Sept. 13: Crop scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, an enduring icon for the war on hunger who had helped steer India away from recurrent famines towards self-sufficiency in food, died on Saturday.
Borlaug, whose research to improve wheat varieties, initiated in Mexico in 1945, led to the Green Revolution and helped save millions of people from starvation worldwide, died from cancer complications in Texas. He was 95.
M.S. Swaminathan, the Indian scientist who had taken the first steps to initiate Borlaugs lasting association with India 48 years ago, was today in a hotel in Blacksburg, Virginia, in transit to visit the ailing scientist for a final meeting on Wednesday.
A phone call from Ed Price, director of The Borlaug Institute, a little past 11pm on Saturday night conveyed Swaminathan the news of Borlaugs passing. We knew he was sinking, but I was hoping to meet him a last time, Swaminathan told The Telegraph.
He was the greatest hunger fighter of all time, said Swaminathan, who had in 1961 proposed to the government that it invite Borlaug to apply his ideas of developing high-yielding wheat varieties in India.
The country faced the threat of recurrent famines during the 1960s and pulled through with food aid brought in by ships. It was a ship-to-mouth existence, said Swaminathan, who was at the time a scientist in the genetics division at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).
But Borlaug, who arrived at the IARI, New Delhi, in 1963, helped India develop high-yielding and disease-resistant varieties of wheat that quickly doubled wheat productivity.
In Mexico, Borlaug had developed a dwarf variety with substantially increased grain yields. This trait was passed on to Indian wheat varieties and our yields began to rise, said Kailash Bansal, a plant biotechnologist at the IARI.
Scientists also applied the technology to rice and Indias grain production soared, allowing the nation to export grains. Wheat yields increased from 800kg per hectare in the 1960s to 2,800kg per hectare by the early 2000s. Rice yields have shown similar gains.
Borlaug, who received the Nobel in 1970 for his work to increase crop productivity among other honours including Padma Vibhushan in 2006, was born on a farm in Iowa where he spent his childhood attending a one-room school.
Borlaug failed his first attempt to enter the University of Minnesota where he was told his high school education had not prepared him properly in science and math, according to a statement issued today by The Borlaug Institute at the Texas A&M University where he had been based since 1984.
But that experience only made him work harder on his studies, the institute said.
He earned meals as a restaurant waiter, paid for tuition and books by saving money from summer jobs, and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a doctorate degree in plant physiology.
In later year, he spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslides and sometimes slept in tents, The New York Times said.
Borlaug realised technology alone wont get things done, said Swaminathan, who had over the decades developed a close relationship with Borlaug. He realised you need a synergy between technology and public policy. He tried to build and maintain contacts with political leaders, Swaminathan said. He had met Indian Prime Ministers and -- I was told -- just two days ago had a meeting with an African leader.
Borlaug had once described Swaminathan as one of Indias three Ss responsible for its Green Revolution, the other two being then agriculture minister C. Subramanaim and the then agriculture secretary Siva Raman. Borlaug's family has invited Swaminathan to be one of the key speakers at a celebration of Borlaugs life about four weeks from now.
But the Green Revolution has also demanded intensive use of fertilisers and water, prompting critics, including some agricultural scientists, to dub the movement environmentally unsustainable.
The critics have warned that the Green Revolution has contributed to a dangerous fall in the groundwater level across Indias northwestern states. In Punjab, scientists are asking farmers to consider other crops -- with little effect.
According to The New York Times, Borlaug responded that the real problem was not his agricultural techniques, but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary. He also felt that scepticism often came from elitists who were rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from. But over time, he acknowledged the validity of some environmental concerns, and embraced more judicious use of fertilisers and pesticides.
Borlaugs enthusiasm for crop science endured to his last days. IARIs Bansal recalled Borlaug urging him a few years ago to continue pursuing plant biotechnology to address the challenges of hunger and malnutrition in the country.
In March this year, Borlaug invited wheat experts from five continents at a conference in Mexico to caution that a virulent disease may threaten wheat plants worldwide. Research at the conference showed that a new form of stem rust that originated in Uganda in 1999 has spread across East Africa and is marching towards South Asia.
We should have no illusions -- a global food crisis is still a distinct possibility if governments and international institutions fail to support (a) rescue mission, Borlaug had told the assembled delegates. Stem rust never sleeps, neither do rust workers (plant scientists), he said, adding in jest, a few jet-lagged scientists in this audience may belie that statement.