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‘Green Revolution’ Founder Borlaug Dies at 95

September 14, 2009 at 3:48 PM EST
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A look back at the life of Norman Borlaug, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who developed important agricultural strategies for countries around the world. Borlaug died over the weekend at the age of 95.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we remember the founder of the green revolution that saved hundreds of millions of people around the world from hunger.

Norman Borlaug was a Midwestern farm boy turned plant scientist. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing new varieties of wheat and rice that transformed agriculture from Mexico to India. He died over the weekend at the age of 95.

To discuss Borlaug and his legacy, we’re joined by Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation, a longtime backer of Borlaug’s work.

Gary Toenniessen, thank you very much for being here. You were just telling me you knew him for almost four decades. You saw him as recently as a month ago. Tell us a little bit more about who he was and how he got interested in plants.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Well, Norm was a farm boy, always was interested in the scientific aspects of plants and of agriculture, was lucky enough to get into the University of Minnesota and worked his way through a PhD program there as a plant pathologist, and then worked for a couple years before he joined the Rockefeller Foundation program in Mexico in 1944.

That was a cooperative program with the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture aimed at trying to improve agriculture in what was then a country which had significant food shortages and a fair degree of political unrest due to those food shortages.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What got him interested in hunger, in issues of hunger and food production?

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Well, I think he had a natural interest in trying to help poor people throughout his whole career. That was an underlying motivating factor with Norm. He was always looking to help the small-scale farmer, to make sure that people who were left behind by others benefited from the new developments in agricultural technologies

Breakthrough in Mexico

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it started in Mexico, and it went elsewhere, but explain to us -- as I read today, what was so interesting was that he, in effect, was working on shrinking plants to increase the output. That seems counterintuitive.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Well, Norm was a plant pathologist. His first objective was to control the diseases of wheat in Mexico, and he succeeded with that quite successfully. And Mexico actually became self-sufficient with food production in 1956.

But he went on and created these what are called semi-dwarf wheat plants, which are short in stature. They're sturdy plants. And when you add fertilizer to these plants, the extra energy from the fertilizer goes into producing more grain, a larger head on the plant. And in Mexico, that doubled, tripled wheat production. It was a major breakthrough.

And as part of that Mexican program, there was a training component. And so scientists from India and Pakistan, really throughout the world, were sent to Mexico by the Rockefeller Foundation, by the U.N. and other organizations for training.

Some of them, as I said, were Indian scientists. They went back, took some of those Mexican wheats, and then the Indian government invited Norm over to discuss a wheat improvement program in India. And it turned out that those Mexican wheats performed exceptionally well in India, as well, under irrigated conditions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how do you quantify the impact that he had, the difference that he made?

Creating food self-sufficiency

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Well, many of the countries of Latin America that were food deficit became food self-sufficient. India, Pakistan, many of the countries of Asia are today exporters of rice and wheat, not that there aren't still a number of hungry people in those countries, but the problem is no longer an absolute lack of food production. They're able to produce enough food. They now need to distribute that food more broadly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gary Toenniessen, we know that, in later years, in recent decades, his work was criticized for the environmental impact, social impact. How did he deal with all that?

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Well, he learned from it. Sometimes, I think Norm got a little frustrated with some of the criticism, because some of the critics seemed to miss the point that the primary objective was to feed starving people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, in essence, the critics were saying that he's hurting the environment, changing people's lives in harmful ways.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: That's right. Well, the main thing was the environmental impacts. And there were some negative environmental impacts, use of pesticides -- or, let's say, pesticides were overused. To some degree, fertilizer and irrigation can be over-utilized, as well.

But Norm recognized that, as well. He listened to the critics. He was one of the people that put in place integrated pest management programs that significantly reduced pesticide use. But he always wanted to increase production to make sure that hungry people were fed as the primary objective.

A humble and driven man

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was he like?

GARY TOENNIESSEN: He was a very humble man, never wanted any attention himself, but he was also a driven man. I traveled with him on a number of occasions, and he was in his 60s and 70s at the time. I was in my 30s and 40s. But you couldn't keep up with Norm.

And he would also push governments. He would tell the farmers, "You've got to go in and you've got to demand from your governments that they help you increase your agricultural productivity." We sponsored a fertilizer summit in Africa in 2006.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rockefeller Foundation.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Rockefeller Foundation did, and we invited Norm. He just gave a rip-roaring speech and challenged the several presidents that were there. In fact, President Obasanjo of Nigeria said afterwards, "We've been chastised by Norm, and we have to move forward and get our agriculture moving."

JUDY WOODRUFF: He worked right up until the end.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: He worked right up until the end. He was, again, working on rust disease. There's a new strain of rust coming around now that is attacking wheat once again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation, thank you very much for talking with us.

GARY TOENNIESSEN: Well, thank you. It's an honor to be able to talk about Norm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

And we have a story about the problems feeding India's burgeoning population coming up later this week on the NewsHour. You can preview that report on our Web site at newshour.pbs.org.