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Legends of leadership and management: Norman Borlaug (1914-2009)
Ajay Kaul, Author Mumbai Matinee Ajay Kaul, Author Mumbai Matinee
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Diego, CA
Wednesday, September 26, 2018



He identified a global problem and then worked hard to find a solution. Once he had found the solution, he implemented it on a global scale and the results were glaringly obvious. He was short on resources and time, so he found creative ways to overcome the constraints. TIME Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century. For ushering “the Green Revolution." across the globe, Dr. Norman Borlaug makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management.

Identifying the problem: Very early in his career, Borlaug was approached about joining a fledgling research project being initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation in rural Mexico, in 1944. There, he first saw the plight of poverty-stricken wheat farmers barely able to sustain themselves due to repeatedly poor harvests – the primary culprit being the fungal disease, Rust, which perennially ruined the harvest. This had a huge impact on him and he shared his thoughts in a letter to his wife – “These places I’ve seen have clubbed my mind — they are so poor and depressing. I don’t know what we can do to help these people, but we’ve got to do something.."

Borlaug honed in on one thing: increasing yield. For him, the complexities of poverty and hunger could be reduced to a single problem: not enough food. From there, the answer was simple: grow as much as possible, using whatever technology available.

Acknowledging and overcoming the constraints: Technology was the answer, but there was an instinctive hesitation to adopt untried new technologies on the part of the farmers, especially from an expatriate American college boy who didn’t even speak their language.

Though extremely discouraged, Borlaug was determined to succeed. He started by learning the local language and that eventually induced him to get his hands dirty in the fields and connect with the local farmers.

Norman Borlaug with Vice President Henry Wallace and Mexican Minister of Agriculture Marte R. Gómez. in Mexico, 1944 (source: achivement.org)

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat – the fungus called rust. Time was of the essence and manipulating wheat blossoms to cross different strains to test their resistance to rust, was time consuming. Once again, he got around the time constraint by breeding in two places – the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer. Though this imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, it cut the overall time to come up with the new strains, in half. And it produced wheat varieties that were insensitive to day length and capable of growing in many locales.

The Mexican farmers were impressed and started adopting the new varieties and the wheat output began a remarkable climb in Mexico.

Taking technology to the next level – raising the bar: Once the problem with the rust fungus was resolved, Dr. Borlaug started focusing on increasing the yield for the Mexican farmer. At that time, the general perception within the scientific community was that huge yield gains could be induced in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over and ruin the crop.

Dr. Borlaug acknowledged the problem and realized that a potential solution lay in shortening the plant so it could withstand the weight of the bigger, heavier grains. So in 1953, he began working with Japanese dwarf strains which he crossbred with the varieties being raised in the hot, dry climate of northern Mexico. This had an unusual gene that had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. The most important result was that the seed heads did not shrink – so the short plant stayed stable with the bigger, heavier grains.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf." plants, the results were simply astonishing.

The plants produced enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies were able to support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.

This novel idea of increasing yields by shrinking plants became the central insight of the Green Revolution across the globe.

By the early 1960s, many farmers in Mexico had embraced the full package of innovations from Dr. Borlaug’s breeding program, and wheat output in the country soared six-fold from the levels of the early 1940s and as result, Mexico obtained self-sufficiency.

Implementing on a global scale – laying the foundation for success: While Mexico was getting self-sufficient in wheat, a crisis was brewing on the Indian subcontinent. The population was growing so much faster than farm output that it was not clear how mass starvation could be avoided.

Borlaug and his team now faced the seemingly impossible task of convincing the leaders of both India and Pakistan, to embrace an entirely new approach to agriculture. Once again, the pragmatic and prepared Dr. Borlaug presented the options available to the senior most political leaders of both countries. With the support of key Cabinet ministers and young scientists like Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, both countries made the courageous decision to adopt Borlaug’s breakthrough technology.

One vital shipment through the Port of Los Angeles was delayed by the Watts riots of 1965, and Dr. Borlaug spent hours yelling on the phone to get it through. Finally the seed ship sailed. Borlaug went to bed thinking that the problem was finally solved, only to wake up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.

Undeterred by the armed conflict on the sub-continent, Borlaug and his team of scientists planted the first crop of dwarf wheat on the subcontinent, while working within sight of artillery flashes. Sowed late, that crop germinated poorly, yet yields still rose 70 percent. This prevented general wartime starvation in the region, though famine did strike parts of India.

Indian and Pakistani farmers took up the new varieties, receiving fertilizer and other aid from their governments. Just as in Mexico, harvests soared: the Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so bountiful that the government had to turn schools into temporary granaries

1960s: Dr. Borlaug in India, with the sacks of wheat he grew (source: achievement.org)

Having learnt the importance and power of engaging with the locals, Dr. Borlaug extrapolated that on a global scale by working with local scientists notably M.S. Swaminathan in India, and Robert Chandler, Henry “Hank." Beachell and Gurdev Khush at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. In the Philippines, it led to the creation of semi-dwarf varieties of rice that caused rice yields to soar. Chinese scientists ultimately followed suit and using semi-dwarf varieties, established food security in China, setting the stage for its rise as an industrial power. Latin America was next, notably Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil. Together, with countless others, they helped avert famine and starvation in much of the developing world in the second half of the 20th century.

Dr. Borlaug kept his team of young scientists motivated by impressing upon them the urgency to help feed the world. The key to success was exploiting the short window of cross breeding opportunity when wheat flowers were ready for cross breeding – you worked from sun up to sun down, because the window of opportunity closed rapidly.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,." the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.."

Dr. Borlaug was a visionary who was passionate about achieving results, in spite of the constraints.

“We must recognize the fact that adequate food is only the first requisite for life,." he said in his Nobel acceptance speech. “For a decent and humane life we must also provide an opportunity for good education, remunerative employment, comfortable housing, good clothing and effective and compassionate medical care.."

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