Our Best Teachers
Our best teachers continue to teach us long after the classroom and even after they have passed on. The Dr. Borlaug I met as a graduate student and later came to know as Norm was a model teacher in that respect. His drive to eliminate world hunger originated in his upbringing during the Great Depression and his firsthand view of the human condition in Mexico, India, and Pakistan during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. His research lab was a field and his classroom was the global stage of the politics of food production and hunger.
Throughout his career he had scoured the world of wheat breeding for germplasm and sources of rust-resistant genes that would work in his breeding program. His wheat varieties were the result of brute force-crossing programs based on genetic stocks and germplasm from other breeders. He was the first to stack multiple sources of rust resistance in day-neutral germplasm (plants insensitive to day-length) with dwarfing genes that enabled them to respond to nitrogen fertilizer without getting too tall and falling down. His shuttling of germplasm between Mexico City and Obregon in an effort to breed twice as fast as the standard practice had the fortuitous outcome of producing day-neutral varieties that were adapted in nearly every country. He was in effect the freeware guy of breeding, using everyone else’s stuff and giving his freely to the world as well.
In the spring of 2008 and after Monsanto had already made a $5 million donation in his honor to the World Food Prize, Norm sent word through his granddaughter, Julie Borlaug, that he wanted to talk with our Chairman and CEO, Hugh Grant, our Chief Technology Officer, Robb Fraley, and me as our global breeding lead. Both Hugh and Robb knew Norm very well so we agreed to make the trip to his home in Dallas. Because we knew he wasn’t feeling well, we didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at his modest home in the suburbs.
We found him ensconced in his La-Z-Boy chair, wearing pajamas, and covered in blankets. He instructed me to sit on his right hand side so he could talk to me and asked Hugh and Robb to sit on the facing sofa so they could listen to what he wanted to tell me. It was an amazingly effective way to get a message across to the real decision makers without putting them on the uncomfortable hot seat, which was reserved for me. It was classic Borlaug and the product of getting fired years before.
Once again, I was the student of 37 years ago. Hungry people had nothing to lose and their desperation led them to do desperate things, he preached. Food was the only way to quench the fires of anarchy and revolution. Global increases in wheat and rice yields were falling behind global population growth, he pointed out. Those two crops were essential to the well-being of some 3 billion people, most of them in poor countries where malnutrition and even starvation are already issues. Without more research on the breeding for these two crops, a whole lot of people were going to be in for a whole lot of trouble.
The solution wasn’t going to come from government or international agencies or foundations, because, he said, they were the ones that had dropped the ball. He had therefore decided: If the problem was going to be fixed, it would have to be by a company, and the reason we were there was he had decided that company should be Monsanto.
But Monsanto didn’t even breed wheat or rice, I protested. We had no commercial interest in those crops any more having dropped them from our breeding portfolio once already.
Never mind, came the response. Monsanto had the capability; Monsanto should do it. The “rightness” of the solution was the only thing he focused on.
Dr. Borlaug went on like that for about two hours, hardly giving me — let alone Hugh or Robb — a chance to get in a word edgewise. The experience seemed to have been pure oxygen for him: When we’d arrived, he’d seemed like he was on his last leg. When we left, he walked us to the door.
Afterwards, when the three of us discussed his request, we never even considered the option of saying no. We knew the increasing needs for wheat and rice production were outpacing yield improvements. And how could anybody say no to Norm, especially Monsanto?
So the only question was what kind of program would help bring more intellectual firepower to the breeding of wheat and rice. To answer the question, we fell back on Norm’s own teaching again, because true to form, Norm had actually done this himself. The program we established,Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program, was actually modeled on his program of educating young researchers around the world at CIMMYT.
We announced our initiative – the most generous graduate student fellowship program in agriculture in the world — in Dallas on March 25, 2009, Dr. Borlaug’s 95th birthday. He talked forever that day, but everyone was absolutely thrilled to be a student in his classroom one more time. Since then, some 64 scholars from 25 countries have either completed or enrolled in the program.
I know Norm smiles every time we award one of those fellowships.
Ted Crosbie is Monsanto’s Integrated Farming Systems Lead.
Originally published October 18, 2013, by Monsantoco