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How Norman Borlaug Went With the Grain

• March 01, 2012 • 4:00 AM

“Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug” is a multivolume biography that chronicles the microbiologist and his Nobel Prize-winning work to thwart starvation.

By the end of October 2011, the Earth’s human population had reached 7 billion. It was half that in 1968 when Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. In the book’s opening pages he proclaimed that too many people in the planet’s underdeveloped countries made mass starvation inevitable, that a minimum of 10 million people — “most of them children” — would starve to death every year in the 1970s, and that it was too late to do anything about it. Plenty of experts agreed with Ehrlich; the press ran with the story, it was apocalypse now.

Except he was wrong: Norman Borlaug was already on the case, and had been since 1944. That war year, the 30-year-old with a doctorate in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota arrived in Mexico to rescue a country that could not grow enough grain to feed all of its people. Sent by the Rockefeller Institute in answer to a plea for help from the Mexican government, Borlaug was on a mission to create new varieties of wheat that would not only be resistant to the diseases that had plagued cereal grains since biblical times, but would produce yields far greater than the varieties in current use. Many times greater. And then he would have to persuade Mexican farmers to forsake traditional farming methods for modern ones, which required pesticides and copious amounts of fertilizers along with plenty of water from irrigation.

Noel Vietmeyer has self-published four books that tell, in exuberant detail, the story of Borlaug’s impossible task, how he accomplished it, and the global repercussions. Most recent is Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug, published in October 2011, which is pretty much a digest of the three volumes that preceded it: Right Off the Farm 1914-1944 (2009); Wheat Whisperer 1944-1959 (2009); and Bread Winner 1960-1969 (2010.) All are published by Vietmeyer’s Bracing Books, established with some financial aid from Borlaug himself.

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The March-April 2012
Miller-McCune

March-April 2012 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our March-April 2012 issue under the title “Going With the Grain.” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
March-April magazine page.[/class]

In that first volume, the author exuberantly describes the situation when Borlaug arrived in Mexico: “At this pivotal moment, with the planet in peril … a rank outsider … stepped up to try to turn the course of catastrophe. He was different from the rest: First, he was not an economist, political scientist or sociologist … he was an agriculturist. Second, he was a country boy of solid practicality, calm demeanor, deliberate mind and buoyant aggressiveness. Third, his specialty was applied science, the hard kind that aims to solve problems. …”

It took Borlaug 15 years to develop new varieties that were resistant to the diseases that have plagued wheat crops forever. By 1959 — mirabile dictu — bountiful harvests were producing more than enough to feed all of Mexico’s people, and then some. The Mexican government was ecstatic, the Rockefeller Institute was delighted, everybody but Borlaug was happy. He had been working on new “dwarf” varieties that he believed would out-produce them all, and he was being asked to pack it in.

He managed a reprieve; three years and 8,156 cross-pollinations later — by late 1962 — he had his four dwarf wheat varieties, the ones that were going to save the world from starvation if only he could get them to the right places in time for the planting season. This part of the book reads like a thriller with Borlaug in the middle of the action, taking huge risks. By August 1966, 450 tons of his seeds were on their way from Mexico to India and Pakistan, even then in the grip of famine. By 1968, Borlaug’s new varieties were producing enough to feed all of Pakistan and India, even as the women of those countries continued to deliver bumper crops of babies. The apocalypse was forestalled at about the same time that The Population Bomb hit the bookstores.

If Paul Ehrlich wasn’t up on Borlaug’s work and its implications, Sweden’s Nobel committee was, and in 1970 awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the committee wrote. Borlaug was dubbed “the father of the Green Revolution,” a label he dismissed as “miserable.” He collected the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal even though most of his countrymen had never heard of him. When Norman Borlaug died in 2009 at age 95, a New York Times obituary said he “did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself,” along with “saving hundreds of millions of lives.”

Vietmeyer, who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, had a 25-year career at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C., overseeing some 40 academy reports, most aimed at promoting innovative food production in the world’s needy areas. (One such: “Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value.”) In 1982, he arranged for Borlaug to chair a National Academy of Sciences panel at a conference in Arizona. The two found themselves with a long wait at the airport, and Borlaug began to tell his story. Over the following two decades there were more trips, more stories.

“These stories make up the heart and soul of this multivolume biography of the mild-mannered maverick who fed a billion people,” Vietmeyer explains, his enthusiasm spilling over, as it frequently does, into riffs of alliteration. While the author is virulently positive about his subject, he does not withhold facts that cast Borlaug in less than a favorable light: a man so driven he could, and did, consistently neglect his family — wife Margaret, daughter Jeanie, and son Bill — with his long absences. Providentially, Margaret was the resolute sort of take-charge woman that Borlaug’s brand of genius required.

The first volume, Right Off the Farm, covers Borlaug from his birth in 1914 on a hardscrabble farm in Iowa, to 1944, when he leaves for Mexico, his great work still before him. This volume is compelling in its use of Borlaug’s life to expose the harsh history of rural America in the opening decades of the 20th century. It was a time when survival depended on the whole family, when farm children took on chores at the age of 8, and boys left school after the eighth grade to labor full time. The vagaries of the weather and the invisible swirl of plant diseases that could destroy a crop meant life on the farm was bleak. Families were, in a real sense, indentured servants to the land.

The appearance of the tractor, fertilizer, and hybrid corn raised “harvest, horizons and hopes” in rural America, writes Vietmeyer.  “The locked-down life came unlatched and out marched the modern era in double time.”

On the Borlaug farm, the yield of corn was doubled. “Granddad Nels’ fabled future had arrived,” Borlaug tells Vietmeyer. “And it was even more fabulous than anything we’d dared to wish for. … Suddenly we could shape our own fate without the old restrictions. We could get an education; maybe even a profession. The possibilities seemed endless.”

But by the ’30s, the sky had fallen into the Great Depression and farmers saw their futures disappear in a cloud of dust storms. Norman Borlaug came through, but not unscathed. He saw widespread hunger firsthand, felt its pangs, and the memory never left him.

In subsequent volumes, Vietmeyer details Borlaug’s decades-long struggle, often swiveling on the edge of failure — an agronomist Sisyphus who somehow managed to roll the stone to the top of the hill and achieve a humanitarian success of global proportions. Vietmeyer’s goal is to make sure that the world remembers, that the name Borlaug requires no explanation.

Unfortunately, Vietmeyer chooses not to address the burgeoning criticisms leveled at Borlaug and his farming methods. Particularly the damage being done by chemical runoff from tons of synthetic fertilizers that pollute waterways around the globe, the excess nutrients resulting in algae blooms that create huge “dead zones,” poisoning aquatic life.

Borlaug lived long enough to see problems coming and to try to address them. In the afterword to Volume Three, Bread Winner 1960-1969, he writes: “When we talk about the world food problem now and in the future … we must maintain a reasonable balance between population growth and our ability to produce those necessities essential for a decent, humane life. This begins with food, the first basic necessity.”

At the end of that same volume, Vietmeyer adds: “As the 21st century gets under way, we can barely feed our 6 billion people. But more than a billion of those are between 15 and 24 years of age and another 2 billion have yet to reach age 15. In the coming decades those youngsters — comprising the two largest human generations, ever — will start reproducing and 8 or 10 billion souls will inhabit Planet Earth. The amount of extra food needed then will be immense. Worse, it must be found in a stunningly short time. Indeed, in the coming decades we’ll have to feed almost as many extra people as were added throughout the whole 20th century.”

In fact, as Borlaug himself predicted, a deadly new strain of wind-borne disease is once again threatening the world’s wheat crops, and plant scientists even now are in a race to find new, resistant varieties.

So we’re back to Paul Ehrlich. Days before that 7 billionth baby was born, it was pointed out to Ehrlich that global population has more than doubled since he wrote The Population Bomb. His answer was, as usual, pessimistic: “We are seeing climate disruption leading to rising food prices, loss of biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystem services, increased chances of vast epidemics and nuclear resource wars and a general reduction in the odds of avoiding the first catastrophic collapse of a global civilization.”

Unless, of course, there are other Borlaugs out there who can come up with answers before Armageddon.

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S.G. Streshinsky
S.G. Streshinsky is a journalist and novelist who, in a career that spans 40 years, has been widely published in the U.S. and abroad. Since the early 1970s, her articles have been published in such magazines as Redbook, Glamour, American Heritage, and TheAmerican Scholar. She is the author of four historical novels and two works of nonfiction, including a biography of John J. Audubon. Her travel essays have been a feature of National Public Radio. She is the recipient of the Society of Magazine Writer’s Award for Excellence; the National Council for the Advancement of Education Writing award; she was cited by The Educational Press Association of America for “superlative achievement in features.”

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