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Remembering Norman Borlaug's Legacy

March 27, 2014
By: Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director google + 
ambassador quinn borlaug symposium
World Food Prize Ambassador Ken Quinn introduces the second panel moderator for the Borlaug Symposium.  

Norman Borlaug may be best known to the world for developing a variety of wheat that could produce large amounts of grain, even as it resisted diseases and reduced lodging.

But judging by comments at this week’s Borlaug Symposium at USDA, the father of the Green Revolution possessed personal qualities and beliefs that continue to inspire people who knew and worked with him.

"He really believed in getting his boots dirty," said Julie Howard, who directs the USAID’s Feed the Future program that focuses in part on infrastructure development. She traveled with Borlaug on a mission to Mozambique. Five times the caravan got stuck in the mud.

"He wasn’t just focused on the technology. He also made a point of asking, ‘Which shop is going to sell this? Where is this shop going to get the fertilizer? How is this farmer going to pay?’"

The scientist would work alongside farmers and students in the fields, sharing his knowledge as well as the labor. Borlaug developed the high-yielding wheat variety during 20 years of field research in Mexico then took the technology to India and Pakistan.

Borlaug knew that success in agriculture required a systems approach, said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto. Borlaug helped Mexico become a net exporter of wheat in 1963 and nearly doubled yields in Pakistan and India.

"One of the reasons Dr. Borlaug was so successful with the transformation of agriculture in India and Pakistan was—he had the science and he had the tools for breading—but what he brought to those countries was literally a system of how to grow the crop—the nutrients, the planting, the fertilizers."

Borlaug’s persistence was one of the many personal qualities that impressed Margaret Zeigler, who runs the Global Harvest Initiative. The organization focuses on the uphill battle of creating foreign political environments conducive to technological investment by companies, government and farmers. One goal is to bring modern farming methods to developing countries.

Zeigler noted that in many resource-poor countries, farmers still work with plows drawn by livestock. One of the Initiative’s member companies, John Deere, is making smaller, roughly 35-horsepower tractors that are leased to cooperatives and used by smallholder farmers.

Although much of Borlaug’s work was conducted before the commercialization of GMO (genetically modified organism) seed technology, Fraley remembers talking with Borlaug in 1990 about how to transfer the technology to smallholder farmers in developing countries. "We together formed an organization called ISSA that’s still in existence today and still talking about technology transfer."

It was from Borlaug that Fraley inherited his passion for helping poor farmers in developing countries. "A big part of Norm’s philosophy," Fraley said, "is that if you improve the farmer’s livelihood, you not only produce more food, but since most of the rural poor are farmers you directly address poverty. So it’s a double win."

Students interested in careers in agriculture heavily attended the symposium. Fraley issued a challenge to them, saying that it would be largely up to today’s youth to meet the challenge of feeding an additional 2 billion people by 2050.

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