Green Revolutionary Norman Borlaug Dies

Nobel Prize-winner Norman Borlaug has died at the age of 95 at his home in Dallas, Texas. Borlaug was known as the father of the "green revolution." Independent radio producer Dan Charles has this obit.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Norman Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution, died last night at his home in Dallas. He was 95 years old. Borlaug was an agricultural scientist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work fighting famine in third-world nations.

NPR's Dan Charles has this remembrance.

DAN CHARLES: When Norman Borlaug was a teenager in Cresco, Iowa, he was a star wrestler. He kept that same tenacity and combativeness throughout his life. He studied agricultural science. And when he was 30, he accepted an offer from the Rockefeller Foundation and moved to a small research station in Mexico. He was assigned to breed better varieties of wheat. Clarence Peterson(ph), a fellow wheat breeder from Washington State University, occasionally visited him there.

Mr. CLARENCE PETERSON: He always went out to the farm to start working at about 4:30 in the morning. And if you wanted to talk to Dr. Borlaug, that's when you went with him. That was it. Boy, he worked probably 10, 12 hours a day every day while he was in Mexico.

CHARLES: The key to his biggest breakthrough came from Japan - a kind of wheat with a very short stalk. Other wheat breeders were experimenting with offspring from this dwarf wheat and getting encouraging results.

Mr. PETERSON: It turned out that the wheat that they brought in from Japan not only shortened the stature of the wheats, but greatly increased production.

CHARLES: Borlaug used that line of wheat and many others. He worked on a large scale and he worked fast, doubling the pace of his breeding program by continuing work through the winter in a separate warm-weather location. Borlaug then took his new varieties out to villages across Mexico. In a 1974 interview with the public radio show Options, Borlaug explained that it was the only way to persuade a farmer to plant the new seed.

Dr. NORMAN BORLAUG: He won't do this if it's done an experiment station, a government experiment station, because he can't tell how much science and technology went into that and how much witchcraft. But if it's done on his own land, if he participates in putting in this demonstration, if you provoke this big increase in yield, he's very receptive.

CHARLES: The Borlaug method succeeded in Mexico. And in the 1960s, with the support of the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, he took his campaign to India and other parts of Asia. Again, wheat breeder Clarence Peterson.

Mr. PETERSON: He was very persuasive. He was more involved in politics, almost, than he was in agriculture when he went to these countries. But what he did is he went to the people over in charge of agriculture in India and convinced them to take(ph) a complete package - not only the wheats, but fertilizer and improve everything in their production.

CHARLES: That combination: high-yielding seeds, fertilizer, expanded irrigation and government subsidies, produced the green revolution. Production boomed. Similar advances happened with rice farming. And instead of mass famines in south Asia, as many had predicted, the region became self-sufficient in wheat and rice. In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the decades since, his work has come in for criticism. Some say the green revolution made rich farmers richer and left poorer farmers behind. In some areas, heavy use of agricultural chemicals has harmed the environment.

Borlaug, meanwhile, turned his attention to Africa and found it difficult to achieve success there. In a 1997 interview at member station WAMU, Borlaug said thousands of trials in farmers' fields all across the continent had shown how to double, even triple, farmers' production.

Dr. BORLAUG: So the potential's there, but you can't eat potential. The transport system is miserable. We have to bring in fertilizer. And as soon as you get these little farms producing, there has to be better transport to move the excess green to the cities of those countries where there are food shortages.

CHARLES: Even as he got older, Borlaug never ended his campaign for expanded agriculture in the poorest parts of the world.

Dr. BORLAUG: I am hopeful that I will live to see - and it's got to happen fairly soon because I'm 83 - I want to see this happen in Africa like I saw it happen in India, Pakistan, Turkey.

CHARLES: Borlaug never saw that happen, but he did live to see a fresh wave of interest in African agriculture.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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