Feeding the World: Dr. Borlaug’s Legacy

November is known for its cool weather, delicious food, and time spent giving thanks for life’s cherished moments. Across the world, many people are thankful for a man that, through his wheat-breeding research, saved more lives than anyone else in the history of mankind. Dr. Norman E. Borlaug is known as the father of the Green Revolution, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University and is the namesake of The Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.

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Photo courtesy of The Borlaug Institute.

Known for his humanitarianism, Dr. Borlaug combined his scientific knowledge with his drive to help people, making his life mission to develop improved grain varieties to feed the hungry people of the world. Still today his legacy serves as an inspiration to young, passionate innovators who want to make a difference in the world.

Dr. Borlaug’s Legacy

Shortly after earning his doctorate in 1942, Dr. Borlaug found himself working for the Mexican Agricultural Program developing what would be the revolutionary shuttle-breeding process. This innovative process allowed for two generations of wheat to be grown each year, instead of the traditional one generation, cutting breeding time in half. While in Mexico, Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues also perfected a dwarf wheat variety that could produce large amounts of grain, resist diseases, and resist lodging – the bending and breaking of the stalk that often occurs in high-yielding grains. It was through these innovations in research that Dr. Borlaug aided in feeding millions worldwide.

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Dr. Norman Borlaug takes notes on his wheat research. Photo courtesy of The Borlaug Institute.

Julie Borlaug, the granddaughter of Dr. Borlaug and the associate director of external relations at the Borlaug Institute, said, “Most people don’t realize that my grandfather’s breakthrough in shuttle-breeding occurred when he was in his 30’s. This research was radical and out-of-the-box, and many people questioned him.” It’s for these reasons that Julie encourages students to adopt her grandfather’s mindset. “You’re never too young to make a breakthrough. It just takes believing in yourself, ignoring the critics, and pushing forward. ”

In 1964, Dr. Borlaug was appointed director of the Wheat Research and Production Program at the then newly established International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. This position allowed him to expand his teaching mission, as he shared his knowledge with thousands of young scientists. “My grandfather focused on talking to, training, and investing in the young scientists, researchers and farmers,” Julie Borlaug said. “His guiding philosophy was ‘take it to the farmer’ and he truly believed everything started by going to the field.”

Dr. Borlaug came to Texas A&M University in 1984 as Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture. At A&M, Dr. Borlaug continued to teach and inspire the next generation of leaders in research.

Current Wheat Research

When asked how he became a successful wheat breeder, Dr. Borlaug replied, “Well, you go to the field. You go to the field again, and then you go to the field. When the wheat plants start to talk to you, you know you have made it.” It is with this philosophy that the wheat and small grains program at Texas A&M University has continued Dr. Borlaug’s legacy and has become one of the best in the world.

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Dr. Amir Ibrahim continues Dr. Borlaug’s legacy as he inspects his wheat fields. Photo courtesy of Sean Thompson.

Spanning across the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Texas A&M AgriLife Research, the wheat and small grains program includes breeders, geneticists, cereal chemists, pathologists, physiologist, entomologists and economists. It is with this large team of researchers that Texas A&M boasts the development of 10 varieties of wheat in the past 10 years that are planted on more than four million acres.

TAM 111, the most popular of the wheat varieties, is the most widely grown hard red winter variety, holding the top spot in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska. “There is more TAM wheat grown in the U.S. than from any other breeding program,” Dr. Jackie Rudd, professor in the department of soil and crop sciences, said. “If you eat bread then you are likely eating wheat bred in Texas.”

It takes 12 to 14 years to develop a variety of wheat, but the process is continuous and leads to the release of a new wheat variety about every two years. In developing a wheat variety, everything from disease resistance to what foods it will be most suited for is focused on in development process. “For instance, we are excited about our work on synthetic and identity preserved flat bread wheat,” said Dr. Amir M. Ibrahim, professor and small grains breeder and geneticists at Texas A&M. “We are also excited about our work on drought and heat tolerance as well as rust resistance.”

borlaug-logoBorlaug 100

More than ever before, humanity must find solutions to meet the grand challenges of global hunger and poverty. To recognize what would have been Dr. Borlaug’s 100th birthday, the Borlaug Institute has developed the Borlaug 100 initiative that is aimed at ensuring generations of future leaders realize their full potential with financially unimpeded access to the best training and education possible. The Borlaug 100 will support the Borlaug International Scholars Fund, international field internships, and the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute.

While giving thanks this holiday season, stop a minute to remember those, such as Dr. Borlaug, that dedicated their life’s work to feeding the world.

 

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