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Father Of 'Green Revolution,' Renowned In Former Soviet Union, Dies At 95

Norman E. Borlaug speaks at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in his honor in Washington, D.C. in 2007.
Norman E. Borlaug speaks at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in his honor in Washington, D.C. in 2007.
Norman E. Borlaug -- credited with starting the "Green Revolution" that dramatically increased food production in developing countries -- has died at the age of 95.

Borlaug died from cancer complications at his Dallas home on the night of September 12.

Born the son of a farmer in the central U.S. state of Iowa on March 25, 1914, Borlaug went on to become a world-renowned plant pathologist who developed high-yield, disease-resistant crops.

The new varieties helped developing countries alleviate food shortages and increase food output in what was dubbed the Green Revolution.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work, which was thought to have saved countless people from starvation.

Former Kyrgyz Agriculture Minister Jumakadyr Akeneev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Borlaug’s efforts were credited with helping avert famines that had been predicted in the developing world in the second half of the 20th century.

"I was introduced to two Nobel laureates when I was minister of agriculture and water resources,” Akeneev said. “One of them was the father of the 'White Revolution' from India” -- a reference to a nationwide increase in milk production -- “and the other was the father of the ‘Green Revolution.'... I suppose his contribution was tremendous, enormous."

In presenting the Nobel Peace Prize to Borlaug, Nobel Committee Chairwoman Aase Lionaes said that "more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world."

Borlaug also received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Congress, in 2007.

Stronger Strains

Borlaug began working in Mexico in 1944 on the development of disease-resistant varieties of wheat that produced much more grain than traditional strains and responded better to fertilizer.

He and others later took those varieties and similarly improved strains of rice and corn to Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, helping to feed booming local populations.

Borlaug discusses the need to increase crop yields in a 1980 interview.
Norman Borlaug On Increasing Food Production
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By 1968, India, for example, harvested a record wheat crop, and the Philippines reported a bumper crop of rice.

That led William Gaud, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to announce that the world was witnessing the makings of a Green Revolution. "It is not a violent 'red' revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a 'white' revolution like that of the shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution," Gaud said.

Despite the worldwide renown he achieved, Borlaug was not a household name in his native United States.

The Soviet Union heralded the work of its own scientists in the field of agriculture. But Vahhob Vohidov, a Soviet-era republican agriculture minister who today heads a department at Tajikistan’s Agriculture Institute, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that Borlaug’s work had great impact in Tajikistan.

"Borlaug was a great American scientist who was an author of the Green Revolution that solved food-shortage problems by creating new varieties of crops and increasing their yields. It was a historic moment,” Vohidov said.

Vohidov noted that a strain of wheat is known as Norman Borlaug wheat in Tajikistan. “He played a great role in increasing grain production and was a renowned scientist," he said.

But Vladimir Yerofeev, a former councilor for Turkmenistan's government, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service from Moscow that efforts to implement Borlaug's techniques to increase crop production in the republic were disappointing.

"They tried to do something, but the results were not very impressive. They didn't achieve the targeted harvests,” Yerofeev said. “For Turkmenistan, it was very hard [because of] salinization of the soil [and] the ineffective exploitation of irrigated land."

Campaign For GMOs

In the 1960s and 1970s, Borlaug headed the Wheat Program of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

Borlaug turned to university teaching in 1979, first at Cornell University and then at Texas A&M.

He remained active well into his 90s, campaigning for biotechnology -- the use of genetically modified organisms -- to fight hunger.

He also responded to attacks over the social and environmental consequences of the Green Revolution.

Critics say it required vast amounts of water, promoted the use of fertilizer and pesticides, displaced smaller farmers, and paved the way for greater corporate control of agriculture.

But Borlaug said runaway population growth had made his agricultural techniques necessary.

The Green Revolution was also a victim of its own success.

The increase of food production from the 1960s opened the way for decades of cheap and abundant food supplies, but also led to the decline of investment in agricultural research and infrastructure, translating into slowing productivity growth.

Meanwhile, the global population continued to grow, many regions experienced extreme weather and water shortages, and the development of the biofuels industry further increased demand.

Some experts and policymakers now say the Green Revolution has run its course, requiring a second such transformation to again counter the threat of food shortages.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Aidanbek Tashkenbaev and director Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Oguljamal Yazliyeva, and RFE/RL Uzbek Service director Sojida Djakhfarova contributed to this report.

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