“[T]he first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world."
Norman E. Borlaug, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1970
Norman E. Borlaug was a distinguished plant pathologist, humanitarian, and Nobel Prize winner who demonstrated a lifelong commitment to fighting world hunger. Borlaug's groundbreaking research and innovation in plant breeding was integral to staving off famine in Latin America and Asia in the post-World War II decades.
Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa, on March 25, 1914. He received his B.S. degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota in 1937. After a brief stint in the U.S. Forest Service, Borlaug returned to the university for graduate study in plant pathology, earning his Ph.D. in 1942. He then spent three years working as a microbiologist at the DuPont chemical company.
Borlaug joined the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in 1944 as a plant pathologist in the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP). As director of MAP's wheat improvement program, he focused on boosting wheat yields and eradicating the stem rust disease decimating Mexico's wheat crops. In 1945 Borlaug developed the shuttle breeding technique, which increased the speed at which new wheat varieties were bred and produced new strains that were adaptable to different climates and regions. In the early 1950s, Borlaug began crossbreeding wheat varieties to produce new semi-dwarf wheat that was higher-yielding and resistant to stem rust. These innovations helped Mexico become self-sufficient in wheat production by 1956.
In 1960, the RF established the Inter-American Food Crop Improvement Program, and Borlaug was named Director of the Wheat Improvement Project. When the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT, for Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo) was established in 1963, he headed the Center's International Wheat Improvement Program. Borlaug held this position until his retirement in 1979.
In the mid-1960s, the governments of India and Pakistan eagerly sought Borlaug's advice as population growth began outpacing food supplies. He convinced government leaders to import the high-yielding Mexican wheat seeds; once again, the plants dramatically increased wheat production and helped avert widespread famine.
In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee noted that “more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world." Borlaug received many other awards and honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), the National Medal of Science (2006), the Congressional Gold Medal (2007), and the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor (2006). Borlaug continued working long after his official retirement, serving as a consultant to CIMMYT and Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.
Norman E. Borlaug passed away in September 2009 at the age of 95. The Rockefeller Foundation Agricultural Program Oral History Interview with Borlaug can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center.