One would think that saving a billion lives in developing countries by feeding the hungry and winning the Nobel Peace Prize would be enough to make someone a household name. But few in India and even his home country USA today remember Norman Borlaug, whose birth centenary falls this year. Borlaug was a plant breeder born in Iowa in 1914. The vast majority of his professional life was spent living and working in developing countries—Mexico, Pakistan, India, China, and most recently, regions of Africa.
Modern India owes a lot to this apolitical biologist, who authored India’s green revolution in collaboration with Indian scientist Dr M S Swaminathan. When Borlaug first visited India after two consecutive droughts in 1966 and 67, Indian agriculture seemed to confirm the worst fears of biologist Paul Ehrlich, who famously wrote in his book The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Thanks to Borlaug and his missionary zeal to spread the benefits of high-yielding varieties to regions where crop failures were a basic fact of life, India’s grain production had tripled since 1960s. Although its population has doubled, India today is a net food exporter.
As India’s green revolution seems to have run out its course and there is talk of ushering in a second green revolution, Borlaug’s approach to agriculture science remains relevant. Asked about the potential hazards of biotechnology and genetically-engineered crops, he said: “As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera—that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man.” India today needs to modernise its agriculture and it will be a shame if we let GM technology pass. We must invest in it but ensure that it meets the requirements of not damaging environment.