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Aired April 21, 2020

The Man Who Tried To Feed The World

A tale of good deeds and unintended consequences

Film Description

In 1966, drought and an exploding population confronted India with the imminent threat of a severe famine that many scientists and intellectuals feared was a harbinger of global catastrophes to come, as the world’s population outstripped its ability to produce food. India turned to Norman Borlaug, an unassuming plant breeder from Iowa whose combination of scientific knowledge and raw determination had made him a legend among a small handful of fellow specialists.

The Man Who Tried to Feed the World recounts the story of the man who would not only solve India’s famine problem, but would go on to lead a “Green Revolution” of worldwide agriculture programs, saving countless lives. He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work but spent the rest of his life watching his methods and achievements come under increasing fire.


Edited by
Mark Dugas
R.A. Fedde

Produced by
Rob Rapley
Jamila Wignot

Written and Directed by
Rob Rapley

Original Music by
Tom Phillips

Narrated by
Michael Murphy

Archival Producer
Ines Farag

Interview Cinematography
Arvind Kannabarin
Stephen McCarthy
Buddy Squires, ASC
Nathan Warren

Scenic Cinematography
R.A. Fedde
Lora Murray

Story Consultants
John Perkins
Ronnie Coffman

Assistant Editors
Tim Messler
Michael Dominic
Margaret Metzger

Animation, Photo Restoration & Graphic Design
Michael Dominic

Photo Restoration
Hank Muller

Archival Associate Producer
Josh Margolis

Additional Archival Research
Jivan Nagra
Farah Yameen

Online and Color Grading
Out of The Blue Ny

Davinci Resolve Colorist
Scott Burch

Online Editor
Rob Cabana

Post Producer
Steve Bodner

Post-Production Audio Services
Audio Post @ B
Great City Post

Sound Editor & Re-Recording Mixer
Ken Hahn, CAS

Assistant Camera
Jared Ames
Alexander Hill
Ryan Schmidt

Sound Recordist
Andre Artis
Rob Davis
Elangovan Ranga
John Zecca
Len Schmidtz

Production Manager – India
Ts Premanand

Production Assistants
Britney Cofield-Poole
Jacob Donaldson
Martin Mulligan
Lora Murray
Emma Rose

Alexis Martinez

Kenia Guillen

Olivia Typaldos

Technical Support
Ryan Ela

Tom Phillips - Piano and Keyboards
Jodi Hagen - Violin
Michael Curry - Cello
Andrew Price - Oboe

Special Thanks to
Skip Elsheimer
John Hoines
Elias Savada
Darell Sison

Archival Materials Courtesy of
A/V Geeks
Colette Urbajtel / Archivo Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, SC 
Associated Press
The Bfi National Archive
Biodiversity Heritage Library
British Pathé
Robin Brown
CBS News / Veritone
Denver Public Library
Estate of Wanda Rickerby / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Films Division, Government of India
George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Getty Images
Hagley Museum and Library
Historic Films Archive, LLC.
John Hoines
Images First Ltd, 1989
Institut National De L’audiovisuel
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
The Internet Archive
Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives
Recuerdo De Atzompan, 1943, Manuel Alvarez-Bravo. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Kino library
KSTP-TV News Archive, Minnesota Historical Society
Joanne Lane
Jeanie Borlaug Laube
LBJ Presidential Library
Library of Congress
Lilly Library, Indiana University
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation
Marilyn Silverstone / Magnum Photos
Minnesota Historical Society
NBCuniversal Archives
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Nhu Nguyen
Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation
Periscope Film
Pictures from History / CPA Media
Prelinger Archives
Retro Footage
Rockefeller Archive Center
Screenocean / Reuters
Streamline Films, Inc.
University of Minnesota Archives
Dixit Chouhan / Unsplash
John Vachon
Wisconsin Historical Society

Original Production Funding Provided by
Liberty Mutual Insurance
Consumer Cellular
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Yawkey Foundations
Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation
The Documentary Investment Group with Support From Rick And Nonnie Burnes
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

For American Experience

Post Production Editors
Paul Sanni
Lauren Noyes 

Production Coordinator 
Alexa Miguel

Business Manager
Jaime-Lyn Gaudet 

Senior Contracts & Rights Manager
Susana Fernandes

Legal and Business Affairs
Jay Fialkov

Talent Relations
Janice Flood

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Violet Zarriello

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Carolyn Macleod

Special Projects Assistant
John Campbell

Mary Lugo
Cara White

Kirstin Butler
Eric Gulliver
Tsering Yangzom

Director of Digital Content
Ben Greenberg

Director of Audience Development
Chika Offurum

Development Producer
Charlotte Porter

Series Producer
Vanessa Ruiz

Coordinating Producer
Nancy Sherman

Executive Producer
Mark Samels
Susan Bellows

An Apograph Productions Film for American Experience. American Experience is a production of WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.

 © 2020 WGBH Educational Foundation 
All Rights Reserved.


Narrator: It was in the spring of 1966, in northeastern India, that Norman Borlaug came face-to-face with the enemy he had been fighting all his life. Borlaug was a driven man, a scientist obsessed by hunger. And he was tormented by the thought that all of this could have been prevented, if only people had listened sooner. 
For years, Borlaug had traveled the globe, preaching a radically new approach to agriculture, one that he had helped develop over the course of twenty years. Unprecedented population growth was straining the food supply of countries around the world, raising the specter of widespread famine and social chaos.

Lyndon Johnson: Next to the pursuit of peace, the greatest challenge to the human family is the race between food supply and population increase. That race tonight is being lost. 

Walter Cronkite: Dr. Norman Borlaug, an Iowa-born crop expert, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday for his work toward easing the world’s hunger problem.

Narrator: Within just five years Borlaug would be hailed around the world for saving countless lives through what was called “The Green Revolution.” But Borlaug’s stunning successes had also unleashed vast, turbulent forces. 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: The number of people who are hungry declined dramatically. But there was enormous social upheaval. There is huge environmental damage. 

Raj Patel, Writer: Norman Borlaug was responsible for the spread of large-scale industrial agricultural production around the world. I certainly don't think that it's any credit to the Nobel Prize that Norman Borlaug got it. 

Narrator: Half a century later, Borlaug’s revolution continues to shape our world.

Tore Olsson, Historian: It’s really impossible to understand the massive growth of the human population, to understand the urbanization of our species, and our tremendous, increasing ecological impact on the world, unless we understand Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.


Charles C. Mann, Biographer: Borlaug grew up in a small farm in northeastern Iowa that was isolated in a way that is very hard for a 21st century person to imagine. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: On very quiet winter nights Norm and his sisters would go out; they could hear the train whistle, which was fourteen, fifteen miles away. It was the only connection they had to the rest of humanity. 

Narrator: Norman Borlaug was born in 1914, into a clan of immigrant farmers. His great-grandparents had fled Norway in 1847, driven by the same potato blight that ravaged Ireland. As children, Norm and his two younger sisters rose before dawn and worked on the family’s hundred-acre farm until after sunset, in a manner that would have been familiar to the ancient Romans.

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: Every year he harvested himself a quarter of a million ears of corn. He worked very, very hard, but he hated it. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Norm had no prospects whatever. He had to stay on the farm and work. And then when his father died, he would take over.

Narrator: In the late 1920s, when Norm was finishing grade school, he saw signs of a technological revolution that was transforming rural life.

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Henry Ford produced a little tractor and that tractor did for farmers what his Model T did for the general public. 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: The Fordson it's called. Typically in those days about forty percent of a farm was devoted to growing the food for the oxen and the horses. When you had a tractor, that land became available to grow food, and the farm’s effective size doubled. Their income doubled. 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: To have the corn harvested in a couple of days in a tractor, it was an incredibly liberating experience for him. Anybody would draw a lesson from that. And he certainly did that, that this kind of technology equaled freedom from toil.

Narrator: “The fabled future had arrived,” Borlaug recalled, “and it was even more fabulous than anything we’d dared wish for.”
Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: That's how he got some education beyond eighth grade. Because of the tractor and these modern things he had confidence in technology for the rest of his days. 


Narrator: Within a few years Borlaug’s bright hopes had been swallowed up by the Great Depression. In Iowa the rains stopped, clouds of locusts blotted out the sun, dust storms buried farms and towns alike.

Borlaug’s high school graduation was an eerie affair; no one mentioned the future. In the fall of 1933, with just sixty-one dollars in his pocket, he left the farm for Minneapolis.

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: He hoped to get an athletic scholarship at the University of Minnesota. He didn't think he was very smart. He didn't think he was well educated or anything like that and he hoped this was his way into a better life.

Narrator: Not only was there no sports scholarship, it took an entire term and three separate applications before the University of Minnesota opened its doors. He chose to study forestry, then something of a campus cult, representing both a rebellion against capitalism, and an escape from its collapse. Food and shelter were a constant struggle, but there were consolations: Borlaug was moonlighting as a waiter when he met Margaret Gibson. 

Jeanie Borlaug, Daughter: My mother was waiting tables to pay for her education. I think she thought he was very serious. My mother was not real serious but she had a great personality. 

Narrator: In the fall of 1937, with graduation around the corner and a job waiting at the Forestry Service, Norm married Margaret in a quiet ceremony at her brother’s home. But their tidy future vanished just three months later, when Norm’s forestry job fell victim to budget cuts. Suddenly at loose ends, he went back to school for graduate studies in plant pathology. But the most indelible lesson of his college years took place in the streets of Minneapolis.

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: He walked around a corner and there was a milk plant and Norm could see behind a big fence a bunch of corporate goons with batons.

Narrator: Across the Midwest, desperate farmers were trying to shore up commodity prices by cutting off the supply of food to the cities. “We’ll eat our wheat and ham and eggs,” they chanted, “and let them eat their gold.” 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: Dairy farmers were going to dump the milk because they couldn't sell it for enough to make a living. Hungry people descended on these trucks and demanded the milk. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist:  And all of a sudden they charged. And Norm was trapped by the crowd, and these batons were coming right towards him swinging and hitting people over the head. 

Narrator: “Bodies and blood were scattered and spattered all over the street,” Borlaug wrote. “I took off running, trembling, frightened. I’d seen how fast violence springs to life when hunger, misery, and desperation infect the public mind.” 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: It was terrifying to him and he saw how hunger can just turn, you know, as he sort of put it, men into beasts. 

Food and Politics

Narrator: Scenes like the one in Minneapolis were all too common in the 1930s: hunger and deprivation were fueling political instability around the world, dragging humanity into a brutish struggle for resources. 

Tore Olsson, Historian: The Second World War in many ways is a struggle about food. Hitler and the Nazis looked eastward at Poland and Russia as sort of settling ground for prosperous Aryan farmers who would then produce for the larger German nation. Japan, as well, saw China as a potential feeding ground for the Japanese nation. But these big dreams are dependent upon the subjugation if not murder of millions of people.

Narrator: By 1940 Japan had invaded Manchuria, and Germany occupied much of Europe. As the Roosevelt administration braced for what was quickly becoming a Second World War, it looked nervously to its southern border. The Mexican government was working to liberate the country’s citizens from grinding poverty, but prosperity and stability remained elusive. 

Nick Cullather, Historian: Mexico was coming out of years of revolution, civil war. Rural Mexicans had at best a kind of a loose and sometimes hostile relationship with the central government. It began to look as if social unrest south of the border would be a vulnerability for the United States.

Narrator: The Roosevelt administration and the Mexican government both wanted peace in the countryside. The Rockefeller Foundation, a wealthy philanthropy with White House connections, offered to help.

Tore Olsson, Historian: The Rockefeller Foundation had been involved in teaching poor black and white cotton farmers in the U.S. South. And this gave them a sort of proven formula for how they could attack questions of poverty and backwardness as they saw it.

Narrator: By 1942 the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government had negotiated a carefully targeted plan. 

Tore Olsson, Historian: They wanted to raise the economic standard of living among the impoverished farmers who tended to live in the densely-settled plateau around Mexico City. 

Nick Cullather, Historian: The United States is anxious to stabilize Mexico, and the Mexican government was eager for this. This was a kind of counterinsurgency effort, to improve the livelihoods of people in the villages and also to connect those villages more closely to the national government. 


Narrator: On the 7th of December 1941, Norman and Margaret Borlaug were driving east from Minneapolis to Wilmington Delaware, where Norman was due to start his first job at DuPont Chemical. So it wasn’t until the following day that they heard about Pearl Harbor.

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: Borlaug graduated from Minnesota into the Second World War. And he wanted to do something that mattered. He wanted to make a contribution. 

Narrator: For two and a half years Borlaug put his PhD in plant pathology to use, waging a quiet war on the microbes that were ravaging soldiers and materials in the jungles of the South Pacific. But he’d never meant to spend his life in a laboratory, so when the Rockefeller Foundation contacted him about an exotic job in Mexico, Borlaug took the plunge. On the 11th of September 1944 he loaded up the family’s old Pontiac and headed south, leaving behind a very pregnant Margaret and their young daughter, Jeanie. 

Borlaug had only a vague sense of what lay ahead when he joined three other American scientists at a research station near Chapingo, twenty-five miles east of Mexico City. Still, he was surprised when he was given a side project: while everyone else worked on the staples of the Mexican diet – corn and beans – Borlaug was to focus on wheat. As the junior member of the team, he had no choice but to take on a fiendishly difficult challenge. 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: He was to look at a kind of fungus called stem rust, which is one of the oldest enemies of the human race.  The Romans had a god of stem rust that they would sacrifice, propitiate, to keep it away.
Narrator: Stem rust had driven Borlaug’s family out of the wheat business back in 1878. Now, it was killing half of Mexico’s small wheat crop, year after year. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Stem rust migrates. These are trillions and trillions of spores that are sailing on the wind. And when they find wheat plants of the right maturity it just destroys them.

Nick Cullather, Historian: His background was actually in forestry, so he didn't have a lot of training in the breeding of wheat. 

Narrator: Borlaug was already reeling when a telegram arrived at the end of November 1944: Margaret had given birth to a boy with spina bifida. For three agonizing days Norm waited for a flight back to Wilmington. He found Margaret at the hospital with an awful predicament: Scotty was in an isolation ward; they couldn’t touch or comfort him. His affliction was essentially a death sentence. Norm announced that he was taking back his old job at Dupont so they could all be together. “My husband has a future,” Margaret insisted; “my baby has none. You go back; I’ll come when I can.” A few weeks later Margaret and Jeanie followed Norm to Mexico City. 

The First Harvest

Narrator: Back in Mexico, tormented by guilt and unsure how to proceed, Borlaug drove around in the station’s green pickup, gathering thousands of different varieties of local wheat. He was joined by Pepe Rodriguez and Jose Guevara, young Mexican agronomists hired out of college by the Rockefeller Foundation. In that spring of 1945 the three young men planted out one hundred and ten thousand of the seeds Borlaug had collected. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Borlaug was just hoping like hell that some of those wheats can withstand the trillions of spores that are going to be landing. 

Narrator: Through the summer they trudged through the rows, weeding out every seedling that showed the telltale pustules. Of the one hundred and ten thousand plants, just four were still alive at harvest time. 

Already Borlaug was haunted by the malnutrition he’d seen in Mexico, and now the cause seemed abundantly clear. “Can you imagine trying to feed a family?” he wrote Margaret. “We’ve got to do something.” He had found his life’s work.

Going It Alone

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: When he settled on the goal of trying to feed more people it was like he snapped into focus. And he worked phenomenally hard. That perseverance, that intense, laser-like focus, is the thing that I think most distinguished him in his life. He was sort like a spotlight. Spotlights cast certain things in very bright light, but also cast very deep shadows. 

Narrator: Driven by a new sense of mission, Borlaug devised a plan to speed up the breeding process. After the fall harvest at Chapingo, he would head north with his most promising seeds and plant them in Sonora, where wheat is grown during the winter. When spring came he would harvest that generation, rush back to Chapingo with the new winners, and start the process over again. By growing two generations every year Borlaug could solve Mexico’s wheat problem - and ease malnutrition - in half the time. “Shuttle breeding,” he called it. 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: What Borlaug didn't know was that all the textbooks - literally the textbooks - said you can't do this.
Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Wheat breeders believed that you had to breed the wheat for the place where it was going to be grown, and nowhere else you know.

Narrator: Borlaug’s boss, George Harrar, hated the idea. Not only did shuttle breeding ignore conventional wisdom, but Harrar worried that Borlaug’s wheat would end up benefitting the well-heeled farmers of Sonora, rather than the campesinos of central Mexico. 

Tore Olsson, Historian: Farmers in Sonora were not peasant farmers. They tended to be larger in terms of their land holdings. They tended to be commercially-oriented, growing wheat for exports. 

Narrator: Harrar told Borlaug to drop it, several times, but the younger man wouldn’t let up. Borlaug finally got grudging permission to go to Sonora, but there was to be no budget, no support, no machinery, accommodations, or vehicle. No matter: at the beginning of November 1945, Norman Borlaug packed up the seeds from the four plants that survived the summer epidemic, and headed north. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: He went up to Sonora and he squatted in a derelict old research station that had been abandoned. It had no running water. The windows had been broken out and there were rats everywhere. 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: He didn’t have a tractor. He didn't have a horse, so he was actually taking a harness that normally was attached a draft animal, to a horse or an oxen or whatever, strapping it around his chest and arms, and plowing himself. 

Narrator: There was in fact a method to Borlaug’s madness. By cross-breeding his four survivors with other successful varieties, he hoped to produce the perfect wheat. The critical moment arrived when the wheat began to flower. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Wheat is self-pollinating, so to make a cross pollination you have to cut the female floret when it's just at the right point, and remove all of its pollen so that it can't pollinate itself; you've got to get every last one. And then you have to cover it with paper to stop any foreign pollen blowing in on the wind. Four days later, when the male is producing pollen then you bring that one over and pour its pollen down so you've got a cross pollinated plant. It's very, very complicated, and Norm had to teach himself.

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: This is something that plant breeders have been doing for, you know, a very, very long time at this point. What they haven't done is to do it on a massive scale. It's such a phenomenal amount of work that nobody in their right mind would think of doing it.

Narrator: At night, as Borlaug lay on the floor with rats scampering over his bedroll, the ghosts crowded in. “I was certain,” he wrote, “that I had made a dreadful mistake.”

The Deal With The Devil

Narrator: Over the next years, Borlaug’s doubts slowly gave way to the realization that he was on to something big. By 1948 he had wheat that resisted stem rust, grew anywhere, in any season, and delivered huge quantities of high-quality grain. 

But that remarkable achievement came with one, big, catch. In order to deliver those yields, his wheat needed unprecedented levels of chemical fertilizer and lots of water. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: Fertilizer was the key to getting the absolute greatest productivity out of these plants – ten times what the average wheat farmer was getting. 

Narrator: Borlaug wanted to fight hunger by producing lots of food. But his wheat relied on a costly recipe; only farmers who could afford that fertilizer and had access to irrigation water stood to benefit. Poor farmers - the ones the Rockefeller Foundation had come to help - would be largely left behind.

Tore Olsson, Historian: Borlaug is coming to challenge in many ways the established direction of the program, which was trying to help small scale poor farmers in central Mexico. And George Harrar, who is Borlaug’s boss, basically tells him, “you've got to stop this. It is a fundamental distraction from what we're trying to accomplish.” Borlaug throws down the towel and says, “I'm quitting.”

John Perkins, Environmental Historian: Borlaug had very definite thoughts about the way that agriculture should develop: you make it possible for very few people to raise vast amounts of food. And the surplus labor - which is what most people in rural areas became - they were going to be city people.

Narrator: Borlaug marched out of Harrar’s office and began making plans to leave the country, but the next day he was unexpectedly summoned back. “Forget what I said,” Harrar told an astonished Borlaug. “Go on working in Sonora.” Borlaug couldn’t know it, but a political earthquake on the other side of the globe was upending the Rockefeller program. 

The Salvation of The World

Nick Cullather, Historian: Chinese Communist troops march south singing about rice and beans. Americans interpreted the Chinese Civil War as a conflict that was based on resources, and particularly on food. 

Narrator: By that summer of 1948, Mao Zedong’s Communists were sweeping across China. In Washington, alarm bells were ringing.  

Tore Olsson, Historian: There was a growing sense that the Cold War was spiraling out of Americans’ control. The fear especially that what was going to tilt the Cold War in the Soviets’ favor was discontented peasants around the world.

Narrator: This new threat gave American policymakers an urgent priority.

Tore Olsson, Historian: There was a rather simple idea that “no one becomes a Communist on a full belly,” that we can tilt the scales in favor of the free capitalist democratic world, if we can just produce enough food.

Narrator: Borlaug’s miracle wheat might not help peasant farmers in Mexico, but it could win hearts and minds in the struggle against Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. 

Tore Olsson, Historian: The Rockefeller Foundation bosses in New York, who are working quite collaboratively with the State Department, come to realize that Borlaug is actually doing something that might be valuable for the global Cold War: a universal program to feed a hungry world.

Narrator: The Rockefeller Foundation began recasting the Mexico program. Not only was Borlaug given a free hand in Sonora, but his agenda began to eclipse the original mission. 

Over the next few years a large staff of Mexican and American scientists and administrators was assigned to Borlaug’s wheat project, and a bright new facility built. He would soon need all of those resources, and more. The problem appeared in the early 1950s, as Borlaug was achieving unprecedented yields. 

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: He was getting plants with so much grain up there that the five foot long stem just couldn't hold it up. Towards the end of the season, winds would blow whole fields over. He had to find some way to strengthen the stems. And the only way he could see to do that was to shrink the plant. 

Narrator: Borlaug began crossing his top lines with what was called a “dwarf” wheat, descended from varieties developed in Japan a century before. This time there were no shortcuts, no lucky breaks, just thousands and thousands of crosses, and years of frustration. Finally, in 1962, after seven years and 8156 crosses, the dwarf wheat program came through.

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: He has developed what you can think of as the complete wheat – you know, wheat that would yield like crazy with fertilizer and water, that’s shorter so all the extra growth will go into the grain, will grow anywhere, and is as resistant to stem rust as you can possibly be. 
Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: It was this amazing development. And Norm patented nothing - nothing.

Narrator: Borlaug’s new wheat transformed the program’s potential.
Nick Cullather, Historian: The Rockefeller Foundation began to see places in the world where the techniques Borlaug developed in Mexico might be practically used. They started out in a particular place, with a particular set of political goals. But increasingly they began to see it as a program for the salvation of the world.

To India

Narrator: In January of 1963, just a few months after Borlaug’s masterstroke, an invitation from an Indian agricultural scientist landed on his desk. Within weeks Borlaug was on his way to New Delhi. One of the most far-reaching enterprises of the 20th century had begun. 

Howard K. Smith: India's problem is easily stated. India is one third the size of the United States, but it has a population greater than that of all North America and South America together: some 400 million people. In the next twenty-five years, if nothing happens, that huge population will double to 800 million. If India has trouble feeding 400 millions now, how can she feed twice that number within a generation?

Reporter: The man whose ambition is to turn India into a food exporting country is Dr Swaminathan. 

Nick Cullather, Historian: Swaminathan had begun to do his own research on wheat. He came across some research materials about the dwarf wheat varieties and he conceives of the idea of inviting Norman Borlaug.

Narrator: Over the course of a three-week road trip through India’s wheat country, the bull-headed American and the cultured Brahmin discovered a bond of common purpose. 

Ms Swaminathan, Agronomist: We had the same ideas, we had the same rules in life. And I liked his approach. 

George Varughese, Agronomist: Dr. Swaminathan is an excellent politician. He is so quiet, slow operator. Dr. Borlaug is not that way. He will start very polite, but if at one stage he finds things are not going very well, you cannot hold him back. 

Nick Cullather, Historian: Borlaug is playing a very different role than the role he played in Mexico. In Mexico Borlaug is working largely as a scientist. When he gets to India he's working with Swaminathan, reaching out as a salesman to a skeptical population and government.

Narrator: The political challenge was enormous. The wholesale adoption of high yield wheat entailed massive investments. Fertilizer would have to be imported until a domestic industry could meet the demand, and irrigation built up across thousands of square miles. The government would also have to guarantee a minimum price to farmers, so they could afford to adapt to the new practices. 

Prakash Kumar, Historian: There were all kinds of suspicions. Is this opening the floodgates to American corporations to sell their seeds, chemicals and other things? And there was this huge question whether this model of farming is applicable to India.

Narrator: After returning to Mexico, Borlaug loaded seven hundred and fifty pounds of seed into the cargo hold of a Pan Am jet, and sent it to Swaminathan for field trials. By harvest time he was in India again, in time to savor the result: where the plants had been fed and watered as directed, they had delivered almost incredible yields. But Borlaug was outraged to discover that scientists at several sites had used traditional methods. With no fertilizer, chemicals, or extra water, the plants fared poorly. This, they insisted, was how wheat was grown in South Asia. 

Prakash Kumar, Historian: Most of Indian farming was for subsistence. Gandhian ideology talks in terms of restraint in use. It talks in terms of less greed, less acquisition. It was the brute capitalism of the Norman Borlaug model that was irreconcilable with Gandhian thought. 

Narrator: As far as Borlaug was concerned, India was in danger of widespread famine, and it was almost criminal to object to a solution. “This was utter folly,” he noted, “and we ignored it.” But folly or not, Borlaug and Swaminathan couldn’t bring the authorities around: it was going to take more than a few field tests to shake up the world’s largest democracy.  

The United States and India

Prakash Kumar, Historian: There was a real fear in the American State Department that hunger would lead to Communist takeover. So they came up with this solution: using food aid as a tool of foreign policy.

Narrator: In the mid-1950s, the United States began sending its surplus grain to countries like India, under a program called “Food For Peace.” It was a powerful strategy, but unsustainable. In 1965 India consumed one fifth of America’s wheat crop; by 1970 it was projected to need one half. 

Howard K. Smith: Two thirds of the world goes to bed hungry every night. Most children eat less than two meals a day. The population problem has clearly graduated to the point where it has to be faced and discussed openly and in deadly seriousness. 

Nick Cullather, Historian: The idea that population growth had gone out of control became a major political concern. The United Nations began holding sessions on the question of population. The US Congress began wondering whether the food supply would keep up with global population growth. 

Narrator: If present trends continued, mankind would run out of arable land, and the food supply would fall short. Famine and social chaos seemed inevitable. 

John Perkins, Environmental Historian: Most of the good acres are already in cultivation. So you have to get more food from every acre you harvest. 

Narrator: American policymakers began pushing strategies to grow larger yields, in an effort to contain the looming crisis. For many people, India was the bellwether. “The future of mankind is now being ground out there,” a witness told Congress. “If no solution is found, all the world will live as India does now.” In 1966, that was a terrifying prospect.


Announcer: Even in good years, millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition. This year, seventy million lives may be in peril, in the worst drought in India’s history as an independent nation.

Announcer: One third of Bihar has been declared as famine area.  Water is a major problem. Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi:

Indira Gandhi: All of us must come together to alleviate the agony of millions of our stricken people. 

Prakash Kumar, Historian: I was born in 1966 in the state of Bihar, when my state was passing through this famine. That famine was real and it led to death.

Narrator: “During those terrible days,” Borlaug wrote, “I saw miserable homeless kids pleading for scraps of bread. Each morning trucks circled the streets, picking up corpses. That’s when my patience ran out.” Borlaug’s frustration boiled over in a meeting with one of their leading Indian opponents. 

George Varughese, Agronomist: Ashok Mehta, the head of the Planning Commission, determines the priorities, where to allocate the money, how the policies are set. He was person who was holding back. 
Charles C. Mann, Biographer: Borlaug barges into the guy's office and explodes. 

Narrator: “Unless the policy is changed soon,” Borlaug shouted, “farmers will riot and social and political disorder will spread across the countryside…and you personally will be to blame!” 

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: He's red-faced, he's slamming the table, yelling and screaming at a high Indian government official who has never met him before.

Narrator: Borlaug’s tirade went hand-in-hand with a harsh new American policy. By the summer of 1966 the United States’ wheat surplus was dwindling. President Lyndon Johnson, anxious to force the pace of agricultural reform in India, shut down the food pipeline at the height of the drought. “He was toying with people’s lives,” Borlaug wrote. “But,” he added, “what he was attempting was just what was needed.” Few Indians saw it that way.
Raj Patel, Writer: That moment of understanding that your food supply in your country was hostage to whether you did what the United States wanted to do or not was a moment of indelible national shame.

Narrator: Indians resolved to throw off this new colonialism. There were to be no more grain imports, the government declared, even if it meant that Indians would starve. In these new circumstances, Borlaug’s program took on a different aspect. It offered a path to Indian self-sufficiency and independence, a goal that now outweighed worries about ecology and social equity. 
Not long after Borlaug’s showdown with Mehta, India announced a fundamental change in its agricultural policy. Fertilizer imports and factories, irrigation, price supports: everything was in place now. For years Borlaug had promised that he could save India. Now it was time to prove it. 

The Miracle

Nick Cullather, Historian: Fertilizer had been distributed around the country. The test plots had been stretched out to almost a million acres. And the rains cooperated. 

Narrator: By the time Borlaug and Swaminathan headed into the countryside in the spring of 1968, the atmosphere was electric. 

Nick Cullather, Historian: Reports began to arrive in New Delhi of grain silos that were being overwhelmed. Railroad depots were stacking grain on the tracks because there was no place else to put it.

Noel Vietmeyer, Agronomist: They closed the schools and filled the school rooms with the sacks of grain. There was food everywhere. There was grain everywhere.

Narrator: “Punjabi towns were buried in wheat,” Borlaug wrote, “There weren’t bags to hold the grain, carts to haul away the bags, bullocks to pull the carts, or trucks and trains to haul it all away.” When it was all done and counted, the 1968 harvest was almost one and a half times larger than the previous record. It marked the beginning of a movement that would change the face of the world. Soon afterward, an American diplomat gave that movement a name, and an ideology.

Nick Cullather, Historian: The term Green Revolution was meant to contrast this program, which was now seen as a tremendous global success, with the Red Revolution which was at that time sweeping the world and particularly in Asia. 

Prakash Kumar, Historian: At the end of the day the Green Revolution was ideological in nature. Borlaug represented American faith in agricultural capitalism.

Nobel Prize

Narrator: By 1970 the impact of Borlaug’s work was being felt around the world. Variants of his wheat produced record-breaking harvests in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. With the help of the State Department and the World Bank, Green Revolution techniques were spreading around the world. Borlaug’s research had inspired programs that developed high yield rice, maize and other crops. Those higher yields had largely banished the specter of global famine. After years of apocalyptic forecasts, it seemed almost miraculous, and Borlaug had been at the center of it. Still, he had no idea what to expect when strangers started showing up at work one morning.

Reporter: Doctor, a few hours ago you were informed that you had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Why do you think you won it?

Norman Borlaug: Well Mr. White, I suppose it had something to do with the Green Revolution…

Walter Cronkite: The 1970 Nobel Peace prize was awarded today to Doctor Norman Ernest Borlaug...

Anchor: His efforts are credited with saving millions of persons from malnutrition and starvation. 

Narrator: Overnight, Borlaug’s life became a whirlwind. Everywhere he was revered for having saved the world from disaster. But Borlaug remained deeply apprehensive, sure that he had only delayed mankind’s reckoning.

Norman Borlaug: We are making progress at the present time. We can't relax. We must continue. 

Norman Borlaug: The Green Revolution has bought twenty to twenty-five years. The world can support so many individuals, at a certain population level. 

Norman Borlaug: I think we might be able to cope and buy twenty to thirty years of time.

Nick Cullather, Historian: He believed he had bought time for the world to deal with the population problem and to bring it under control.


Narrator: Borlaug had warned that the Green Revolution was just a delaying action, a fix that bought twenty or thirty years. But by the turn of the century those decades had passed, the population was still growing, and the Green Revolution was deeply entrenched around the world. 

John Perkins, Environmental Historian: The revolution happened and the revolution became the standard operating procedure. It really doesn't matter which country you're in. And it would be very hard to feed the human population at seven billion and still growing without Green Revolution technology.

Narrator: Borlaug was still lionized, but the legacy of the Green Revolution was becoming ever more troubled.

Charles C. Mann, Biographer: What the Green Revolution did was increase the global food supply, by a lot. But that was accomplished in tremendous social and environmental costs. 

Prakash Kumar, Historian: There is no doubt that the Green Revolution resolved the question of food scarcity in India. But in parts of India the impact can be seen in the degradation of soil, in the reduction of water table, a broken agrarian community, a broken society. 

John Perkins, Environmental Historian: After the Green Revolution most people ended up living in cities. People were not needed in the rural areas. There was nothing for them to do. 

Tore Olson, Historian: Not only does much of Mexico come to be soaked in toxic chemicals, we see this massive outmigration of Mexican farmers out of the countryside and into cities. Millions of Mexicans who've chosen to emigrate to the United States in the last thirty, forty years or so are former campesino farmers.  

Narrator: Most disturbing of all, no matter how much food the Green Revolution created, hunger remained. 

Norman Borlaug: It's particularly frustrating to me that there are still 700 million people approximately who are short of food. We have at least two different aspects of these this food problem. One is to produce enough and the second is the problem of poverty and lack of purchasing power for a large part of the world's population. 

Tore Olsson, Historian: The problem is not a lack of food. It is about inequality and class and poverty.

Narrator: Norman Borlaug died in the fall of 2009. To the end he remained outspoken, stubborn, selfless, and obsessed by his war on hunger. Over the course of his life, he rarely reflected on his place in history. But once, not long after he won the Nobel Prize, Borlaug visited his ancestral homestead in Norway, where he wandered alone, contemplating his role in what he called “the great sweep of human events.” “Lurking in the edges of my consciousness,” he recalled, “I could see the point at which an over-burgeoning humanity becomes too much for Mother Earth to bear.” In fact, Borlaug allowed the earth to feed far more people than had been thought possible. But there would be no final victory in his war on hunger; it endures as a consequence not of want, but of human nature. 


Rob Rapley headshot
Rob Rapley

Director, Producer
Rob Rapley has written, produced and directed a number of films for American Experience,  including, most recently, The Secret of Tuxedo Park, episode three of The Great War and Murder of a President. His three previous films for the series — The Poisoner’s Handbook, The Abolitionists and Wyatt Earp — received two Emmy nominations, a Writers Guild Award, a Writers Guild Award nomination, a Western Heritage Award and a Western Writers of America Award. Rapley also produced The Greely Expedition, Buffalo Bill, Trail of Tears and two episodes of the acclaimed PBS series on the Supreme Court. He was previously nominated for Emmy Awards for his work on Bill Moyers’ Becoming American: The Chinese Experience and Loosely Mozart: The New Innovators of Classical Music.

Susan Bellows headshot
Susan Bellows

Acting Executive Producer
Susan Bellows is an award-winning producer and writer with more than 20 years of experience producing national programs for public television. Bellows has been a leading editorial force for American Experience’s broadcast and digital content since joining the series in 2003. She is the producer and director of the Primetime Emmy Award-winning JFK, which premiered on American Experience in 2013, and writer, director and producer for The Bombing of Wall Street, which premiered on the series in 2018. Previously, Bellows served as senior producer for the Peabody and Emmy-Award winning series Africans in America. Her other producing credits include films for The Great Depression, for which she received an Emmy nomination, and America’s War on Poverty, both productions of Blackside, Inc. Bellows also co-produced New Worlds, New Forms for the WNET-produced series Dancing, an eight-hour landmark series on dance forms around the world.

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