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Borlaug Centennial celebrated with international summit

By Brenna Goth/CIMMYT

More than 700 people from nearly 70 countries joined with some of the greatest minds in agriculture and food security during 25-28 March to recognize the legacy of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug and the future of wheat in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico.

CIMMYT organized the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security with the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative and the Patronato farmers’ association to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dr. Borlaug’s birth. Dr. Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work developing high-yielding wheat varieties now used around the world. He began this research in Ciudad Obregón working for CIMMYT’s predecessor organization.

The Summit built on Borlaug’s history in Sonora’s Yaqui Valley to recognize his scientific contributions, remember his spirit and work ethic and ask what interventions are available today to help feed a growing population in the face of climate change and other challenges. Wheat was the focus of these discussions, with topics including precision agriculture, market outlook, the history of wheat and its importance in various parts of the world.

Norman Borlaug’s Legacy

“Without fail, if you met Norman Borlaug, you remember him,” said CIMMYT Director General Thomas Lumpkin. Summit sessions included personal memories of Dr. Borlaug. Letters and reports from students at the Norman E. Borlaug Primary School, near Mexico City, were displayed at the CIMMYT research station.

CIMMYT Director General Thomas Lumpkin opens
the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security. Photo: Mike Listman/CIMMYT

Jeanie Borlaug-Laube, Dr. Borlaug’s daughter, left a video message for the Summit reflecting on his life and work. Julie Borlaug, Dr. Borlaug’s granddaughter, arrived to present CIMMYT with the World Food Prize Foundation’s Norman E. Borlaug Medallion. CIMMYT is the Foundation’s fifth recipient of the medal, which recognizes organizations and heads of state  who are not eligible for the World Food Prize but have made outstanding contributions to improving food security and nutrition.

Participants also witnessed CIMMYT’s continuation of Dr. Borlaug’s research with a visit to the Norman E. Borlaug Experimental Station (CENEB) during the Summit field day. Buses took participants to sites throughout the research station to learn about CIMMYT breeding program efforts, wheat improvement strategies and efforts to breed for rust resistance. The wheat physiology group demonstrated tools, including blimps and helicopters, used to measure wheat photosynthesis and other traits. The day recognized Dr. Borlaug’s fondness for Mexico by including a traditional barbeque and mariachi music.

The State of Wheat Today

Speaker sessions held at the Universidad La Salle Noroeste focused on the successes and shortcomings of the Green Revolution and current challenges in producing enough food. Wheat has socially evolved from the grain of “civilized people” to a crop for everyone, said food historian Rachel Laudan. Mechanized milling eliminated the need to devote significant time and back-breaking labor grinding wheat and led to consumption of the grain worldwide.

Speakers agreed that increasing wheat yield to meet worldwide demand is a challenge. “We live in a world of chronic crises,” said Sir Gordon Conway, professor at Imperial College London, during his talk on lessons learned from the Green Revolution, adding that, oftentimes, when one crisis is solved, another arises.

Summit attendees learn about CIMMYT research. Photo: Mike Listman/CIMMYT

Not all of the poor benefitted from the Green Revolution; it passed by much of Africa and it led to increased reliance on synthetic fertilizers, Conway said. At the same time, rising food prices, a need to increase food production, rising meat consumption and stressors such as climate change challenge food security today. Sustainable intensification – through ecological and genetic approaches – can help, Conway said, as well as making sure people get the inputs they need. “We’ve got to intensify production,” he said. “We’ve got to get yields up.”

Philanthropist Howard Buffett also stressed sustainability with his call for a “Brown Revolution,” or a focus on saving soil and the world’s ecosystem. Much of his philanthropic work focuses on farming and agriculture. Farming is the most important profession in the world, Buffett said, yet he has met farmers who cannot feed their families. “I said ‘This is wrong,’” Buffett commented. “We have to figure out how to do this better.”

Looking Forward

Increasing demand for wheat combined with climate change and declining water availability could present challenges to food security. “The time for wheat is arriving,” said Tray Thomas, founding partner of The Context Network, while addressing the wheat market outlook. “We have the technology; we have the people; we have the demand for it.”

New agronomy and tools, untapped wheat genetic diversity, non-conventional breeding and intensification on all fronts could lift yields, stated Tony Fischer, honorary research fellow for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia. Conventional breeding is also helping, he added. “Even in the toughest environments, science can make progress.”

Changing how to breed and select crops and deciding where they are grown are all ways forward, added Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto. Multi-faceted solutions to address ever-evolving problems are key. Computer-modeled and statistically based data science, for instance, can optimize farm management practices to improve productivity.

CIMMYT Director General Thomas Lumpkin sits with Mexican officials at the opening of the Borlaug Summit
on Wheat for Food Security. Photo: Mike Listman/CIMMYT

Advice can be distributed to farmers in most countries using cell phones. Biotechnology is also changing the way people think about breeding crops, Fraley said. About 17 million farmers in nearly 30 countries are using biotech crops. The Summit ended with the official launch of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, which aims to increase wheat yield potential by up to 50 percent in 20 years through collaboration between the public and private sectors.