The annual harvests of Eastern Washington are a living legacy to scientist Norman E. Borlaug, who helped develop types of wheat that feed the world.
His curious and brilliant mind was driven by a desire to prevent famine, an accomplishment credited with “saving a billion lives” and one that earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
Borlaug died Saturday of complications from cancer. He was 95 and spent his later years extolling the benefits of controversial research practices of genetically modifying crops.
He worked with renowned Washington State University wheat scientist Orville Vogel to “ensure people around the world had bread to eat,” said R. James Cook, WSU professor emeritus and wheat researcher who worked with and knew both men.
“When you drive though the Palouse and look at all those beautiful fields of wheat, know this: It didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of men like Norm Borlaug and Orville Vogel.”
The two engaged in a sort of competitive camaraderie during the 1950s that launched agriculture’s Green Revolution.
Borlaug achieved most of the fame for his work developing high-yielding crop varieties – especially wheat and rice – that were planted in countries on the verge of famine such as India and Mexico. Vogel developed similar wheat for the optimal growing conditions of the Pacific Northwest.
The two built upon established research that wheat fed with nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers delivered higher yields. The problem was that the tall wheat stalk would topple under the weight of the heavier head of kernels.
Borlaug was able to cross-breed wheat varieties until he came up with a plant that was shorter – a sturdy dwarf plant that still contained the large grain head that preserved the big yield gains from using fertilizer without falling over.
That achievement has been adopted around the world for many crops. Critics, such as many in the environmental movement, dislike the research because they think it contributes to greater reliance on chemical fertilizers and favors large, corporate farming operations over traditional family farmers.
But that hasn’t diminished efforts to build on Borlaug’s and Vogel’s work.
“Their work continues to inspire research,” said Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Sciences.
Students from around the world come to the Pullman campus to pursue technological advancements and knowledge that can be applied in their home countries to combat hunger and poverty through drought- and disease-resistant crops that deliver big yields.
The advancements also lifted the fortunes of Washington farmers and thus the entire Inland Northwest.
The new varieties delivered a $50 million jolt to farms during those first few years. Those gains were quickly cycled through the regional economy, Cook said, as farmers bought new equipment, remodeled homes, shopped more frequently in Spokane and paid more taxes.
“Farmers owe Borlaug a deep debt of gratitude,” said Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Wheat Commission. “He wasn’t one to be interested in money. He wanted to fill stomachs.”
Wheat grown in Washington today is sold around the world. And it continues to be an insurer against famine.
Borlaug’s gravitas and authority will be missed, Bernardo said.
“Let’s face it, the issue of agricultural production and science is not real glitzy. Yet Norman Borlaug had the ability to bring it to the forefront.
“He was somebody who could speak eloquently about those topics. He really was the respected and recognized voice for agricultural research and importance in the world.”