the previous year's and the Asian subcontinent was placed on a new path.

India ordered 18,000 tons of seed from Mexico and the harvest was so big that there was a shortage of labor to harvest it, too few carts to haul it to the threshing floor, and an insufficiency of bags, trucks, rail cars and storage facilities.

By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in food production. India joined it in 1974.

Because of his efforts, Borlaug, a native of Iowa who attended the University of Minnesota, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

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