September 30, 2009

The Wheat Miracle : How Norman Borlaug made it possible

by Prof M. S. Swaminathan

I wrote an article on the Punjab Wheat Miracle in The Illustrated Weekly of India (May 11, 1969) at the request of Mr Kushwant Singh, then Editor of the Weekly. I then pointed out that the catalyst of the miracle was the new plant type sent by Norman Borlaug in 1963. This plant type had a semi-dwarf plant stature and was capable of utilising fertiliser and water very efficiently. When grown with good agronomic practices and soil fertility management, varieties like Lerma Rojo - 64A and Sonora 64 gave about 5 tonnes of wheat per hectare, in contrast to 1 to 2 tonnes per hectare of the earlier tall varieties.

The earlier varieties like C306 bred by Chowdhry Ramdan Singh had amber grains and excellent chapati making properties. Fortunately, Borlaug had also sent segregating populations from which wheat breeders at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, and Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, selected high-yielding amber grain and good culinary-quality varieties like Kalyan Sona and Sonalika. This resulted in enormous enthusiasm among the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP, and I described the role of farmers in the revolution as follows:

“Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has been the backbone of the revolution. Revolutions are usually associated with the young, but in this revolution age has been no obstacle to participation. Farmers, young and old, educated and uneducated, have easily taken to the new agronomy. It has been heart-warming to see young college graduates, retired officials, ex-Army men, illiterate peasants and small farmers queuing up to get the new seeds. At least in Punjab, the divorce between intellect and labour, which has been the bane of our agriculture, is vanishing.”

It was in 1961 that I got an invitation sent to Dr Borlaug for visiting India and sharing with us the semi-dwarf wheat material which he had developed in Mexico using the Norin 10 dwarfing gene from Japan. Borlaug visited India in March 1963 and we travelled all over Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh during March 1 to 24, 1963. Dr D S Athwal, then the Head of the Plant Breeding Department of PAU, Ludhiana, provided dynamic leadership in testing, selecting and spreading the new varieties. After watching the performance of the material sent by Borlaug in September 1963 at several locations in North India, I proposed the initiation of a National Demonstration Programme to get the views of farmers on the new varieties. This programme was started during rabi 1964. As a result of their enthusiasm, a small government programme became a mass movement.

I had prepared in 1963 a paper titled “Five Years of Dwarf Wheats”, describing what needs to be done between 1963 and 1968. This was later published by the IARI. Although predictions are risky in the biological world due to many factors beyond human control such as weather, the programme went as planned and Indira Gandhi released a stamp titled “The Wheat Revolution” in July 1968 to commemorate the quantum jump in production achieved. We were fortunate to have the total support and guidance of Bharat Ratna C Subramaniam, who was the Union Agriculture Minister during 1964-67.

An important feature of the wheat revolution is an increase in production through higher productivity. For example, the yield of wheat in Punjab went up from about one tonne per hectare to over four tones after the Green Revolution. The same happened in Haryana and Western UP. Also, in this region, which is the heartland of the Green Revolution, farmers now take one high-yielding variety of rice in addition to wheat. Sometimes a potato crop is also taken as a result of the availability of irrigation water. However, such intensive cropping has also led to the over-exploitation of the aquifer. This is why I pleaded with the Punjab farmers that they should work for an ever-green revolution which can result in higher productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. I hope, Punjab, Haryana and the other important agricultural areas of our country will take to conservation farming and say goodbye to exploitative farming.

In 1966, India imported 18,000 tonnes of seeds of Lerma Roja 64-A and a few other varieties from Mexico with the help of Borlaug as part of a “purchase time” strategy, resulting in a quantum jump in wheat production from 12 million tonnes in 1965 to 17 million tonnes in 1968. Similar results were being obtained in rice, as a result of the introduction of the Dee-gee-woo gen dwarfing gene from China in tall varieties of indica rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Dr William Gaud of the US coined the term, “Green Revolution” in 1968 to denote productivity-led advances in production. For example, India produced 80 million tonnes of wheat from 26 million ha in 2009. If this production was to be achieved at the pre-Green Revolution yield level of 1 t/ha, 80 million hectares would have been needed. This is why the Green Revolution is also referred to land or forest saving agriculture.

Though a plant breeder, Borlaug always emphasised that for the plant to reveal its full genetic potential for yield, appropriate agronomic practices were needed. “Breeding” for high yield, he used to stress, must be accompanied by “feeding” for high yield.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.” These were the sentiments expressed by the Nobel Committee while presenting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize to Norman Borlaug. What led Borlaug to make such a significant contribution to fighting hunger? The secret of his success is reflected in his last spoken words on the night of Saturday, September 12, 2009. Earlier in the day, a scientist had shown him a nitrogen tracer developed for measuring soil fertility. His last words were “take the tracer to the farmer”. This life-long dedication to taking scientific innovations to farmers without delay sets Borlaug apart from most other farm scientists carrying out equally important research.

On the occasion of his receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from the US Congress on July 17, 2007, Borlaug said:

“The Green Revolution was a great historic success. In 1960, perhaps 60 per cent of the world’s people felt hunger during some portion of the year. By the year 2000, the proportion of hungry in the world had dropped to 14 per cent of the total population. Still, this figure translates to 850 million men, women and children who lack sufficient calories and protein to grow strong and healthy bodies. Thus, despite the successes of the Green Revolution, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of poor people is far from won”.

He urged the US Congress “to launch a new version of the Marshall Plan, this time not to rescue a war-torn Europe, but to help the nearly one billion, mostly rural poor, still trapped in hunger and misery”. This then is the unfinished task bequeathed by Borlaug to scientists and political leaders worldwide.

The writer is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and Chairman, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai.

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