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In 1798, the English economist Thomas Malthus argued that population increases geometrically, outstripping the arithmetic growth of the food supply. He promised “famine … the last, the most dreadful resource of nature.” It took another 125 years for world population to double, but only 50 more for it to redouble. By the 1940s, Mexi­co, China, India, Russia, and Europe were hungry. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s farsighted vice president-elect, former secretary of agriculture Henry A. Wallace, believed the solution lay with technology. He was right: the Malthusian tragedy never happened, chiefly because Norman E. Borlaug transformed the breeding of wheat, which feeds more people than any other crop.

From 1939 to 1942, Mexico’s harvest was halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, shriveling grains. Anxieties about wartime food shortages led the American philanthropic organization the Rockefeller Foundation to create the country’s first foreign agricultural program: the Coöperative Wheat Research and Production Program, which was based in Mexico and which Borlaug joined, as its plant pathologist, in 1944. The program was prescient: rust hit the North American breadbasket in 1954, wiping out 75 percent of the durum wheat crop used for pasta.

“There was panic in the U.S. and Canadian departments of agriculture,” Borlaug tells me. “We had to accelerate the program to develop rust-resistant wheat varieties.” Borlaug struggled with a lack of machinery, equipment, and trained scientists. Yet by 1948, he tells Leon Hesser in The Man Who Fed the World, a recent biography, “research results, the bits and pieces of the wheat production puzzle, began to emerge, and the fog of gloom and despair began to lift.”

Before Borlaug, plant breeders sought new traits in plants by creating perhaps a few dozen “crosses” of varieties each year. For Borlaug, this would have meant “at least 10 years developing resistant varieties,” he recalls, “and there would be another epidemic in that time. I wanted to speed things up.” Collecting wheat varieties from around the world, he began a massive cross-breeding program. Such work is “mind-warpingly tedious,” he tells Hesser. “There’s only one chance in thousands of ever finding what you want, and actually no guarantee of success at all.”

To improve those odds, Borlaug tried something unusual: doing two successive plantings of his experimental crosses each year, effectively doubling his rate of research. He was almost stymied by what he calls “the dogma of plant breeding everywhere at the time: plant in the same season and place as local farmers.” But soon he was planting in summer in low-quality, rain-fed soils at high altitude near Mexico City, and then taking any promising varieties hundreds of miles north to sow a winter crop in the warmer, drier, lower-lying Yaqui Valley. This “shuttle breeding” helped Borlaug achieve rust resistance in under five years. It also produced exceptionally adaptable varieties, suited for use across climates.

Having achieved rust resistance and plant adaptability, Borlaug now addressed the problem of structure. When Mexican wheat was heavily fertilized, it grew too tall, collapsing when irrigated or rained on–thus limiting yields. After 20,000 fruitless crosses, Borlaug heard about a Japanese dwarf varie­ty that might confer its strength and stockiness. He started thousands more crosses, until “by 1964, we got the really beautiful short wheat varieties.” The yields were spectacular, and the variety was quickly adopted around world. In 1968, his approach, which stimulated advances in other staple foods, was dubbed the “Green Revolution” by ­William Gaud, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Two years later, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Credit: Art Rickerby/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tagged: Biomedicine

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