Q&A: Remembering the Father of the Green Revolution

Q&A: Remembering the Father of the Green Revolution

January 5, 2015
Food Security 

2014 marked 100 years since the birth of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the American plant breeder, humanitarian and Nobel laureate known as “the father of the Green Revolution”. We spoke to Dr. Borlaug’s granddaughter Julie Borlaug about his life and legacy and how the momentous year was celebrated.

How did you mark Dr. Norman Borlaug’s centennial year?

I was fortunate to be able to attend many of the events that were held worldwide in honor of my grandfather’s centennial. There were celebrations in Mexico, where he developed his high yielding wheat varieties, then to India, Pakistan, Uganda, Argentina and across the U.S. There were statues unveiled, conferences in his name and even a wheat beer brewed for the World Food Prize centennial celebration called the Borlauger – he certainly would have laughed and enjoyed that honor.

Looking back, what motivated your grandfather to take up the fight against hunger?

It started when he saw breadlines during the Great Depression in the 1930s. I don’t think he could quite believe that people were going hungry in the United States – one of the world’s richest countries. He thought if it was bad in the U.S. what must it be like in Africa and Asia? His motivation came from that – it was not for personal glory, but he wanted to do all that he could to make sure people did not go hungry.

What personal qualities suited him to this role?

He had this drive to never see a child starve, and he was determined not to fail. He would always say that his competitive spirit came from his days as a wrestler. He said the sport taught him discipline, respect and drive.

He is credited with doubling wheat yields in Mexico, India and Pakistan and has been called “the man that saved a billion lives.” What would you say was his greatest achievement?

He was honored to receive medals and the accolades, but his greatest achievement was his humanitarian work. He had seen hunger and the suffering it caused, and he was determined to do whatever he could to end it.

What was his approach to fighting hunger?

It wasn’t just about breeding improved seeds and using inputs. He realized the politics and the economics must be right to make any technology succeed, and that is what made the Green Revolution work. I think another important aspect was the time he gave to young farmers and scientists to listen to them and give them his insights. He wanted to equip the next generation with the tools to succeed.

Do you think he had any regrets?  

Just before he died he said he had a problem – Africa. His personal mantra was “adequate food for all mankind,” and he thought he had failed Africa by never taking the Green Revolution there.

Was he optimistic that hunger in Africa could be solved in the future?

He said there was no reason to be pessimistic because we have the science and technology to succeed. He was very pleased that some big voices, such as Bill Gates, were pushing technology, including genetically modified plants, and that more attention was being paid to scientific solutions. He was very excited by drought tolerant plant traits, for example, but he also could not believe that available technologies such as Golden Rice were being held up by politics while millions of children in Asia were going blind.

What would be his vision for the next 100 years?

My grandfather’s final words, before he passed, were “take it to the farmers” and we have used that as a theme through 2014 to take improved technology to farmers. And I have actually added to it because I think we also need to “take it to the public.” We have a great message about the need of innovation in agriculture, especially in plant technology, but we need to share it with the public. He would be have been embarrassed by all the celebrations that took place in 2014, but he would be happy that we are using the opportunity to highlight these issues.