Dr. Norman Borlaug

Date: 1970
Owner: Norman E. Borlaug Digital Archives
Source Type: Images


This photograph shows United States scientist Dr. Norman Borlaug, one of the leading figures of Mexico's Green Revolution, in a wheat field in Mexico. The Rockefeller Foundation began working with the Mexican government in 1943 in an effort (initiated by Mexican president Manuel Camacho and U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace) to improve Mexican crop yields and make Mexico self-reliant in grain production. Borlaug joined this effort in 1945 as a geneticist and plant pathologist. He developed a hybrid form of wheat that took on the most useful characteristics of both Mexican and U.S. strains. Mexican wheat ripened early but was subject to stem rust while U.S. wheat ripened late but was safe from rust; Borlaug fused them into a strain that ripened early yet did not rust. As a testament to his success, 90% of all Mexican wheat fields were planted with improved grain by 1957. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his success in increasing crop yields in Mexico and, later, India.

Although Borlaug's wheat thrived in Mexico, the RF's contemporaneous effort to improve corn yields proved far less successful. Mexican wheat farms were very similar to those of the U.S. (large-scale production agriculture) and thus adapted well to the U.S.-style farming system that RF employees like Borlaug brought to Mexico. Corn (maize) farms, however, were usually smaller family-owned subsistence farms. These scattered farms did not have the resources to invest in the fertilizers and irrigation systems necessary to make hybrid corn profitable, nor was there a sufficient network for distributing the seeds of new strains in remote rural areas. By 1963, only 12% of Mexican corn was hybrid. In short, Borlaug's wheat program was very successful because it was well suited for the U.S.-style agriculture that already predominated in that sector and which RF promoted.  The RF's attempts to introduce hybrid strains of corn did far more poorly because the U.S. production model could not be projected onto Mexican subsistence farms. Despite the good intentions of the RF, Mexican corn culture could not accommodate U.S. norms.

Reference: Fitzgerald, Deborah. "Exporting American Agriculture: The Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, 1943-1953." In Marcos Cueto, ed. Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation in Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

CITATION: Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Image courtesy of the Norman E. Borlaug Digital Archives.