Editor’s Note: The dialogue and descriptions in this article are fictional; they reflect an imaginary, hypothetical interview with Norman Borlaug taking place in 1970. However, the events mentioned are all historically accurate.
For Norman Borlaug—or “Norm,” as he insists on being called—the potted tulips are much more than sweet-smelling decorations. His whole house, it seems, is filled with the spirit of being outdoors, from the cherry wood floors to the gardening tools strewn all over the front porch.
Remarkably, Norm lives a relatively minimal life for a person of his status. He lives in a small home in Mexico City with his wife, son, and daughter, and not much else. “I don’t care about getting attention; all I did was my job—planting and harvesting and experimenting with wheat.”
Since his birth in 1914, Norm lived on his family’s 106-acre farm and attended a one-room rural school. In 1933, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, and eventually transferred into the forestry program. Finally, he studied plant pathology and received a Ph. D in plant pathology and genetics in 1942.
The “job” Norm is referring to is his days working in the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. In 1945, he was asked by the Rockefeller Foundation to research stem rust in wheat plants in Mexico. Stem rust is a disease affecting wheat plants that had cut potential crop yields by up to 50% and had been troubling Mexican farmers for several years.
Despite not knowing anything about wheat or diseases, Norm hopped into his SUV, crammed in food and supplies, and drove across the border for what he thought would be a quick look at the diseased plants, a professional recommendation, and then a swift exit. Little did Norm know that he would be staying there for the next 20 years.
Norm tells me that he was inspired to go to Mexico because of his childhood. “My family lived on a farm and grew up hungry. On the worst of days, in winter, I could only get one meal per day.” But one person believed there was hope for change. “It was Granddad who most influenced my young life. No one else saw any prospect of change. But if he saw a better world ahead, I had to make myself worthy to meet it.”
Leaning back in his reclining chair, Norm casually glances at a car maneuvering through the busy Mexico City traffic. He reflects wistfully on the old days of his work, pulling weeds from the fields and cross-breeding seeds by hand.
The Wheat Breeder—1945
In Mexico, Norm had crossbred different species of wheat in hopes that they would produce stem-rust-resistant varieties and would create good bread. He first planted an assortment of Mexican wheat seeds and immersed them in stem rust, analyzing which plants stayed strong and did not fall victim to the disease. Then, he took the seeds of the surviving plants and crossbred them with other seeds to try to form highly resistant wheat varieties. He found five desirable varieties, which he named Kentana 48, Yaqui 48, Lerma 52, and Chapingo 52 and 53 (named according to the year they were created; Lerma 52 was harvested in 1952).
These varieties of wheat seemed perfect to Norm. They were unaffected by stem rust and produced delicious bread.
Norm thought his job was done at this point. “‘What more was there to do?’, I thought.” says Norm. “I didn’t realize that my work was just beginning.”
Norman Borlaug in Mexico, 1970. (LIFE Magazine)
Then, Norm thought it was time to show off his wheat to the public. He hoped to distribute seeds to several Mexican farmers in order to develop some rapport with the community.
To do this, Norm hosted an event showcasing his wheat seeds and how farmers should use them. He put up several flyers in town announcing “FARMER FIELD DAY” in bold letters, asking to visit his farm, inspect his wheat, and take a few samples back to try. Originally, most farmers were hesitant to come as they thought it was a waste of time, and they didn’t trust the American genetic scientist. To get an audience to come, Norm had to advertise that there would be “free beer and barbecue.”
Despite his efforts, there was a lack of audience to the event. “Three farmers had come for the beer, and one person genuinely wanted to learn.”
During the event, the four attendees contested every statement Norm made about how his wheats were better than theirs. “Their harsh words, which mainly reflected prejudice against Americans, undermined the audience’s confidence. At the end when I called for questions no one spoke up. Not one of the 25 wanted any of the seed packages, either . . . they just wanted the beer and barbecue.”
The next year, Norm reasoned with Mexican agricultural leaders who had influence over the farmers. These leaders spread the word about Norm’s successful seeds, and the Sonora community learned about how they could improve their crop yields according to the American scientist’s advice. The next time Norm hosted Farmer Field Day, almost 200 farmers showed up. “Moreover, they treated me with respect and asked me thoughtful questions.”
India: From Famine to Surplus (Our Daily Bread; The Essential Norman Borlaug)
“Eventually, the Farmer Field Days became my favorite days of the year—the turnout just kept increasing. For the first time, I felt that I was being respected as a foreigner and that I had support from a vast group of people.”
But Norm’s work was yet to be finished. The United Nations, specifically the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) asked him if he could ship his seeds, now internationally famous, to nations spanning between Morocco to India (some of which were nearly facing starvation).
Beyond the Americas—1963
“At this point, I was overjoyed. My life was finally turning around, and I was ready to cordially engage with scientists from around the world who would respect me.” Norm was to lead a convention with representatives of 14 countries across Africa and Asia to teach them about western agricultural practices and his research on stem rust and help distribute his developed wheat seeds to these countries. Most accepted his research gratefully and ordered seeds, eager to develop scientifically. However, there were two nations who rejected Norm’s research, namely India and Pakistan.
In both of these countries, politicians were the root of the problem. “Anwar Hussain, the Pakistan institute director, planted both Mexico’s and Pakistan’s wheat in two separate fields for comparison. He found that Pakistan’s wheat grew beautifully compared to Mexico’s, which I saw with my own eyes. But there was something wrong.” Norm found that the tests were biased; the Mexican wheats had not been weeded and fertilized when grown properly. He discovered this discrepancy, apparently intentional, from the person in command of the test fields. Showing this new evidence to the Pakistani board, Norm was able to bring Pakistani leaders onto his side and convinced them to order his wheat. Additionally, the Indian agricultural board had been skeptical of Norm’s wheat varieties, but they quickly accepted them and followed suit with Pakistan after they saw the results of Hussain’s study.
Norm’s Seed vs. Pakistani Seed. (Data from Our Daily Bread; The Essential Norman Borlaug)
India reacted in a positive way to Pakistan’s success with the wheat. Once Pakistan accepted Norm’s varieties, so did India. Both eventually ordered massive shipments of seed for their farmers, so much that Mexican farmers had difficulty growing enough seed for the order.
Finally, Norm’s job had been done, although his work would continue to expand. Breeding with abnormally short Japanese varieties, a side project attempting to create dwarf wheat, turned out to be successful and researchers were able to create wheat that was resistant to wind and extreme weather conditions.
In 1970, Norm was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing the world together in terms of food security. He brought countries out of famine and is said to have saved one billion people from starvation.
For this Thanksgiving, I give thanks to Norman Borlaug, the scientist who helped put food on my plate. Not only did he create a more resilient variety of wheat, but he also sparked a revolution in agriculture and the field of plant genetics that is inspiring farmers and people around the world.
“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” – Norman Borlaug