The Researcher

Graph showing wheat yields
Graph showing the 4.5 fold increase in Mexican wheat production caused by Borlaug's wheat.

Borlaug’s goal was to make Mexico self-sufficient in wheat production. In 1944 wheat was seldom grown due to devastating stem rust disease epidemics. Norman, with the help of Joe Rupert (a University of Minnesota alum), taught uneducated Mexican farm youths plant breeding techniques. Norman explained genetic crosses in terms of ‘marriages’ between cows and bulls. Being raised on farms they understood that analogy, worked hard and soon excelled at making ‘wheat marriages.’ Some of these young men continued their educations and became internationally acclaimed wheat breeders. 

Borlaug and his working group were rebels. They defied plant breeding dogma. They worked by an unspoken motto—’Tell us what needs to happen, and then get out of our way’. They created a revolutionary high volume "shuttle breeding" program. They bred wheat using two distinct latitudes and seasons in the same year. In summer they bred wheat at high altitude near Mexico City, in winter they used the Yaqui Valley of northern Mexico—an irrigated part of the Sonoran Desert. Thus, they bred two generations of wheat a year, when other breeders produced but one. They ‘married’ thousands of wheat parents yearly, while most breeders managed less than 200 per year. They started in 1945 and released their first breakthrough Mexican variety, Yaqui 50, in 1950. By 1956 Mexico was self sufficient in wheat production.

Yaqui Valley wheat - 1943
Wheat growing in the Yaqui Valley in Mexico in 1944 before Borlaug started. This field was not uniform and was riddled with stem rust of wheat. The projected yield for this field was only 10 bushels per acre.

They built on the Yaqui 50 success and through continuous collaborations and arduous work they were rewarded in 1960 with robust, short-strawed, disease resistant wheat varieties which had abundant plump grain heads. Their grain yields were enormous compared to any previous wheat. These ‘miracle Mexican Wheats’ eventually became the genetic foundation of bread wheat grown throughout the world.

By using two distinctly differing geographic research sites, and two seasons per year, Borlaug found that he had inadvertently eliminated day length sensitivity from his program’s wheats. This proved to be a serendipitous, monumental breakthrough for plant breeding. His wheat readily adapted to most geographic growing regions in Mexico and proved adaptable worldwide.

Borlaug’s wheat seeds were given, along with training and education programs, to any country requesting them. However, recipient nations were required to dedicate resources to breeding wheat, and build graduate level colleges of agriculture. The goal was to build a self-sufficient, educated group of scientists in each nation to carry on after Borlaug’s group left.

Yaqui Valley wheat - 2004
The benefits of having Borlaug's wheat varieties on display in the Yaqui Valley in Mexico in 2004.

By the 1970’s Borlaug’s wheat and accompanying technology greatly increased production in Pakistan and India. The miracle wheat provided food that averted what would assuredly have been massive famines. Even today these wheat varieties and their relatives continue to feed the world. In the year 2000, when a new race of the stem rust fungus arose in Uganda and threatened wheat production, it was estimated that 80% of all wheat varieties grown worldwide had Borlaug’s wheat and rust resistance genes in their lineages.

Learn More About Borlaug's Research

The Mexican Agricultural Program