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The Green Revolution & Dr Norman Borlaug

            : Towards the "Evergreen Revolution"

Norman Borlaug

The term "Green Revolution" was coined by William Gaud whilst Director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He was describing the spectacular increases in cereal crop yields that were achieved in developing countries during the 1960s. The key to this revolution were new plant varieties which fully utilised improved fertilisers and other new agrochemicals that had become available during this period. When planted using improved irrigation and crop management techniques, these new varieties gave dramatic increases in yield.

The origins of the "Green Revolution" can be traced back to the middle of the 1940s when US Vice-President Henry Wallace toured Mexico as a special ambassador. He was appalled by the state of Mexican agriculture and, upon returning to Washington, urged the Rockefeller Foundation to look at ways of helping the Mexicans. Independently, the Foundation had begun to realise that it's health improvement programmes for developing countries were pointless if those people it saved, then died of starvation or malnutrition. It was decided to send a team of four dedicated scientists to help the Mexican Agricultural Ministry. Headed by J. George Harrar the team also comprised, Dr John Niederhauser (in charge of potato improvement), Dr Edwin Wellhausen (maize improvement) and in charge of the wheat improvement programme, a young scientist from Iowa called Dr Norman Ernest Borlaug.

Norman Borlaug set about the task with his customary energy and instigated a wheat-breeding programme that many thought unworkable. In an effort to speed up the programme Norman Borlaug came up with the idea of "shuttle breeding". By growing his breeding plants in central Mexico during the summer and then in Northern Mexico during the winter he was able to double the rate of the wheat breeding programme. A further outcome was that due to the differing conditions at the two locations the resulting plants proved extremely adaptable. That Norman Borlaug's efforts were successful is undeniable as by 1948 Mexico was self-sufficient in grain and by 1965, in spite of a dramatic population increase, had become a net exporter of wheat. The new wheat varieties were made available to other countries notably the Indian sub-continent. Chief architect of the Indian "green revolution" was Dr Monkombu Swaminathan, who was awarded the World Food Prize in 1987 . In 1970 Dr Borlaug's achievements were recognised with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The success of the Mexican programme prompted the setting-up of a similar programme for rice. It was based at purpose built research centre, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in The Philippines and funded jointly by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Firstly Dr Henry Beachell, and subsequently Dr Gurdev Khush, succeeded in producing new varieties of rice with increased yields. Their contributions to the "Green Revolution" were recognised with the joint award of the World Food Prize in 1996.

In spite of these remarkable advances, the continuing increase of the world's population has brought two further crop production problems into focus. In the developed countries crops are cultured so successfully as to yield "food mountains" but at the expense of very high inputs and with the consequence of very high environmental impacts. In contrast, in many developing countries insufficient funds are available to provide the fertilisers, pesticides and fuel necessary to realise the full potential of the best cultivars, and starvation is rife. These problems are related. The staff of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Plant Science Research are committed to developing low input/low environmental impact/high yield/high quality strains of crops. These crops will satisfy the need for efficient sustainable agricultural production in both developing and developed countries.