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Norman Borlaug dies at 95; started 'Green Revolution' and won Nobel Peace Prize
Borlaug created a system of plant breeding and crop management in the 1940s that created huge harvests. The system was a huge success and was exported to countries around the world. Norman Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution" who is widely credited with saving more than a billion lives by breeding wheat, rice and other crops that brought agricultural self-sufficiency to developing countries around the world, died Saturday in Texas, a Texas A&M University spokeswoman said. He was 95.
Borlaug died at his home in Dallas from complications of cancer. Borlaug was one of only five people in history to score the trifecta of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal -- placing him in the company of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel. He was also named by Time magazine in 1999 as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century.
That influence showed itself in earnest while Borlaug was working in Mexico in the 1940s where he created a system of plant breeding and crop management that became the basis for the Green Revolution. The system was a huge success and was exported to countries around the world.
In 1960, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, largely as a result of Borlaug's pioneering techniques, it was producing 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people -- using only 1% more land.
On the occasion of Borlaug's 90th birthday, former President Jimmy Carter said that he "has been demonstrating practical ways to give people of the entire world a higher quality of life. . . . He is a true humanitarian."
Added former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), Borlaug's "scientific leadership not only saved people from starvation, but the high-yield seeds he bred saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed down. He is one of the great men of our age."
Ever since 19th century British economist Thomas Malthus first predicted that the world's population would eventually outstrip its capacity for growing food, prophets of doom had envisioned catastrophe right around the corner.
Such a disaster was actually quite close beginning in the late 1930s. Between 1939 and 1942, Mexico's wheat harvest had been halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, causing the grain to shrivel. India, Pakistan, China and a host of other countries were also facing the prospect of widespread starvation.
Alarmed by how food shortages might impact the war effort, the Rockefeller Foundation -- largely at the instigation of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace -- established the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. It later became known as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center or, by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT. Borlaug signed on in 1944 after finishing his wartime obligations to the chemical firm E.I. du Pont de Nemours.
Borlaug collected wheat strains from around the world and began cross-breeding them, a process he later recalled as "mind-warpingly tedious." To speed things up, he planted two crops per year, a summer crop in the low-quality, high-altitude soils near Mexico City and a winter crop hundreds of miles to the north in the low-lying Yaqui Valley.
This "shuttle breeding" was derided by experts at the time, who insisted that such experiments must be conducted at the same locations and times employed by local farmers to be useful.
Within five years, however, Borlaug had produced a strain that was resistant to rust, more productive than existing strains, and that grew in both climates when given adequate fertilizer and water.
But there was still one problem. Evolution had favored wheat strains with long, slender stalks that allowed the wheat to rise above the shade of nearby weeds. With the added weight of the extra grain, however, the stalks tended to collapse when irrigated or rained on, reducing yields.
After thousands of fruitless attempts to produce wheat with shorter stalks, Borlaug encountered a Japanese dwarf variety. After thousands more attempts, by 1954 he had succeeded in producing a short-stalked variety that was rust-resistant and high-yielding. And because the plant did not have to invest energy in producing long stalks, its yield was even higher than before.
Using the new strains, Mexico, which had imported 60% of its wheat in the early 1940s, became self-sufficient by 1956.
In 1954, a rust epidemic hit the American Midwest, destroying three-quarters of the durum wheat crop that was used for making pasta and accelerating use of the new strains in the United States. There has not been a similar outbreak since.
Using Borlaug's techniques, scientists at CIMMYT and elsewhere soon developed similar high-yield strains of rice and corn.
In the early 1960s, India and Pakistan were confronting famine and CIMMYT sent Borlaug to intervene. He planted demonstration plots of the new dwarf variety, but was unable to convince the state-owned seed companies to adopt them.
By 1965, however, famine in the region was so bad that the governments acquiesced. Borlaug organized a shipment of 35 truckloads of dwarf wheat seeds. Because of customs problems, the seeds couldn't be shipped from Mexico in time for planting, so he sent them to a port in Los Angeles.
U.S. customs officials held them up at the border before finally permitting them to cross. Then National Guard troops detoured them from Los Angeles because of the Watts riots. Finally, the $100,000 check drawn on the Pakistani ministry bounced because of three misspelled words on its face.
Ultimately, the cargo ship set sail for Karachi and Bombay and Borlaug went to bed relieved, only to wake the next morning to word that India and Pakistan had gone to war.
Because of the delays, the team had no time for germination studies and planting was started immediately, often in sight of artillery flashes. "We did a lot of praying," he later recalled.
 Despite the problems, the new crop was 98% bigger than the previous year's and the Asian subcontinent was placed on a new path. India ordered 18,000 tons of seed from Mexico and the harvest was so big that there was a shortage of labor to harvest it, too few bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor, and an insufficiency of jute bags, trucks, rail cars and storage facilities.
 By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in food production. India joined it in 1974.
Because of his efforts, Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Typically, on the morning the prize was announced, he had left home at 4 a.m. for the Mexican fields to check on his latest crop.
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born March 25, 1914, on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, in a portion of the state called "little Norway" because so many of its residents were immigrants from that country. His education began in a one-room schoolhouse.
After graduating from high school in the depths of the depression, he worked for 50 cents a day as a hired farm hand to earn enough money to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He put himself through school working in a coffee shop, parking cars, and serving meals in a sorority house. In summer, he worked for the U.S. Forestry Service.
He had planned to join the Forest Service upon receiving his degree in forestry in 1937, but shortly before he received a letter from his supervisor saying a shortage of funds precluded him starting for at least six months.
Coincidentally, he attended a lecture on wheat rust by plant pathologist Elvin Charles Stakman and was so impressed that he enrolled in the graduate program to work with Stakman, receiving his doctorate in plant pathology from Minnesota in 1942.
Along with his wife, the former Margaret G. Gibson, Borlaug is survived by daughter Jeanie Borlaug Laube; son William Gibson Borlaug; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
The family asked that instead of flowers, donations be sent to the Borlaug International Scholars Fund. Plans for a memorial service at Texas A&M were pending.