24 Sep 2009

The World has Lost a Champion in the Fight Against Hunger

Dr. Norman E. Borlaug—the only agricultural scientist ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—died Saturday September 12, at 95.

In 1944 Dr. Borlaug moved to Mexico and had his first contact with the poverty and food scarcity characteristic of the developing world. With support from the Mexican Government and the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr. Borlaug started a breeding program to introduce resistance to wheat rust that successfully produced disease resistance varieties a dozen years later. In the process of developing these varieties, Dr. Borlaug introduced two key elements: first, he resorted to Japanese dwarf genotypes to reduce the height and make wheat tolerant to lodging and more efficient in the allocation of photosynthates; and second, he started the use of two breeding cycles per year by commuting between the Central Highlands of Mexico in the summer and the irrigated Yaqui Valley in the Northwestern State of Sonora in the winter.

By 1956 Mexico was self-sufficient in wheat production as results of successful breeding, the use of fertilizer, and irrigation. These results cemented his conviction on the soundness of scientific research developed in a practical context with farmers that was going to guide his quest against hunger for the rest of his life.

After 1964 his work was multiplied by the creation of the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo – the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) located outside Mexico City, where he trained hundreds of young agricultural scientists, and extended his leadership in breeding. Facing the imminent threat of starvation in India and Pakistan, Dr. Borlaug convinced the leaders of those bitterly divided countries to adopt his revolutionary approach to agriculture, showing the close connection between food security and peace. In an incredibly short time Pakistan and India multiplied fourfold their crop yields, becoming self-sufficient—after being food deficit countries for a long time—and in the process hundreds of millions of lives were saved.

Dr. Borlaug’s successful approach in wheat was quickly replicated in rice and other crops, and resulted in the avoidance of widespread death from famine and starvation as well as from armed conflict in much of the developing world. However, successes and awards never stopped Dr. Borlaug. He was well aware that the struggle against hunger requires a full-time dedication, and throughout his life he multiplied several initiatives to improve the lives of everyone, especially the neediest ones. Among those we can highlight the Sasakawa Global 2000 Program, which has sponsored the production of Quality Protein Maize to counter malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, and the establishment of the World Food Prize to distinguish those who have made highly significant contributions to improving the quality and quantity of food.

The best way of remembering Dr. Borlaug is to follow his example of persevering in using good science, in bold and creative manners, despite all the adversities that we might encounter in our quest for more and better food for the world. We need to avoid complacent attitudes because the challenge is always there, and advances gained at great cost can be quickly lost. Dr. Borlaug once said: “I personally cannot live comfortably in the midst of abject hunger and poverty and human misery.” There is work to be done when people are going to sleep each night with hunger.