Today is National Agriculture Day, a day established to celebrate the contributions that agriculture has made to our lives.
It is a time to reflect on what it takes to produce food for our tables and fibers for our clothing, a time to be reminded about the importance of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy, and a time to give appreciation to the agricultural community that has provided us with safe, abundant, and affordable food.
Today would also be the 100th birthday of Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who made major contributions to what is called the Green Revolution.
For those unfamiliar with the “Green Revolution,” it is a term coined in 1968 by William S. Gaud of the U.S. Agency for International Development to describe the rapid advances in agriculture that occurred in developing nations of Asia and Latin America in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Many developing nations were suffering from hunger and malnutrition. The Green Revolution started with the success of plant breeders in identifying and crossing genetic material that led to the production of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties.
The development of high-yielding wheat varieties brings us back to Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug was born on a farm in northeastern Iowa near the Minnesota border. He may have been raised in Iowa, but he received his undergraduate and graduate education from the University of Minnesota, receiving a doctorate in pathology and genetics in 1942.
While at Minnesota as an undergraduate, Borlaug worked as a leader for the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he observed that many of those working for him were hungry and starving, and how the ability to get food affected their lives.
This observation stayed with him when he began his agronomic career working for the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program in 1944, a joint effort between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government.
The first challenge that he overcame was to develop wheat lines resistant to rust. Rust disease had had wiped out the wheat crop in many areas of Mexico for several years.
However, his greatest accomplishment in Mexico was the development of semi-dwarf wheat varieties.
Plant breeders had been able to develop wheat with larger heads and grain, but the stalks of existing lines lodged, or fell over, leading to yield reductions.
Borlaug incorporated the larger grains and heads as well as the rust resistance into shorter varieties that did not lodge, which increased yields three-fold.
Several of these lines were adapted for India and Pakistan. As a result, India’s wheat production between 1965 and 1970 went from 12 million to 21 million tons.
Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his agricultural efforts to reduce world hunger. The thought was that people who are not hungry are less apt to fight and more willing to work for peace.
His ideas and principles were used in China and other parts of Asia in the development of high-yield semi-dwarf rice varieties. In the 1980s he brought his methods and philosophy to Africa, which doubled the yields of maize and sorghum.
When he died in 2009, teams that he consulted four years earlier had developed new varieties that were effective against a new strain of wheat rust that had appeared in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Borlaug had critics in his day. The higher-yielding crops of his program encouraged monoculture agriculture, depended on technological advances in farming, and required more nutrients, water and pesticides.
Thus, his critics believed his philosophy and techniques damaged the environment, depleted water and soil resources, and hindered biodiversity. Some even believed that the cross-breeding techniques used to develop the new lines were “unnatural” and may have negative effects in the future.
Borlaug would say that these issues were small concerns compared to starvation and political unrest facing hungry nations of the world. He would also argue that his approach saved more forests from being cleared for food production.
As the world’s population continues to rise, we may have to depend on new technological advances to be able to feed ourselves. Sometimes, Americans forget the challenge of feeding the global population, particularly when we sit in the heart of the world’s breadbasket.
For now, on this National Agriculture Day, let us be grateful for those who have committed their lives to bring us safe, abundant, and affordable food.
Also, happy birthday Norman Borlaug. Half of the world has a full stomach because of you.
Lentz is extension educator for agriculture and natural resources for The Ohio State University Extension Service in Hancock County. He can be reached at 419-422-3851 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lentz can be heard with Vaun Wickerham on weekdays at 6:35 a.m. on WFIN, at 5:43 a.m. on WKXA-FM, and at 5:28 a.m. at 106.3 The Fox.
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