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Lessons of Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

This week marks the end of the year-long celebration honoring the centenary of the birth of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, famed scientist and recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in fighting global hunger. His wheat breeding efforts launched the Green Revolution in the 1960s that is credited with saving a billion lives by improving agricultural productivity around the world, especially in Asia and Latin America.

What can we learn from Borlaug’s endeavors?

Both Dr. Borlaug’s career and the steps that led to the Green Revolution clearly point to the importance of engaging all potential players in the next stages of the critical struggle to bring food security to 805 million people around the world who are still hungry on a regular basis. From his birth on an Iowa farm in 1914 to his death in 2009, Dr. Borlaug’s achievements were aided by the institutions that nurtured his talents and gave him opportunities to put those talents to work.

That path started with his studies in plant pathology and genetics at a Land Grant school, the University of Minnesota. That was followed by his war-time work on chemicals at DuPont, his ground-breaking work in Mexico under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, and finally, his appointment in 1964 as director of a program that was part of the Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT ), associated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). All these positions were key to his accomplishments. Retiring from CIMMYT in 1979, Borlaug completed the circle by taking a position at another Land Grant school, Texas A&M University, while still consulting with CIMMYT and working with non-profit groups such as the Sasakawa Africa Foundation.

I was privileged to meet Dr. Borlaug in 2005 when he came to Capitol Hill to alert Congress to wheat stem rust (Ug-99), which at the time was spreading from Africa to other parts of the world. Since that meeting, U.S. researchers at Land Grant universities and USDA agencies have developed rust-resistant wheat varieties, now being distributed in Africa and Asia.

 As with Dr. Borlaug’s career, the Green Revolution itself would not have succeeded in expanding food production globally without both public and private-sector participation. In addition to the institutions that Borlaug worked for, resources to disseminate the new dwarf wheat varieties around Asia came from governments in the region—India and Pakistan, in particular—and the Ford Foundation. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) helped fund a cooperative in the 1960s to produce and distribute fertilizer in India, access to which was crucial in realizing the yield potential from dwarf wheat seeds. This entity was established in country by the U.S.-based International Cooperative Development Association, now ACDI/VOCA. That cooperative is still the largest fertilizer producer in India.

Research on new rice varieties utilizing Borlaug’s shuttle breeding techniques was undertaken by the International Rice Research Institute, another CGIAR center. The expansion of irrigated agriculture in Asia and Latin America, another piece of the Green Revolution puzzle, was enabled primarily through partnerships of national and local governments for surface water irrigation, and private-sector firms and individual farmers drilling groundwater wells for irrigation.

Unfortunately, the Green Revolution of the 1960s had little impact in Africa. FAO data show that average yields of African maize farmers between 2011-2013 were less than 40% of world averages, largely due to lack of access to improved inputs such as seed, fertilizer, pesticides and farm machinery. In major African countries such as Ghana and Rwanda, only 10%-20% of farmers have adopted improved seeds.

Private seed companies, both multinational and those based in Africa, will have to work with local research universities in order to develop improved seeds suited to local growing conditions. Kenya’s official strategy to expand distribution of seed and fertilizer will rely on a network of private agro-dealers to connect with farmers. Extension experts will need to spread information about improved farming practices, including those that enable better stewardship of the land. Once farmers achieve better yields, they will need access to commercial supply chains to market their crops. As in the 1960s, robust public-private partnerships must emerge for the next Green Revolution in Africa to succeed.

Stephanie Mercier Stephanie Mercier (
Farm Journal Foundation @samara333

View more posts by Stephanie Mercier

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.