“The Basic Scientific Problems that Call Upon People”: An Interview with Norman Borlaug (20 April 2009)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dr. Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914—September 12, 2009) was an American biologist, humanitarian, and Nobel Laureate who dedicated his life towards developing semi-dwarf, disease-resistant, and high-yield wheat varieties. Referred to as the “father of the Green Revolution,” Borlaug led the introduction of these wheat strains in Mexico, Pakistan, and India during the mid-20th century—saving billions of people from starvation. His work eventually led to a directorship at the International Wheat Improvement Program, and later the Eugene Butler Endowed Chair in Agricultural Biotechnology at Texas A&M University. He is one of seven people in American history to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, President Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal.

In order to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Borlaug, the Yale Review of International Studies has published the following interview—which was conducted a few months prior to Dr. Borlaug’s passing in 2009.

AT: It’s a great honor to be able to speak with you today, Dr. Borlaug. We heard from Ed Runge [a Texas A&M professor and your colleague since 1984] about a rust epidemic in Uganda. Could you update us on the situation?

NB: Well, this race of rust in Uganda is capable of stacking most of the commercial wheat varieties that are grown in South Asia and the Middle East. As a matter of fact, our own varieties are susceptible to it also. So before you have serious epidemics, you have to have certain conditions early in the process of the crop so that there’s a lot of inoculum to set an intensive epidemic. So just because the varieties are susceptible, if the environment, the distribution of the rainfall and the temperature are not correct, you may escape a serious epidemic for several years because of the environmental issues. And that’s essentially the situation and the way it is in South Asia and most of the U.S. and Australia, and South America at the present time. The reports that a recent event made available by the International Rust Laboratories in Australia and the U.S. indicate that the current crop is a good one and there are no serious losses, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be serious losses in the next few years. And so the new varieties, which are resistant to these new races have to be multiplied and distributed, and that’s no small job. It takes three years to multiply the seed. Once you’re sure that it’s resistant, you need to cover the area now covered by susceptible varieties. So there’s a big job ahead.

AT: In our research into your work, we came across the Borlaug hypothesis. Could you explain the concept?

NB: Well the hypothesis is that there is continuing development of new strains, largely by two means: mutations, or by crossing previous races between two or more of the previous races – and that’s a complicated thing. Crops have to grow through a third host. But both of those avenues make it very difficult to have long time resistance to all the races in a given region.

AT: Dr. Borlaug, you also speak a lot on education – what would be your main points in educating the public on the issue of world hunger?

NB: Well, on education, you’ve got one main problem: you’ve got to convince political leaders that you have the funds to cover the additional work that’s required – and not just the research work to build and test new varieties for resistance – but also to demonstrate the value of these new varieties. And that takes money. But you can’t get the money up unless you can convince the political leaders of the country to put up money for the multiplication of new varieties.

AT: What is the greatest challenge facing Africa besides the rust wheat problem?

NB: Well I would say it’s the lack of trained people in third world countries, because without trained scientists, you can’t develop these new wheat varieties with high yield, adaptation, and resistance to the old varieties. Doing so doesn’t only take money and time; it takes people committed to that cause.

AT: What do you consider to be your greatest legacy?

NB: Well I guess it would be the international testing and training program that I have been advocating for more than two decades. There are all kinds of people committed to these programs, and through them we see that basic scientific problems call upon people regardless of political ideology, and we see that regardless of whether a country is communistic or a meritocratic dictatorship or a democracy, folks are willing to devote their time.

AT: How can young people who are inspired by your work get involved in the fight against world hunger?

NB: When I came into the picture, at that time, back in the early ‘60s, there were a few very influential groups that had seemingly been convincing the world that the problem on the food front from alleviating hunger and human misery, was beyond control – that the population was already too great. And if it didn’t continue to grow, just to feed the numbers that were already on the planet Earth would soon lead to complete disaster of hunger and death. And of course I didn’t believe that, and so I battled and I said we had the technology, and I’ve been involved in developing part of it for Asia and Latin America and I spent a lot of my effort during the ‘60s battling all of this negative propaganda. The Population Monster was one of the books that was hard to undermine and contest because it had convinced so many political leaders that things were controlled. But look what happened. When I got things going, that not only solved the problem in India and Pakistan, but later China and much of Latin America. So to the young people, I say: invest soundly in research, and the research is only one aspect. Then you’ve got to demonstrate the value of that research on farms. And third, you’ve got to get economic policies on availability of the right kind of fertilizer at reasonable prices distributed throughout the countries where the food problem is critical.

If you are looking to go into action, I would also recommend that you consult your own Director of Extension of your Department of Agriculture to put you in contact with the best sources of information.

AT: Thank you very much, and I hope you get well soon.

NB: Thank you – the best of luck to you. When you’re 95 years of age you can’t do the things you could when you were 65, but I want to do what I can to be useful.


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