Remembering Norman Borlaug

September 13, 2009

By Theodore Crosbie, Ph.D.

Vice President, Global Plant Breeding

Norman Borlaug

I first met Norman Borlaug as a graduate student in Plant Breeding at Iowa State University. My classmates and I dutifully filed into the agronomy auditorium to hear another Thursday seminar that afternoon in 1973.

Our speaker was viewed as a feisty renegade. At the time, some faculty expressed disbelief that Norm Borlaug merited a Nobel Prize.

He hadn’t published a thing in a journal that mattered. Peasants knew of his work instead of the National Academy of Science. It was widely believed that he had been relegated to work in remote areas of Mexico because he couldn’t cut it in either industry or academia. Rumors around his disagreements with Rockefeller Foundation executives were legendary. Many wondered if this was yet another reason he drove a jalopy on dusty Mexican roads.

Frankly, we all wondered why we had to listen to this guy.

We were conditioned to hear lengthy lectures on Statistical and Quantitative Genetics with an occasional discourse on Cytogenetics. We were not prepared for a talk with no slides, full of fire and brimstone, and peppered with stories about economic failure, famine, and political mutiny. Dr. Borlaug gave us a different version of Plant Breeding. “Real breeding,” he called it, and practical science aimed at solving real, not academic and irrelevant problems.

When he was finished, no one knew what to ask so Dr. Borlaug asked the questions. What was Iowa State doing to solve the hunger crisis around the world? How were we turning theory into practice on farms in India? Everyone looked well fed in Iowa. Why were we wasting our time improving yields in the Midwest when people were starving elsewhere in the world? Surely everyone knew that hungry bellies lead to anarchy.

The bell rang, and we went back to our world. Until the next morning that is, when Dr. Borlaug had insisted on meeting with the graduate students.

When it came to my turn, I explained that for my thesis I was studying the inheritance of photosynthetic rate using random inbred lines of corn from Iowa Stiff Stalk Synthetic. No one before or since in any setting has ever grilled me as he did that morning.

“Why are you working on that?”

“Do you really think photosynthesis is limiting yield in a C4 species like corn?”

“Why in the hell are you using taxpayer dollars to work on something that doesn’t matter? And why are you using random lines?”

“Young man, the whole idea in plant breeding is to study what matters in selected lines. It doesn’t matter what happens in lines that you should be throwing away.”

His advice to me was to choose a thesis project that mattered next time, which I did. For a Ph.D., I studied the physiological basis for yield changes in long-term selection programs.

Many years later, he asked me about our exchange over breakfast in the CIMMYT cafeteria. He was pleased to hear that I had taken his advice.

Dr. Borlaug became a role model for many of us after that experience. He had opened our eyes,   and he did the same for many people around the world.

It wasn’t that he had a disdain for theory, but turning theory into practice is the essence of plant breeding.

It wasn’t that he didn’t value basic research, but he wanted to see cutting edge science of the day turned into varieties that would solve hunger.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the statistical validity associated with random lines, but he wanted to see it taken to the next level to understand whether something was truly limiting yield at an elite germplasm level.

Neither of us knew on that Friday morning in 1973 how much he would ultimately influence Monsanto Plant Breeding through me, but he did and he now knows.

Ted Crosbie is Vice President of Global Plant Breeding of the Monsanto Agricultural Sector.  Dr. Crosbie is responsible for seven crops worldwide and is a member of the Monsanto Advisory Committee and the Technology Leadership Team.  Monsanto’s Plant Breeding organization is one of the largest breeding efforts in the world with more than 1,000 employees and over 100 sites worldwide in 20 countries.  In January 2002, Dr. Crosbie was named a Distinguished Fellow in Science in recognition of his broad strategic impact in Monsanto through scientific leadership.

Do you have a memory of Dr. Borlaug? Visit www.normanborlaug.blogspot.com to share yours.

5 Responses to “Remembering Norman Borlaug”

  1. Andrea Says:

    Today I weep for the world because it has lost a true humanitarian and inspirational scientist. Most of my memories of Dr. Borlaug were as a wide eye graduate student learning of a historical figure who helped the world through plant breeding. It was however his philosophy that agricultural scientists need to do work that impacts the real world which most influenced my graduate education and subsequent research choices. I finally had the opportunity to hear him speak as a keynote speaker in 2007 at the American Society of Agronomy meeting, and as Dr. Crosbie points out it was a ‘fire and brimstone’ style of speaking that left this early career scientist much humbled and recommitted to the rubber meets the road science that had influenced my graduate school years. May we all take a piece of his humanitarian science into our daily life, and never forget the lessons he has taught us.

  2. fams Says:

    Norman was one of kind. “His total devotion to ending famine and hunger revolutionized food security ” – just read this from Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme. Worth a read: http://bit.ly/15foeb

  3. Beth Holmes Says:

    Ted highlights being asked “why” by Dr. Borlaug and it’s a good question for all of us in agricultural science. I’ve heard Dr. Borlaug speak multiple times and hearing him, I always found inspiration that quickly resulted in self-examination and re-visitation of priorities. An opportunity to talk to him in person arose after he spoke at the International Plant Breeding Symposium on the lawn of CIMMYT in 2006 where he was honored by the Indian Government for his contribution in relieving hunger in India. A colleague and I were stalking him like groupies and he received us graciously in spite of our reckless enthusiasm. Dr. Borlaug said to us, “Don’t be afraid of change.” This was simple, yet powerful advice from a man that lived by that motto. We think we are not afraid of what’s coming ahead, but it’s not entirely true. I was afraid. I was afraid that not enough would change and that change won’t occur fast enough. As plant breeders, we need to think of ourselves as crusaders against world hunger and poverty, and in that quest, we have work to do. In doing it we honor humanity, as well as this humanitarian, plant breeder, and scientist who tirelessly charted the course for us.

  4. Enock Chikava Says:

    Dr. Borloaug visited Malawi in 2006, he toured the greater part of the country which was devasted by drought and chronic hunger. On his last day at field day at a Gvt Research Station, he summarised Malawi’s problem as, “Malawi does not have a problem of drought, as most of you think, it has a drought of technology and a big problem of weeds”. Malawi receives about 600-800mm of rain each year, but at that time only 10% of the farmers were using hybrid seed and weeds were taller than the crops. This month Monsanto submitted dossiers to test BG2 and RRF to address the “technology drought and weed management” issues in cotton in Malawi, as identified by Dr Borlaug.


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