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The Borlaug Blog

Mentored by Greatness

By Dr. Ronnie Coffman
World Food Prize Council of Advisors
Ronnie Coffman

When a person is mentored by greatness, it changes them for life. That is what happened to me under Dr. Norman E. Borlaug.

In 1967, I arrived at Cornell University from the University of Kentucky as a 24-year-old Ph.D. student in the plant breeding department. Soon afterwards, I was offered funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to work with Dr. Norman E. Borlaug at the Centro Internacional de Mejoramient de Maiz y Trigo, or CIMMYT, in Mexico. After completing my coursework and passing my qualifying exams, I arrived in Mexico late in 1969 to begin my research. When I arrived, Dr. Borlaug was traveling in India, so it was some time before I actually met him.

In February 1970, when the wheat began to flower in Cd. Obregόn and it was time to make crosses, Dr. Borlaug arrived. Although many trainees from many countries were present, including a number from India, I eventually came to realize that I was his first Ph.D. student.

Dr. Borlaug was a man who loved to spend time in the wheat field, and we all enjoyed being there with him. He often admonished us that we should listen to the wheat plants. We would work quietly together attempting to select superior plants from the early generation populations. From time to time, someone would ask a question that would provoke Dr. Borlaug and he would embark on a lecture. Standing in the field, with his hands on his hips, he would talk with incredible enthusiasm about wheat breeding. We would stand spellbound, listening. “Scientists should produce more useful varieties and less paper,” he would often say. “People can’t eat paper.”

Later that year, in October, several of us were in the field with Dr. Borlaug in the Toluca Valley of Mexico when we saw his wife’s car moving slowly through the field, separated from us by a large irrigation canal. Eventually, the car came to a halt and his wife, Margaret, emerged. “Norman,” she shouted across the canal, “you have won the Nobel Peace Prize.”  None of us could quite believe it, including Dr. Borlaug. He yelled back and forth with Mrs. Borlaug for a few minutes until she departed. We all went back to our selection work. About 30 minutes later, a reporter arrived from Mexico City who made all of us, including Dr. Borlaug, realize it was, indeed, true. It seemed strange to us that only one reporter came. Eventually, dozens of them arrived and that’s when we learned that the first one had paid a local farmer to misdirect the others.

After he received the Nobel Prize, Dr. Borlaug was too busy to accept other students, so I have the distinction of being his only Ph.D. student. After graduation, I became a rice breeder at the International Rice Research Institute and then went on to work at Cornell University, but I always stayed in touch with Dr. Borlaug.

“Why is it,” he would often ask, “that rice is the only economically important cereal crop that is not affected by the rust disease?” It is a question researchers wrestle with to this day.

Dr. Borlaug revolutionized plant breeding, especially wheat breeding. He was trained as a plant pathologist and his primary objective was to produce rust resistant wheat varieties for Mexican farmers. To reach that objective as quickly as possible, he would grow an off-season wheat crop in a breeding nursery in the Toluca Valley, 1200 miles south of the wheat growing area. Conventional wisdom among plant breeders at the time said that the resulting wheat material would not be well adapted. But, to the surprise of everyone, the wheat Dr. Borlaug developed as a result of this pioneering “shuttle breeding” between Cd. Obregón and Toluca was adapted worldwide, apparently due to the loss of photoperiod sensitivity. Dr. Borlaug then went on to combine rust resistance with short-stature and other desirable traits that eventually resulted in the high-yielding Mexican varieties.

With his novel approach to developing high yielding wheat varieties and improving crop management practices, Dr. Borlaug transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940s and ’50s and, later, in Asia and other parts of Latin America, sparking what became known as the “Green Revolution,” saving millions from starvation.

Dr. Borlaug had three favorite sayings: “Mediocrity is a waste”; “You can’t eat potential”; and “Negativity and pessimism never changed the world.” Regardless of the difficulties he saw traveling in some of the world’s poorest countries, Dr. Borlaug was always an optimist. He single-mindedly dedicated himself to improving agricultural production to prevent children from dying of what he considered “needless” starvation.

In the last major initiative of Dr. Borlaug’s long and distinguished career, I had the privilege of working with him once again to establish the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative  (BGRI) and  the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW), now the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project. Led by Cornell University, and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development of the UK, these initiatives will reduce the world’s vulnerability to biotic and abiotic stresses of wheat, facilitate the evolution of a sustainable international system to contain the threats to wheat, and continue the enhancements in wheat productivity that are required to withstand future global challenges and demand.

To the many wheat scientists who are motivated by his example, Dr. Borlaug was fond of saying, “Rust never sleeps, and neither must we.”

My hope is that the BGRI, the DRRW and the DGGW will be lasting legacies for Dr. Borlaug, supporting a worldwide community of wheat researchers working to realize Dr. Borlaug’s dream of wheat that is durably resistant to multiple threats and food security for all.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Indo-US Science & Technology Forum in 2010.

01/15/2018 12:21 PM |Add a comment |Comments (5)
so inspiring to listen to these as i read!! wow...

hilda kavai | | 01/27/2018 11:20 PM
Ronnie, Your story is a great example of how important inspiring, dedicated mentors are. I was blessed to have two - JDW and BM during my days at CSHL.

Dan Klessig | 01/22/2018 9:17 AM
What a great story, Ronnie. We're sharing on CIMMYT and WHEAT social media.

Mike Listman | | | 01/16/2018 12:00 PM
Ronnie, this is great and so inspiring. Proud to know I am a beneficiary of Dr Borlaug's "clones"...May his legacy live on as the great men and women he mentored continue with these life-changing interventions in the Biosciences.

Margaret Karembu | | | 01/16/2018 5:18 AM
Ronnie,couldn't agree more as to who tops my list as to best mentor. Also, what his presence did for 1995 St.Louis CSSA meetings regarding symposia on Crop Science Revolution 1950-2000. Borlaug presence brought in Farm Press and made a large meeting room too small!

ronnie, couldn't agree more as to who tops my list as best

Bruce Maunder | | 01/15/2018 2:24 PM
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