Norman E. Borlaug 1914-2009

Posted on September 14, 2009  Comments (1)

The Father Of the Green Revolution

Norman E. Borlaug, 95, an American plant pathologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for starting the “Green Revolution” that dramatically increased food production in developing nations and saved countless people from starvation, died Saturday at his home in Dallas.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in honoring him. “Dr. Borlaug has introduced a dynamic factor into our assessment of the future and its potential.”

In his lecture accepting the Nobel Prize, he said an adequate supply of food is “the first component of social justice. . . . Otherwise there will be no peace.”

In 1977, Dr. Borlaug received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the U.S. government.

Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey

As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera–that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man. Today’s modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire.

Durum wheat was OK for making flat Arab bread, but it didn’t have elastic gluten. The thing that makes modern wheat different from all of the other cereals is that it has two proteins that give it the doughy quality when it’s mixed with water. Durum wheats don’t have gluten, and that’s why we use them to make spaghetti today. The second cross of durum wheat with the other wild wheat produced a wheat whose dough could be fermented with yeast to produce a big loaf. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.

I see no difference between the varieties carrying a BT gene or a herbicide resistance gene, or other genes that will come to be incorporated, and the varieties created by conventional plant breeding. I think the activists have blown the health risks of biotech all out of proportion.

the data that’s put out by the World Health Organization and [the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization], there are probably 800 million people who are undernourished in the world. So there’s still a lot of work to do.

I am a bit more cautious about supporting genetic engineering in our food supply but I agree with him that we need to remain focused on the lives of hundreds of millions of hungry people (which is far too often ignored). I am worried about the risks to the environment and human health. I am also worried about the concentration of food plants in a greatly reduced genetic varieties that are more productive in general but increase the risks of massive food failures (due to limited genetic varieties).

Related: 20 Scientists Who Have Helped Shape Our World2004 Medal of Science WinnersForgotten Benefactor of HumanityFive Scientists Who Made the Modern WorldWheat Rust ResearchNorman Borlaug and Wheat Stem Rust

One Response to “Norman E. Borlaug 1914-2009”

  1. Anonymous
    September 22nd, 2009 @ 5:09 am

    I am also worried about the concentration of food plants in a greatly reduced genetic varieties that are more productive in general but increase the risks of massive food failures

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