By the first half of the 20th century, the world had suffered the brunt of two consecutive and catastrophic world wars. Aside from the loss of families, friends, homes and jobs, the surviving population across the globe had a far bitter trauma to deal with – starvation. Wars incur unprecedented economic losses. Since the Great Depression of 1929, the food crisis had plagued thousands of lives and killed many more, especially in underdeveloped countries.
Following independence in 1947, India and her newborn neighbours like Pakistan were reeling under acute poverty, which, added on to an exponentially growing population, posed the threat of famines as dire as the infamous Bengal Famine of 1943.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
Norman Borlaug: The man who saved the war-ravaged world
In the late 1960s, noted biologist Paul Ehrlich floated his explosive theory of Population Bomb, which predicted that millions in the Indian subcontinent might perish as the food supply failed to multiply as fast as the population. However, in reality, such a drastic disaster could be prevented, all credits to one of the most unsung heroes of the world – Norman Borlaug.
The Nobel Peace Prize awardee American agronomist had also been awarded the Padma Vibhushan – the second-highest civilian honour from India, aside from the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal from his motherland.
Father of Worldwide Green Revolution
Recognised as the true father of the worldwide Green Revolution, Borlaug developed a miraculous strain of wheat that saved an entire planet from mass starvation. The semi-dwarf wheat strain, first piloted in Mexico by Borlaug, exhibited high yield, disease resistance and resilience to all weather and soil conditions. The variety thrived well in the Indian subcontinent, saving an undernourished population from impending doom.
Soon, the cultivation of his wheat strain spread like wildfire all over the world with developing countries importing Borlaug’s seeds in bulk. Production increased by nearly three times in the 30 years between 1960 and 2000.
Later, Borlaug reproduced his work on corn and rice as well, thereby ushering in the ‘Green Revolution’, which still holds relevance as a crucial chapter in the history of humanity.
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“I am the product of the worst of the depression,” Borlaug famously remarked in a 2002 interview with Dallas Observer. The depth of his simple comment can be properly comprehended if one chronicles his life – full of struggles, hard work and a heroic dedication.
Borlaug worked as a high school science teacher and later as a microbiologist with a chemical firm in the USA, before the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack which altered the trajectory of his life. A true patriot, Borlaug tried to enlist himself in the military following the incident. However, instead of a place on the battlefield, he was assigned to research and develop ingenious military supplies.
He discovered a seawater-resistant glue for the wooden military ships sailing across the Pacific, camouflage accessories, disinfectants as well as electronic equipments. They might sound simple, but each of these played a crucial role in assisting the sturdy American soldiers to survive the brutal war in foreign soils.
However, these discoveries are actually the tip of the iceberg if we analyse Borlaug’s contribution to humanity. In June 1944, upon the invitation of Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug joined the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico the head geneticist.
The new program team set up camp in an abandoned agricultural station in Northern Mexico’s Yaqui Valley. Despite the absence of proper water, sanitation and electricity, Borlaug and his team worked day and night to develop a new rust-resistance, high-yield variety of wheat, that could solve the imminent food crisis in the continent.
It took around ten exhausting years for Borlaug to finally unveil his exceptional variety of wheat.
Borlaug later recounted the sacrifices he made for this experiment. He had left his wife and 14-month old daughter behind in the war-ravaged USA to carry out his research in a remote, inaccessible location in Mexico.
Saving India and her neighbours
It was Borlaug’s work in the Indian subcontinent in the early 1960s that deserves a special mention. India’s population was growing at an alarmingly high rate but the crop production couldn’t be enhanced accordingly. On top of that, ongoing wars with neighbouring countries created a famine-like scenario in parts of India.
As word about Borlaug’s wheat strain spread, in 1962, M. S. Swaminathan, Father of Green Revolution in India, invited Borlaug to Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Borlaug arrived in 1963 and supplied 100 kg of his seed to India.
However, owing to traditional habits and not much in-depth scientific know-how, Indian farmers were reluctant to sow Borlaug’s seeds and follow his instructions of advanced farming. But Borlaug was not a man to give up. He persuaded the whos who of agricultural ministry and in the following three decades, wheat production went up three times.
A superhero without a cape
Eventually, all the developing countries started importing Borlaug’s seeds and resorting to his methods to catalyse their production rates.
His incredible efforts, which managed to resist a worldwide famine in the face of the population bomb, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Other awards and honours followed soon after. The superhero who saved the world from hunger breathed his last on September 12, 2009, at the age of 95.
Borlaug once revealed his fascination with the rustling sound of wheat plants in the breeze. He devoted an entire lifetime with the crop, for the sake of humanity. Yet, despite his illustrious list of awards, very few in the world are aware of his contribution. It is high time the superhero is given the recognition he deserves.
Nel Jayaraman, the celebrated farmer from Tamil Nadu who revived over 170 traditional varieties of paddy in the state, passed away on Thursday morning in Chennai at the age of 54. The organic farming crusader, who spearheaded the ‘Save Our Rice’ campaign in the state, succumbed to cancer which he had been battling for the past two years.
He was a school dropout
Born as R Jayaraman in Adhirangam village in Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, he was fondly nicknamed as ‘Nel’ (meaning paddy in Tamil) Jayaraman by his ardent followers. He was a breathing encyclopedia of rice farming, with an astounding knowledge about an endless variety of paddy seeds and cultivation specifics for each.
A 2014 report by The Hindu reveals that Jayaraman was a high school dropout and dedicated his life to preserving the traditional rice species which were getting lost in the overwhelming surge of high-yielding varieties and chemical-induced cultivation.
As a teenager, Jayaraman joined the Federation of Consumer Organization (Fedcot) and his extraordinary zeal soon promoted him to the post of agriculture training director. Incidentally, he was the only person in the record to gain this position without any academic degree in agriculture. He was also integrally associated with Consumer Research, Education, Action, Training and Empowerment (CREATE). He used to attribute his passion and dedication to his guru Dr G Nammalvar.
He influenced over 50,000 farmers
The Cauvery delta, often proclaimed as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, once housed a wide range of paddy species. However, recurring cyclones and climatic disturbances continued to affect farmers. Jayaraman was a pioneering figure who guided countless farmers to get a good harvest of rice withstanding all natural adversities.
Scouring through the tropical state tirelessly for around five years, Jayaraman identified 15 traditional paddy varieties which he used for seed cultivation. The following year, Tamil Nadu saw the first ever paddy seed festival organised by him where he distributed two kg of 15 varieties of paddy seeds to more than 300 attendee farmers. The seed festival, ‘Nel Tiruvizha’, has been an annual ritual ever since, growing in stature and outreach with each passing year. In fact, in one year, he pledged his wife’s jewellery and poured in his savings to collect Rs 75,000 for the festival.
“He had a huge following and about 50,000 to 60,000 farmers have benefitted from his efforts,” shared Sridhar Radhakrishnan from Thanal Agroecology Centre with The News Minute. Upholding the practice of traditional organic farming throughout his life, he revived over 170 endangered varieties of paddy native to Tamil Nadu, like Kattuyanam, Kattu Kuthalam, Seeraga Samba, Mappillai Samba, Arupatham Kuruvai, Sivappu Kuruvikar, Velchi and Mattaikkar.
His unmatched passion prompted a well-wisher NRI from his village to gift him nine acres of fertile land where Jayaraman practised paddy farming and conducted training workshops.
Battle with cancer
In 2016, Jayaraman was diagnosed with cancer but he knew no stop. Even with cancer slowly eroding his body, Jayaraman continued to fruit new seeds of paddy, sheerly with his indomitable spirit and enthusiasm to help other farmers. He organised the ‘Nel Tiruvizha’ in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18 in grand scale, despite the disease weighing him down. Usha Soolapani, National Coordinator of the Save Our Rice campaign shares, “I remember many of us had asked him not to go through the trouble of organising the Tiruvizha that year given his health. He wouldn’t listen. Such was his enthusiasm.”
Sridhar Radhakrishnan, who used to visit Jayaraman during his last months, recounts that he had never seen the stalwart spend a moment without talking about farming, and asserting the importance of passing on his knowledge. He adds, “He made us shoot a video of him from the hospital, talking to his followers not about his pain but about farming.” Sridhar added how at a recent meeting in Madurai, Jayaraman’s illness was overbearing his energy after every few minutes, but he refused to cower down.
It must be mentioned here that Nel Jayaraman played a pivotal role in organising the much-highlighted All India Kisan Mukti Yatra in September 2017, even with his deteriorating health.
Awards and recognitions for Nel Jayaraman
He received the National Award for best Genome Saviour in 2015. In 2011, Nel Jayaraman was honoured by the Tamil Nadu Government with the State Award for the best organic farmer. He was recognised as an organic farming activist all over the world.
In fact, he had delivered a speech on his work at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines upon a special invitation.
With his passing away, the nation which thrives upon farming has suffered an irreparable loss.