Norman Borlaug inspires biotech-based second ‘Green Revolution’

| | September 15, 2014
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

If Norman Ernest Borlaug were a Roman Catholic, he could be declared a saint immediately. The Church begins the canonisation process five years after the death of the candidate and requires the person be credited with at least two miracles, one of which must have occurred after death.

Borlaug died at the age of 95 on September 12, 2009. By common consent, he is thought to have saved over a billion lives through his intercession with Mother Nature, the non-believer’s equivalent of the Supreme Being.

I have recounted Borlaug’s monumental contribution to what we now call the Green Revolution and its antecedents in these columns earlier (“Gene revolution, the antecedents,” January 22, 2013). To recapitulate briefly, Borlaug went to Mexico in 1944 to help fight hunger. He bred dwarf wheat plants that diverted their bio-energy from vegetative growth (tall plants with long leaves) to reproductive growth with higher grain yield, were disease resistant and flourished when the nutrient depleted soils were given chemical fertilisers.

This process took over 15 years and by the early 1960s, the Mexican wheat yield had increased six-fold!

He came to India in 1966 at the invitation of the government, after the horrendous droughts of 1965 and 1966, when we led a ship-to-mouth existence on PL 480 wheat gifted by the United States. He had brought Mexican wheat seeds with him and replicated the Mexican success. By 1967, there was a turnaround and 1968 showed a jump of 50 percent in our wheat production to reach 16 million tons (today we produce nearly six times as much on twice the acreage). We would have been a basket case otherwise. There could be no greater recognition of Borlaug’s contribution than the Nobel Prize for Peace he received in 1970.

Its stellar success notwithstanding, the Green Revolution has been the subject of intense criticism. The leading antagonist is Vandana Shiva, who has a Ph D in philosophy, but insists that she is an experienced scientist. She has mounted what amounts to a crusade against modern technology-based agriculture, especially that which includes gene-modified (GM) varieties. 

There is no denying the gravity of the problem of feeding 10 billion people and their aspirational requirements in the next 50 years from the same or diminishing area available with weather uncertainties caused by global warming. 

Related article:  Viewpoint: Vandana Shiva, false prophet for profit

Read the full, original article: Tribute to a saint who did miracle with wheat

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