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Norman Borlaug
Norman Borlaug
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Norman Borlaug Interview

Ending World Hunger

May 12, 2008
Dallas, Texas

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  Norman Borlaug

Dr. Borlaug, in the 1940s, you traveled to Mexico to work with the Rockefeller Foundation, improving the yield of the country's wheat crop. You encountered many obstacles, from lack of equipment, fertilizer and seeds, to over-farmed soil, and worst of all, the plant diseases. When did you first realize how desperate the situation was?

Norman Borlaug: Well, I guess it really came home to me when I tried to organize the first Farmer's Field Day at the Yaqui Valley, where I spent a good share of my life in research and development. I didn't speak much Spanish at that time, and had great difficulty expressing myself.

Norman Borlaug: The first field day was in 1948. By then, I had a new variety based on this Marquis that was always the lowest producer crossed to a Minnesota variety, Newthatch. And it was still tall, but resistant to the main rust, and high-yielding in the tall wheats. So I had a friend in radio propaganda thing, and through him -- who just recently passed away -- he was my public contact. He was trained in communications. And so he had a lot of propaganda where we were going to have this Farmer's Field Day for lunch. We would have barbeque ribs and beer -- free. Well, the day came and the only people that came were these young agronomists that were putting in the tests and two farmers. And the two farmers, they were old pioneers, but I figured they were the poorest farmers in the valley. But in the days following that -- and I explained, showed them the new varieties that were being developed, including small plots that we were increasing for seed production -- and told them that this was an ongoing program. And later that week, one or two of the best farmers in the valley came out and they essentially said, "We heard there's some interesting things going on here." And with my broken Spanish, I was trying to explain to them, "But you show them," and they picked it up. And so the second year, there was a big increase in numbers, and by the third year there were hundreds of farmers.

Was there a specific event that convinced you that advanced wheat farming would be critical to combating world starvation? Was it a gradual realization based on your research, or just the timing of it all coming together?

Norman Borlaug: The timing. But also taking advantage of that timing.

When I saw how the farmers were reacting when they got the seed that we had developed, there was no problem with the farmer. The problem was with the government policy maker because they controlled pricing, availability or non-availability of fertilizer and a whole series of things that didn't permit us to be big commercial until those defects were corrected. So I was very early aware -- not in one country, but I saw it in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Peru, in Argentina.

So you saw this in other countries, the economic bureaucracy?

Norman Borlaug: It encouraged me to not wait for years and years and years to try to provoke personal change. You had to have the guts -- if you'd permit me to use that gutter term -- to make a decision and say: we're going to go for it.

There was a strongly held principle of agronomy that seeds need a rest period after harvesting to store energy for germination before being planted. Everyone believed this principle. What made you believe otherwise?

Norman Borlaug Interview Photo
Norman Borlaug: This photoperiodism opened a whole new idea. Nobody knew why the Minnesota, Montana and University of Manitoba wheats didn't fit in Mexico. We found out why. We had some of those new wheats planted in many places through the young people that we had trained that came from many countries. Not just the countries I've mentioned, but all of Latin America and the Middle East. They were tested, and you could see these differences.

Your boss, George Harrar, was against your experiment to expand into the Yaqui Valley Research Station. This was a region with substantial difference in altitude and temperatures, but you insisted on this double wheat season. Is that right?

Norman Borlaug: Well, we couldn't have the time to produce a new variety, and this was in this whole area of photoperiodism. When it happened, we weren't sure, because everybody said, "This guy Borlaug is a nut! Trying to adapt the northern wheat varieties to Mexico!" But here we had a Yaqui 48, which was the Marquis -- the lowest yielding variety -- and the Minnesota wheat, and we had selected out the early types, and they were happy in Minnesota and in Canada and in India.

Why did you think that the seeds from one region, which were supposed to need a dormancy period, could go to this different altitude and this different region? Why did you think that it was going to work?

Norman Borlaug: Because if it worked, we would cut in half the time to produce new varieties with two generations a year. First, we did it in Sonora, but later we did it in many other places.

Did you actually threaten to resign when George Harrar said you couldn't take this equipment and go harvesting up in the Yaqui Valley?

Norman Borlaug: I stood up and I said, "We can't produce the wheat that Mexico needs just in the Yaqui Valley or in Sinaloa. We've got to work in all the areas where wheat wasn't an important crop, especially the Bajillo, and if I'm not permitted to do that, I'll leave." I stood and I said, "If Joe Rupert wants to accept it, I'll leave tomorrow. Otherwise, I'll wait until you have a satisfactory replacement." Before I got to the door, Joe Rupert stood up and walked out with me. And when I got to my office and Dorothy Parker -- who was our librarian -- she handed me the mail. And in this mail was a letter written to (George) Harrar by a very practical farmer in the Yaqui Valley who had his farm right adjacent to us. He used to loan us machinery because originally in 1933 or 4 when Rodolfo Calles was governor, he set up that station where I worked. It must've been a model for all of Latin America -- good machinery far before its time, all kinds of the best strains of animals, both dairy animals and beef, chickens, goats, sheep. When I arrived, this was all ruined. The poor guy who was the director, Leon Manzo, he didn't have any budget. He wanted to do something, but that's the way it was. 'Til I figured if we could get two generations a year, we could overcome this faster.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Norman Borlaug Interview Photo
But of course, this put me in difficulty with all of the ultraconservatives, including my professor, H.K. Hayes, when he came to Mexico the first time. I'm sure he knew what I'd been doing, because he was invited there by Sterling Workman, who was the head of the maize program at that time. We were looking at wheat that high, but in the background was some wheat that we were still just harvesting. And he said, "Where was this wheat grown last season?" And I said, "Well, this particular thing we're looking at here came from Sonora." He said, "Hell, I don't know anything about the geography of Sonora." I said, "Okay, it came and it was planted at 28 degrees latitude north, and we're approximately 18 here, so that we are 700 miles south of the place where we shouldn't have planted it. Look at it." My professor said, "You take one step forward and one step backward."

This revolutionized agriculture, not only in Mexico. What did this tell the world about planting?

Norman Borlaug: Yeah. This photoperiodism is sensitivity to hours of daylight and not just total daylight. It's when you break the cycle. If you start those plants and let them grow through a short period of time and move them, they don't act the way they acted before. It opens a whole series of new things that didn't seem possible before.

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