Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Norman Borlaug developed the first high-yield wheat crops, which increased food production dramatically. Borlaug’s work changed the structure of agriculture worldwide by the 1960’s and helped alleviate hunger in impoverished nations.

Summary of Event

In September, 1944, Norman Borlaug, a young plant pathologist from Iowa, arrived in Mexico City to join a team of American agricultural scientists invited by the Mexican government to improve crop yields there. Jacob George Harrar, who headed the team, initially assigned Borlaug to work on corn, but when Harrar’s administrative duties increased, he assigned Borlaug the research on wheat as well. It was through the work on wheat that Borlaug revolutionized agriculture in Mexico and eventually throughout much of the developing world. [kw]Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat (Sept., 1944) [kw]High-Yield Wheat, Borlaug Begins Work on (Sept., 1944)[High Yield Wheat, Borlaug Begins Work on] [kw]Wheat, Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield (Sept., 1944) Wheat, high-yield[Wheat, high yield] Hunger;Mexico Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield] Genetic engineering Wheat, high-yield[Wheat, high yield] Hunger;Mexico Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield] Genetic engineering [g]North America;Sept., 1944: Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat[01240] [g]Mexico;Sept., 1944: Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat[01240] [c]Agriculture;Sept., 1944: Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat[01240] [c]Science and technology;Sept., 1944: Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat[01240] Borlaug, Norman Avila Camacho, Manuel Harrar, Jacob George

The invitation issued to the American scientists signified a change in the agricultural Agricultural policy;Mexico policy of the Mexican government. Manuel Avila Camacho had just been elected to the presidency. The previous administration had adopted policies of giving land to farmers and cooperatives and of improving traditional farming practices. Avila Camacho, on the other hand, was interested in agriculture that would aid industrial growth in the cities. This entailed abandoning traditional methods in favor of capital-intensive technologies. Improved seeds were the key to this effort.

The land redistribution of the previous administration and the nationalization of certain sectors of industry, including an oil subsidiary owned by the Rockefeller family, had so alarmed Washington that U.S. investment in Mexico had dropped 40 percent. The U.S. government, however, supported Avila Camacho. When he asked the United States for help in developing a comprehensive agricultural plan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, then preoccupied with preparations for entering World War II, sought help from the Rockefeller Foundation Rockefeller Foundation . The foundation chose Harrar, previously the head of plant pathology at Washington State University, to write up a report, on the basis of which a joint agricultural program was established by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture.

Borlaug was a plant pathologist heading a Du Pont biochemical lab when he was drafted for the program. When he arrived in Mexico, Borlaug was shocked at the poverty and hunger he observed. Although it planted ten million acres with corn and one million acres with wheat, Mexico imported 100 million pesos (30 million dollars) worth of wheat alone every year. Borlaug was convinced that higher-yield crops were the answer.

One of the chief obstacles he faced was rust Rust (plant disease) , a disease prevalent in the Mexican wheat fields. To increase yields, Borlaug had to breed resistant seeds. He worked in experimental plots at Chapingo, near Mexico City, cross-pollinating plants with the best yields with those with the best disease resistance, a painstaking procedure that had to be performed by hand. Initially, he worked with Mexican and U.S. wheat varieties, but within two years, as his work became known, thirty-eight varieties from around the world were available to him.

Impatient with the time necessary for each test batch to mature, Borlaug went against conventional practice to set up a second test site in Puebla. He carried his just-harvested crop from the lowland location to the highland to grow two generations of wheat each year. Because of the differences in environment and length of day between his two sites, the seeds became highly adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions.

Borlaug’s methods met some resistance from his own U.S. team and even more from the Mexican farmers he was trying to influence, particularly on the issue of fertilizer. Unless large doses of fertilizer were used, the new seeds performed less well than the old, and Mexican farmers were not accustomed to using fertilizer. The hybrids also needed a constant water supply, making irrigation necessary on an unprecedented scale. In addition, for high yields to be achieved, the traditional small fields containing a mix of many different food crops had to be replaced with dense stands of the high-yield variety. Machinery became necessary for plowing and harvesting, and the majority of farmers were unable to afford these innovations. Initially, Borlaug’s program was authorized to dispense subsidized seed and fertilizer, thus overcoming some of the resistance to the techniques he espoused.

Within two years, Borlaug had bred crops with improved yields and had persuaded a number of Mexican farmers to try them, but neither task was complete. One stumbling block was that when fertilizer doses were increased, the stems of most wheats grew so tall that they broke easily. This problem was solved in 1953, when Borlaug was sent a hybrid bred from a Japanese variety with a short stem, or straw. This dwarf plant could direct all its energy into increased grain production. The discovery of the Japanese wheat was a breakthrough. Borlaug’s work on the problem of rust, however, was ongoing, because new strains of the disease broke out continually.

In 1964, scientists at Purdue University discovered a mutation in corn that had double the normal amount of lysine. Lysine was the key to increasing the amount of protein in the edible portion of the plant. When Borlaug heard of this discovery, he turned his attention to increasing the protein content of other grains. This led him to persuade a Canadian, Frank Zillinsky Zillinsky, Frank , to work for him on triticale Triticale , a cross between wheat and rye that had the potential to be a good high-protein crop if it could be bred to be fertile. Zillinsky achieved that goal in 1967.

Borlaug recruited a corps of students from Mexican agricultural colleges to help him with his work. These young people were better able to communicate with local farmers than was Borlaug, and they were of tremendous assistance in the rapid spread of the new hybrids and the farming techniques that went with them.

By 1953, as a direct result of Borlaug’s work, Mexico had doubled its wheat production. By 1956, it stopped importing grain. The costs of production (machinery, tools, fuel, and fertilizer) had doubled in six years, but yields had tripled and Mexicans were eating 40 percent more food on average. By 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat crop was in Borlaug’s semidwarf varieties.

Hunger still had not been eradicated in Mexico. In part this was a result of the social changes brought about by the new seeds. Smaller farmers given subsidized inputs initially were more responsive to Borlaug’s ideas. When large landowners saw what his seeds could do, however, they were converted, and they were in a better position to buy the necessary fertilizer, pesticides, water, machinery, and fuel. Specialized knowledge necessary to understand the new techniques and equipment was more available to the better-educated and wealthy Mexican landowners.

Small farmers could not keep up. As they lost their land, large landholders bought it. Their holdings increased rapidly during this period. By 1978, the average size of a farm in Hermosillo, where the “miracle” seeds had taken hold, was two thousand irrigated acres. The landless farmers fled to the cities or became laborers for hire in the countryside, in either case with little cash available for food. Therefore, although Mexicans ate 40 percent more food on average, the Mexicans who needed food most did not always get it.

Another reason that hunger continued was that Borlaug had only secondarily turned his attention to the content of the yield he had set himself to increase. Protein in the new crops often failed to match that in the old crops. Furthermore, Mexicans historically ate corn rather than wheat. This corn had been eaten in conjunction with beans, which were planted in the same fields, and together provided an exceptionally balanced protein. The new wheat monoculture replaced these mixed patches, with the result that the diet of the average Mexican became less nutritious.

Mexican farmers soon discovered that the new farming methods could be applied to nonfood crops such as cotton, feedgrain for livestock, and wine grapes. Some land that had been used to produce food for Mexicans was no longer used for that purpose, and a 25 percent drop in food production occurred between 1968 and 1978. The Mexican government responded by increasing price guarantees by 112 percent between 1970 and 1975 to try to keep growers producing food staples, but even then the acreage of land used for those products declined.

The hybrids continued to be vulnerable to pests and diseases. Borlaug and his teams of Mexican scientists bred their new seeds with local, disease-resistant specimens, but the diseases and pests continued to breed and change, and when they struck, they devastated entire crops of the genetically identical seeds. As a result of this combination of factors, as well as of continued population growth, Mexico again became an importer of food staples. Between 1973 and 1976, early childhood death from malnutrition rose 10 percent.


Despite these drawbacks, Borlaug’s work was considered so successful that in 1959 Harrar and other scientists established an institute in the Philippines where work would be modeled on Borlaug’s work in Mexico. The goal was to develop a high-yield variety of rice, the staple food in Asia. The International Rice Research Institute International Rice Research Institute , as it came to be known, was also funded by the Rockefellers as well as by the Ford Foundation.

In 1960, Borlaug attended a meeting in Rome on the status of wheat and barley hybrids in the Middle East, the Far East, and India. Afterward, he traveled through those regions. As a result, Borlaug proposed creating teams of young local agriculturalists as he had in Mexico, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted his idea as part of its international wheat program. Rockefeller funding was obtained to execute the plan.

By 1971, in addition to the Rice Institute in the Philippines, organizations modeled on Borlaug’s work in Mexico had been founded in Colombia, Nigeria, Peru, India, Liberia, and Lebanon. The accomplishments of these organizations are known collectively as the Green Revolution, in which traditional agricultural ecosystems around the world were replaced by ones modeled on U.S. industrial agriculture, accompanied by vast social reorganization. In 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his life’s work. Wheat, high-yield[Wheat, high yield] Hunger;Mexico Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield] Genetic engineering

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bickel, Lennard. Facing Starvation: Norman Borlaug and the Fight Against Hunger. New York: Reader’s Digest Press, 1974. An uncritical study of Borlaug, about whom surprisingly little has been written.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester. Seeds of Change: The Green Revolution and Development in the 1970’s. New York: Praeger, 1970. A readable introduction to the Green Revolution from the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s International Development Unit, who helped develop the policies that fostered the Green Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandrasekhar, S. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution and India’s Population Problem. La Jolla, Calif.: Population Review Books, 1997. Text of a lecture delivered in San Diego in 1996 on the effects of Borlaug’s work upon the population of India and the ongoing global effects of his Green Revolution. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, Jack. “Green Revolution II.” In Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics, and the Fate of the World’s Food Supply. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. A book of broad scope that examines the promise, prices, and risks in the genetic altering of plants and animals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">George, Susan. “The Green Revolution.” In How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allanheld, 1977. Scathingly critical of the Green Revolution. Scholarly and well documented. Hard to find.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lappé, Frances Moore, and Joseph Collins. “Modernizing Hunger.” In Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. New York: Ballantine, 1977. A best seller and an influential book, it argues that an equitable distribution of land and resources is more important for the eradication of hunger than are high-yield crops. Written in a lively question-and-answer format.

Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

United Nations World Food Programme Is Established

Green Revolution

Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert

Hardin Argues for Population Control

Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger

Categories: History