Pre 1970s India presented a grave picture. With a population of over half a billion and an economy that was largely reliant on foreign aid, it was apparent that a master stroke was needed to turn the tide.
It is understood that the wheat being grown in India during the 60s was nowhere near enough to sustain its population. One of the most common methods of any agronomist in such circumstances is to try and increase the wheat yield in plants through selective breading. The problem is that when this is relied on too much, the increased wheat yield makes the plants top heavy, which causes the stem to bend and break. When this occurs, it becomes very difficult to harvest the wheat by mechanical means, so despite there being an increase in yield, the problem is not solved.
Agronomist, Humanitarian and Nobel Laureate, Norman Ernest Borlaug addressed this issue through years of study and experimentation on crop in Mexico. After much effort, he developed a semi-dwarf variety wheat plant that was disease resistant and had a very high yield. He circumvented the problem of taller wheat grass collapsing under extra weight by breeding varieties that had smaller, thicker stems, making them strong enough to withstand the weight of extra grain.
Through constant import of the new dwarf wheat and grown under the intense supervision of Borlaug himself, India’s yields increased from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20.1 million tons in 1970. By 1974, the country was able to declare itself self-sufficient and continued to grow rapidly. Upon reaching the new millenium, the country was harvesting a staggering 76.4 million tons of wheat.
Borlaug was awarded the the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th 1970 and is often credited as the man who saved a billion people from starvation. When we consider the individuals that make up such a number, it is difficult not to fantasize about the potential waiting to emerge; in those numbers might be an individual who who makes a breakthrough in breast cancer research, a future diplomat instrumental in stymying the tide of war or another agronomist who develops the next strain of dwarf wheat.
It is interesting to see how interconnected our efforts are. From beginning his research in Wilmington, Delaware, Borlaug’s actions affected many countries, from Mexico to India and Pakistan, and then later on to Africa despite the fact that war was spreading across many of those regions. When an important message needs to be spread, we can be encouraged by the fact the if we choose, we can make country borders and language barriers no obstacle at all.