The Paula Gordon Show
Norman Borlaug

Norman E. Borlaug

. . . is considered the Father of the Green Revolution. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime of work helping feed the world's hungry, Dr. Borlaug's commitment to the small-scale farmer now is being felt by African farmers. Dr. Borlaug officially retired from leading the Wheat Programme of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico in 1979. Since 1984, he has been the Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.

Excerpts3 min:07 secs

Norman Borlaug's life is a tribute to what one person can do in the face of enormous obstacles: he has saved more lives than anyone in history. He has done it in the face of world wars, civil wars, famines, riots and bureaucratic obduracy. Norman Borlaug is the Father of the Green Revolution. In 1970, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Now in his mid-80's, Dr. Borlaug is still fiercely committed to the fundamental importance of feeding the world's people.  He believes the ability to feed "the population monster" is central to civilization's survival. Human progress itself is at stake.

In case you've forgotten, the Green Revolution made it possible to feed millions of people in India and Pakistan in the 1960's, people who otherwise would have starved to death. Grain yields were increased six fold. But the Green Revolution was about much more than just developing new seeds. Farmers had to learn how to plant those new seeds, how to fertilize the land, how to control the weeds and how to irrigate. Dr. Borlaug placed his bets on small farmers and won.

Even as a Midwestern farm boy in the Depression, Norman Borlaug hated the site of human misery. That hasn't changed, though he's now seen enough misery world-wide to fill many lifetimes. He shares his sense of urgency when he talks about today's human misery and that which he anticipates if we cannot feed people. For starters, he's certain misery will not stay at home. You can't build peace on empty stomachs, he cautions. He's equally confident that if there is an "explosion" as he fears, not only will desperate people find their way across oceans and deserts, there will also be opportunists fishing in troubled waters.

As the human population redoubles and available arable land decreases, environmentally sound uses of the land are increasingly urgent, Dr. Borlaug warns. To produce 1996's harvest with 1965's technology would have required three times more land. Biodiversity, he argues, is preserved when technology improves yields in existing arable lands, reducing the perceived need for slash and burn farming.

Dr. Borlaug is now hard at work with farmers in Africa, alongside former President Jimmie Carter, working with The Carter Center's Global 2000 program. There are staggering obstacles: "donor fatigue," inadequate or non-existent infrastructure, bureaucratic obstacles and the political legacies including colonialism and most recently, the Cold War -- money sorely need for education, health and transport went instead to military ends. So he continues to work.

From Mexico in the 1940's to Africa today, we have much to learn from Norman Borlaug's perseverence. How does Dr. Borlaug see himself? "I was only a catalyst." Let's hear it for catalysts.

Conversation 1

Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, describes the origin of the first foreign technical assistance program, in Mexico, to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Vice President Henry Wallace championed the Mexican project which gave assistance for training a new generation of Mexican scientists, establishing a research program for corn, wheat and beans, then turned the responsibilities over to the people the program had trained.

Conversation 2

With Congress focused on funding the build up for the immanent Second World War, Henry Wallace went to the Rockefeller Foundation to fund the Mexican government's request for technical assistance. Dr. Borlaug describes what it took to initiate the program. Dr. Borlaug describes how at the time, people held the misconception that we could simply import American technology into foreign countries to solve problems.

Dr. Borlaug details how he and his colleagues learned about the importance of photoperiodism in crop plants. Three ruinous years of rust epidemics accelerated the need for better seeds, at a time when plant breeding was still in its infancy.

Conversation 3

By combining attention to seeds, cultivation, restoring fertility to worn out soil and controlling major diseases and pests, Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production in 1956. Dr. Borlaug calls this "the quiet wheat revolution." He tells how Mexico's successes were vital when India and Pakistan faced famine in the 1960's, when he spearheaded what is now known as the Green Revolution. His story takes us from Morocco to Afghanistan, Rome to Los Angeles, Mexico City to Bombay. He describes how down to earth farming practices eventually saved the day, spurring the establishment of land-grant agricultural universities in India, similar to those which changed agriculture in the United States.

Conversation 4

Dr. Borlaug describes a universal problem faced by developing and developed nations alike -- dealing with bureaucracies where people are afraid of change. He tells the story wide spread famine in India and Pakistan, exacerbated by domestic US bureaucracies, the Watts riot, and the war between India and Pakistan. In spite of adversities, Dr. Borlaug and his team began to produce crops, only to face a larger battle, on the bureaucratic front.

Dr. Borlaug tells how the 6 fold increase in productivity which has taken place in the past 30 years has saved millions of hectares of land from cultivation. He makes a strong case for biodiversity, leaving land in the wild whenever possible, which prevents the erosion and ecological devastation that come with slash and burn farming. He describes The Carter Center's Global 2000 efforts with which he is now associated, addressing in Africa many challenges similar to those confronted earlier in Asia and Latin America.

Conversation 5

There are large implications in dealing with human misery, Dr. Borlaug asserts passionately. He tells why he believes that unless things begin to change in the African countries south of the Sahara, the world at large will face explosive implications. Dr. Borlaug reminds us how these countries were victims of the Cold War, spending money on armaments instead of education, agriculture and public heath. He tells how important "transport" is for everything from getting fertilizer to worn out farm plots to enticing teachers to go into the Bush. Dr. Borlaug addresses the challenges of "donor fatigue."

Conversation 6

In telling why he believes there is no Nobel Prize for food and agriculture, Dr. Borlaug describes the course of aggressive plant, animal and medical research in Europe, starting about the time of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-48.  He notes the importance of the "relief valve" of mass migration from Europe to the Americas and Australia, a relief valve that is gone forever.  Dr. Borlaug challenges people in their teens not to be afraid to get into the food and agriculture arena. "It is fundamental to human progress."


The Carter Center provided gracious hospitality and a setting for our conversation with Dr. Borlaug. Michelle Riley and Ann Carney were particularly helpful and we thank them. Dr. Borlaug was at The Carter Center as part of his ongoing participation in their Global 2000 program.

Additional Links:

Dr. Borlaug is working closely with The Carter Center's Global 2000 program.


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