Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for developing a disease-resistant strain of dwarf wheat that increased food production and helped feed the world’s hungry, thereby preventing widespread famine.

Summary of Event

In 1944, under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, thirty-year-old Norman Borlaug, two years after earning his doctorate in plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, joined a team of agricultural researchers working in Mexico. The team, part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program, led by Jacob George Harrar, was assigned to help the Mexican government improve its agricultural yield, which for several reasons had reached far below its potential, and to help the impoverished nation and its people avoid famine. Nobel Peace Prize;Norman Borlaug[Borlaug] Wheat, high-yield[Wheat, high yield] Hunger Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield] Genetic engineering [kw]Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger (Dec. 10, 1970) [kw]Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger, Borlaug Receives the (Dec. 10, 1970) [kw]Prize for His Work on World Hunger, Borlaug Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1970) [kw]World Hunger, Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on (Dec. 10, 1970) [kw]Hunger, Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World (Dec. 10, 1970) Nobel Peace Prize;Norman Borlaug[Borlaug] Wheat, high-yield[Wheat, high yield] Hunger Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield] Genetic engineering [g]North America;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] [g]United States;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] [c]Agriculture;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] [c]Biology;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] [c]Natural resources;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] [c]Health and medicine;Dec. 10, 1970: Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger[11060] Borlaug, Norman Colwell, William Earle Harrar, Jacob George Wallace, Henry A.

Mexico had been suffering from widespread hunger, and much of the populace, particularly in rural areas, had little reason to hope that their lives could ever improve. Agriculture was held in low esteem as a vocation, and what revenues it produced found its way into urban rather than rural projects.

In the mid-1940’s, Mexican farming was notoriously unproductive. Farms in the country averaged eight bushels of corn from each acre, compared to twenty-eight bushels in the United States. Wheat production per acre in Mexico was about 75 percent what it was on the farms of its northern neighbor. To feed its population, Mexico had to import 50 percent of its wheat, causing a crushing balance of payments deficit. By 1948, Borlaug’s work had made it possible for Mexico to stop importing wheat.

When Borlaug arrived in 1944, the Rockefeller project was vastly understaffed, although agronomists and plant pathologists such as Harrar and William Earle Colwell were moving toward solutions. The political climate had been improved by U.S. vice president Henry A. Wallace’s call for an increased emphasis on world agricultural development. Severe problems persisted, however, for the next two decades and beyond. The project’s work was often impeded by bureaucratic regulation, both its own and that of the Mexican government agencies with which it worked. Borlaug, sensing some of the problems that hampered progress, put into effect a new set of criteria under which the project would operate.

To begin with, Borlaug established a set of priorities and saw to it that they were observed. The first priority was to focus on a single crop, wheat, and to focus even more narrowly on one major problem related to that crop, the growth of the rust fungus that attacked wheat and wiped out whole fields of the grain before it was mature. The ultimate aim of this priority was to feed large numbers of hungry people as quickly as possible. Borlaug further mandated that theoretical and applied science would be valued equally and that the project would emphasize whatever seemed most likely to help it achieve its stated priorities. In practice, Borlaug did not favor basic over applied science. He realized that a symbiotic relationship existed between the two, and he acted accordingly in his capacity as director. Finally, Borlaug saw to it that the scientists who were placed in charge of the project’s various programs were hired as long-term researchers, not as experts who came into situations they knew little about, gave theoretical advice, and then departed before the actual program was functional, as had frequently been the practice. Borlaug insisted that young natives who had a stake in the region be brought in as trainees. Those who excelled in their internships were given subsidies to pursue further study that would enable them eventually to run the project. The ultimate aim was to turn the entire operation over to well-trained Mexicans and to get the Rockefeller Foundation out.

Part of the challenge Borlaug and his colleagues faced was to increase production from soil that had in some cases been worked for almost two millennia without regard to replacing its nutrients. Fertilization was an obvious solution, but once it was instituted, it caused its own problems. Wheat grown in well-fertilized fields grew tall, and farmers were elated until rain and windstorms left the wheat prostrate in the mud before it could be harvested. Borlaug had to work on this problem while simultaneously experimenting with crossbreeding of various strains of wheat to find one that was rust-resistant and that could be grown successfully in all of Mexico’s varied climatic regions. His experiments involved growing two crops of wheat a year in four discrete climatic zones in Mexico. When his crossbreeding, which involved as many as six thousand crosses a year, began to yield results, Borlaug had to find ways to disseminate his findings. He decided to hold a field day for local farmers, who were reputed to be resistant to change. Five skeptical farmers attended the first field day at the test plots in Valle de Yaqui in Sonora, northwest of Mexico City. Three years later, hundreds of farmers attended a similar field day, and, in less than a decade, the event attracted thousands from the whole of northern Mexico.

Illiterate Mexican farmers had been resistant to programs that offered them no practical outcomes. Once they realized that the seeds they obtained from Borlaug increased their yields substantially and reduced the invasions of the rust fungus that had previously destroyed their crops, they became cooperative—indeed, enthusiastic—followers of this down-to-earth leader. Out of one test of five thousand crosses, Borlaug found two strains that could resist the rust fungus. This fungus, however, was insidious. It could undergo rapid mutations that enabled it to attack resistant strains, so no victory could be considered an immediate triumph.

Borlaug saw unfolding before him some of the problems Thomas Robert Malthus had identified two centuries earlier concerning explosive population growth. Mexico’s population was doubling every twenty-five years, an increase that threatened to cancel the strides Borlaug’s methods made possible. Borlaug stressed the urgency of controlling population if his work was to have any impact in eliminating hunger. In an attempt to find better strains of wheat than were available to him, Borlaug looked to other parts of the world. In Japan during reconstruction after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur had assigned agronomists to work on the food problem. They had found that Japanese farmers were growing a dwarf wheat, Norin 10, previously unknown outside Japan. In 1946, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service Agricultural Research Service, U.S. made sixteen varieties of Norin wheat available to wheat breeders. This strain used water and nutrients from the soil in a highly efficient manner to develop more leaves than stalk, making for a compact entity that produced more grains of wheat on each plant than Borlaug had ever dreamed possible. Norin, however, was not without its own problems.

The wheat sprouted subhumusly at the wrong time in the United States and Mexico. Researchers at the Agricultural Research Service in Washington worked on this problem and, by the late 1950’s, had produced a strain, Gaines, that was insensitive to light, thereby overcoming the sprouting problem. This was a major turning point for Borlaug. Here was a remarkably prolific strain of wheat that could be fertilized heavily, which was necessary in Mexico’s depleted soil, but that would stand erect through various climatic exigencies. Borlaug began crossbreeding the Gaines strain with some of his Mexican strains and finally, by 1961, had two strains that were essentially disease resistant, compact, and adaptable to Mexico’s different climates. Because of their light insensitivity, these strains could be grown in many parts of the world. Even before this breakthrough, as early as 1957, Borlaug had crossbred strains of wheat that could resist the rust fungus. Production of wheat per acre in his test fields increased from 11.5 bushels to 20. Once Borlaug’s crossbreeding reached optimal levels, however, through the increased use of fertilizer and insecticides, particularly DDT, which Paul Müer had developed in 1939, some farmers got as much as 105 bushels of wheat from an acre.

The Green Revolution Green Revolution , mentioned when Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, was now under way, and not only in Mexico: Borlaug’s work had implications for the entire world. The world’s hungry had cause to hope that their hunger would be alleviated. Borlaug had to some extent defeated—or at least forestalled—Malthusianism.

Significance

Hunger is not merely a result of low food production. Many other elements, most notably distribution, enter into alleviating hunger, particularly in developing countries where inaction is often a way of life and where sometimes-impenetrable bureaucracies make change difficult. In 1961, when Mexican farmers were able to plant Borlaug’s considerably improved strain of dwarf wheat seeds, his research group, renamed the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement , began to gain worldwide recognition. Borlaug visited other developing countries in the hope that he could extend to them his Green Revolution.

Borlaug’s expressed desire was to implement his program in countries that faced severe hunger problems and, within one year, to double their production of wheat, a realizable goal in light of the prolific crops his seeds could produce. Borlaug was impatient, because he realized that world hunger could not wait for creaking bureaucracies to implement the kinds of changes that would save human lives and would both restore dignity to human beings and give them the physical strength they needed to be productive and self-reliant. It was at this point that Borlaug realized he had to become a statesman without portfolio. He knew that if he could not budge recalcitrant governmental bureaucracies, human suffering and famine would continue, even though the means of averting it were within easy reach. Even as his efforts in countries such as India and Pakistan were progressing, the International Rice Research Institute International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines was using Borlaug’s model to produce semidwarf strains of rice. This research led to the spread of the Green Revolution throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, half a dozen Latin American countries and numerous countries in the Middle East were direct or indirect beneficiaries of Borlaug’s programs. Because of them, thousands of humans were saved from the ravages of starvation.

In his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug said that food was the first and most important priority for all human beings. Without it, he contended, social justice was not achievable. He went on to say that world peace was directly related to the alleviation of world hunger. Expressing his faith in the rationality of human beings, Borlaug noted that providing food for the people of the world was only a first step toward cultivating the sort of environment in which people could live a fruitful existence. Adequate housing, sufficient clothing, good education, rewarding employment, and effective medical care were also vital components of any society in which human beings could live freely and happily. Retired since 1979 from his International Wheat Research and Production Program directorship in Mexico, Borlaug remained active as a faculty member at Texas A&M University. He maintained an appointment as Whiting Professor-at-Large at Cornell and served on many committees connected with world hunger and human rights. He also served as an associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation and in 1983 was appointed a life member of the foundation. Nobel Peace Prize;Norman Borlaug[Borlaug] Wheat, high-yield[Wheat, high yield] Hunger 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. Biography of Borlaug. The author, a leading Australian scientific writer, has an accurate sense of what Borlaug tried to achieve; he writes knowledgeably about his subject. Easy for general readers; readily obtainable in libraries. No index or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester R. Increasing World Food Output. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965. Brief overview of world hunger with proposed solutions, including those that are the direct result of Borlaug’s activities as director of the International Wheat Research and Production Program. Much in this study is presented more accessibly in Lester R. Brown’s Seeds of Change (1970).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Seeds of Change: The Green Revolution and Development in the 1970’s. New York: Praeger, 1970. Mentions Borlaug fleetingly but provides an introduction to the problem of world hunger, helping to explain the Green Revolution in understandable terms and in historical context. Its final section, “Preview of the 1970’s,” is a good retrospective read. Index, minimal bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cockrane, Willard W. The World Food Problem: A Guardedly Optimistic View. New York: Crowell, 1969. Much of Cockrane’s guarded optimism stems from the kind of pioneering work Borlaug did in Mexico. Cockrane’s emphasis is on production, which leads to optimism. Fails to acknowledge adequately the other major component of any solution to world hunger: distribution. Index, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Orville. World Without Hunger. New York: Praeger, 1968. A former secretary of agriculture presents an overview of world hunger, emphasizing the role the United States has played and will play in dealing with the global problem. Borlaug’s contributions, both research and applied, are well explained.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardin, Clifford, ed. Overcoming World Hunger. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Contains some of the best thinking on world hunger to 1968. Accounts for important aspects of the problem. Knowledgeable contributors. Good starting point for readers new to the field. Index, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kellerman, Mitchell. World Hunger: A Neo-Malthusian Perspective. New York: Praeger, 1987. Kellerman approaches the question of world hunger from an economic rather than an agricultural point of view. Provides a strong historical background. Gets quite statistical, but general readers can ignore the charts and tables. Minimal bibliography, slim index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paarlberg, Don. Norman Borlaug: Hunger Fighter. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1970. Written for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this 20-page pamphlet provides a capsule summary of Borlaug’s career up to the time of his Nobel Peace Prize. Biographical details flesh out the summary of Borlaug’s scientific contributions. Illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pence, Gregory E. “Norman Borlaug: He Fed a Billion People, but You Don’t Know His Name.” In Brave New Bioethics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Discusses Borlaug’s monumental but little-known work feeding the world’s hungry. Recommended in conjunction with Pence’s 2002 edited collection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Ethics of Food: A Reader for the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. A collection of writings on the ethics of food, food production, agriculture, genetically modified foods, and other related topics, with an article, “Are We Going Mad?” by Norman Borlaug.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stakeman, E. C., Richard Bradfield, and Paul C. Mangelsdorf. Campaigns Against Hunger. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. The senior author, Stakeman, persuaded Borlaug to go into the field he entered and was his mentor at the University of Minnesota. Provides a comprehensive view of world hunger, focusing more on production than on distribution but addressing each. Comprehensive index, full, useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Food and Agricultural Organization. Agriculture: Toward 2000. Rome: Author, 1984. The prognostications in this report are grounded on solid information gathered from a broad variety of sources. The importance of work like Borlaug’s is evident on nearly every page. Contains statistics for those who need them, but general readers can ignore these details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, Patrick. Food as Aid: Trends, Needs, and Challenges in the Twenty-First Century. Rome: World Food Programme, 2003. A report on global food aid in the twenty-first century. Available at http://www.wfp.org.

Borlaug Begins Work on High-Yield Wheat

Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

United Nations World Food Programme Is Established

Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert

Hardin Argues for Population Control

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