Borlaug & Beachell

Norman Borlaug & Henry Beachell

In the 1960s, two children of the 1930s Depression who grew up on Midwest farms saved millions of people around the world from starvation.

Norman Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa, in 1914, on his Norwegian grandfather’s farm. His father was renting the family farm. Norman was an only son with two younger sisters. He was 15 years old when the Great Depression hit in 1929 and remembers empathizing with the hungry people he saw, particularly when he got to college in Minneapolis. “People, hundreds, yes I’m sure thousands, asking for a nickel to buy bread,” he remembers. “That’s what I think made me go into international agriculture.”

Norman Borlaug InterviewIn this oral history interview, Dr. Borlaug reviewed the course of his life, particularly his early years. He says serendipity played a role at many junctures. “I call her the lady of serendipity,” he says. “When she smiled you hve to take advantage of that situation because the windows of opportunity close very rapidly.” Note. This movie is over 25 minutes long, and it’s divided into chapters. You can jump ahead or back by clicking and dragging on the chapter titles, but you need to allow the entire movie to download before the chapters will work. There is also a video podcast version of the movie available here or through iTunes.

Borlaug says that before he went to college, his life’s ambition was to be high school science teacher and athletic coach. In college, he discovered forestry, the study of trees, but he still harbored a dream of being second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. “That was my objective,” to be a baseball player, he says. “I remember vividly the day when I finally decided that I had to do one of two things – play baseball or be a forester – because we had afternoon laboratories in forestry. You couldn’t do both.”

He chose forestry because he liked the outdoors and because the President Roosevelt funded conservation programs like shelterbelts to combat the droughts of the Great Depression. Borlaug figured that there would be jobs available in forestry.

He got his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 from the University of Minnesota, and found jobs with the U.S. Forest Service, first in Massachusetts and then Idaho. He returned to Minnesota in 1939 to get his masters and doctorate by 1942.

Then, the war intervened. Borlaug did war work for the DuPont chemical company from 1942 to 1944. He was testing materials and medicine to support troops in tropical environments in the Pacific.

In 1944, his graduate professor, the renowned plant pathologist E. C. Stakman, recommended Borlaug to the new Mexican Agricultural Program. In 20 years, Borlaug developed the revolutionary semi-dwarf varieties of wheat that were resistant to several forms of rust disease. By 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat crop came from Borlaug’s varieties, and the harvest was six times larger than when he arrived in 1944.

He also helped introduce little league baseball to the Mexican culture when he began coaching his son Billy’s games. Norman’s wife Margaret and their daughter Jeanie and son William endured Spartan conditions in those first years to be with him in Mexico.

In 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation became concerned about a growing famine in India and Pakistan. They transformed the MAP into CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, where research continues today and a repository for basic genetic strains of crops has been developed. The foundation asked Borlaug to visit to India.

Borlaug agreed and soon became embroiled in an argument with the government. He believed that India and Pakistan should begin to plant much more wheat, rather than traditional rice – because he and his colleagues had already developed the high tech varieties, because wheat can grow nearly anywhere and because it
Alex Martin Interview
could produce the most calories to stave off starvation. It took two years and a famine to get the government to allow him to even test his wheat varieties. The hurdles continued, but in the end, Borlaug’s semi-dwarf wheat varieties are credited with saving millions.

Alex Martin (left) says that Dr. Borlaug “has made a huge contribution to our understanding and advancement of food production
. In a sense, Martin is a contemporary of Borlaug’s; he has taught agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska for several decades. So, as the “revolution” developed, it was hard to put the importance of it in context. “It’s hard to appreciate that a major shift has taken place until you have the time frame to look back and say, ‘Between now and then, look at how much happened!’”

In 1970, Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Since then, he has taught in the spring at Texas A&M University and worked at CIMMYT in the fall. Most recently, he has begun work on agriculture in Africa where many countries are facing starvation again.

Henry Beachell was born in 1906 in Waverly, Nebraska, just outside of Lincoln. Shortly after, his family moved to a wheat farm in western Nebraska. Wheat got into his blood. He intended to be a wheat breeder. He got his bachelors degree in agronomy from the University of Nebraska in 1930 – just as the Depression started. Shortly before, his father lost his farm in Perkins County. So, having a job – any job – was important.

Beachell entered Kansas State University in the fall of 1930 still intending to be a wheat breeder. But the next year, the USDA visited campus looking for plant breeders. They had already hired Orville Vogel for the wheat breeder position. (Vogel would later provide Borlaug with semi-dwarf wheat seed critical to the Green Revolution.) Instead, the USDA offered Beachell a job as a rice breeder in Beaumont, Texas. With the Depression beginning, he took it.

He worked for the USDA rice program for the next 30 years and developed nine higher-yielding rice varieties that eventually accounted for 85 percent of the rice grown in the U.S.

He “retired” from the USDA in the early 1960s, about the same time as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were teaming up to establish the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Beachell was invited to develop their rice breeding program. It was the first time he had been in Asia and remembered looking out the car window when he arrived, wondering, “Is this where I have to spend the next ten years of my life?”

He dove into the work, and very quickly Beachell found something he had been looking for. He knew how to look critically at plants. His father had taught him how to judge wheat in the field and he had led crop-judging teams at the University of Nebraska.

In 1963, the third plant in row 288 in an experimental field at IRRI had all the qualities he head been looking for – a short, thick-stemmed, sturdy rice plant that would respond to fertilizers, mature early and yield much more than traditional varieties. He knew that part of the plant’s genetic makeup included pest resistance. From that one plant came the parent variety and a series of children varieties that would collectively be known as miracle rice.

In 1972, Beachell “retired” again. This time he went from IRRI to Indonesia to spend the next ten years developing their rice program. Within that time period, Indonesia was able to become self-sufficient in rice production.

After Indonesia, Beachell returned to the U.S. and continued his work with the RiceTec company of Alvin, Texas.

In 1996, Henry Beachell and one of his colleagues, Dr. Gurdev Singh Khush, shared the World Food Prize for their work on a succession of miracle rice varieties that dramatically increased yields and saved millions.

Henry Beachell died at the age of 100 in 2006. After his death, Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said, “The greatness of his achievements and the warmth of his person leave all of us profoundly sad.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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