The Unsung ‘Father Of Global Green Revolution’ Who Saved The World From Mass Starvation

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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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A true-blue patriot

“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.

Wheat research in Mexico: A tale of sacrifices

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.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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