Miracles of plant modifications
When many readers were growing up, did you frequently hear, “Clean your plate. There are starving children in Africa?”
One man it took it upon himself to do his best to alleviate that hunger. Born in 1914, he grew up on an Iowa farm and went to a one-room rural school and years later attended the University of Minnesota where he studied forestry and plant pathology, graduating in 1937. He continued his education through a Ph.D. at that university. He then worked for the DuPont de Nemours Foundation.
His mission in life was eradicating hunger and misery for the world’s population and he succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. His name was Norman Borlaug.
The Rockefeller Foundation funded scientists including Borlaug in 1944 with the mission to “export the United States agricultural revolution” to Mexico. He assisted there where rust, a parasitic fungus, had infiltrated wheat crops. The disease caused the stalks to become weak and topple over, keeping the grain from developing.
Farmers were working hard, spending money to plant a crop just to have it decimated or even destroyed by rust.
It took 13 years, but Borlaug and his assistants, plant pathologists, obliterated that scourge. When working with crops it takes several seasons to develop desired changes. Although the wheat was then rust-resistant and yields were increased, another challenge was created.
The grain heads were heavy and the stems were not strong enough to support the weight. Borlaug crossbred dwarf strains with the Mexican wheat to make a plant better suited to the area in Mexico where he was working. This wheat was crossed to resist a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases.
Borlaug learned Spanish and was himself down in the dirt working with his hands as one of the farmers. Using irrigation and fertilizer along with the new wheat, the Mexican farmers became self-sufficient by 1956.
His next projects were in India and Pakistan. In the early 1960s he introduced the new wheat to Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.
Rice was the next crop improved with Borlaug’s methods, which increased yields and allowed crops to ripen so they could fill the bellies of each country. His mission in life was to feed people; the U.S. Agency for International Development called the work the “Green Revolution.” (Not to be confused with the current obstructionists’ movement of the same name.)
Neither Borlaug nor the group with which he worked, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) were political. The goal was simply creating the crops to allow people to grow their own food abundantly. Borlaug’s group was successful.
In later life he won the Nobel Prize in 1970. Borlaug is the only person in agriculture to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Since there is not a specific category for such an honor under the Nobel, Borlaug created the World Food Prize.
It is estimated that he saved a billion lives by his crop experimentation, a vital need even today. ❖