Taking the Mexican 'Miracle Wheat' to the World's Farmers: 1961- 1969

The Elvin Charles Stakman Award

1961 - Norman Borlaug receives the Elvin Charles Stakman Award, from the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota. It is one of the first recognitions, outside of Mexico, given to Norman for his astounding achievements.

Dwarfing of Whear-Initial Rejections

Donald Fletcher of the private, Minnesota-based Rust Prevention Association, asks Norman for seeds of some semi-dwarfs and dwarfs. He obliges with several pounds of his best material. Fletcher distributes Norm’s Mexican semi-dwarfs among North American wheat breeders who are free to crossbreed them with their own lines. Private sector breeders ignore the seed gifts because “nothing good could ever come from Mexico”.

Training Wheat Apostles in Mexico

1961- Following Norman’s recommendations to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the first international trainees from North Africa and the Middle East arrive in Mexico. They are funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and other sources. Many have never traveled. They are sent to the CIANO research station near Obregon, Mexico in the Yaqui Valley and are bewildered as they find themselves immediately working in the fields. It is total immersion in everything to do with wheat; they will be trained like their Mexican counterparts were, and they are led by Norman Borlaug.

The FAO trainees have Norman and enthusiastic Mexican instructors. The preparation of fields, sowing and care of wheat materials in the 15B international collaboration is used for their training. Thus, they benefit from working with many international people, when the collaborators arrive to take disease readings and help harvest.

Norm is still physically strong and works in the fields with them. He can hold his own with the young trainees in the field but in the evenings, unseen by the trainees, he nurses the aches and pains of his 47 years.

Borlaug and his 'wheat apostles'
Borlaug and his "wheat apostles"

Every year more FAO trainees arrive. They become Norman’s “wheat apostles” who return home to lead and advance food production efforts. A Canadian, Glenn Anderson takes an interest in the trainee program. Anderson is a like minded soul mate of Norman’s, and gift to Norman’s efforts.

Norman is almost manic in his efforts to unleash the genetic potential of the dwarf wheats; colleagues have never seen him so intense. Some think that Norman is obsessed with dwarfing; however, now after thousands of crosses he is close to his goal of a short, stiff strawed plant with many robust seed heads.

The Birth of CIMMYT in Mexico

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines began by Harrar (Rockefeller Foundation) and Hill (Ford Foundation) becomes a reality. In 1963 Mexican President, Adolfo Lopez Mateos tours Asia and sees IRRI. He is told that IRRI sprang from the Mexican template. President Mateos wants to form a new organization in Mexico with even more international reach. In 1966 Mateos’s idea becomes the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT). CIMMYT will provide Norman Borlaug with a new career --- bringing his wheat to the world. He directs the wheat program, but by mutual agreement stays out of the administrative chain of command.


1964 - Norman along with his former protégé and now partner Dr. Ignacio Narvaez visit Pakistan. They take a half ton of wheat seeds as gifts to plant for experiment stations and in plots in farmers fields. Seeds get planted but there is great resistance from the Pakistan scientific community, especially plant breeders and agronomists. Some feel threatened by the Mexican wheats and resent intrusion from outside. There is some subversion and subterfuge on experimental plots, the Mexican wheats are not properly sown, fertilized or watered. They fail and much drama ensues.

Borlaug senses that anti-Americanism is also involved, however, trials of his Penjamo 62, Sonora 64 and Lerma Rojo on private Pakistani farms out yield local varieties 3-4 fold. There is hope.

Norman realizes that anti-Americanism could void opportunities for Pakistan and India to feed themselves. He says that his Mexican colleague, Dr. Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Narvaez, should lead the effort. ‘Nacho’ Narvaez is knowledgeable, likeable and is a perfect for the job.

Norman and Narvaez visit Pakistani President Ayub Kahn at his farm where Mexican wheats are growing. Norman says Pakistan can become self-sufficient in wheat by 1970. Ayub Kahn deliberates and then releases funds to buy seed, provide fertilizer and training along with price supports. There are many setbacks, but Pakistani farmers get what they need, wheat yields soar and deaths from starvation subside.

Campaign Against Hunger: The Book

George Harrar, now President of the Rockefeller Foundation, requests that members of the 1941 Mexican Survey Commission write a book on the Mexican Program’s impact. Stakman, Bradfield and Mangelsdorf agree; they begin writing “Campaigns Against Hunger”. This book will be seminal to many of Norman’s future awards since it documents the success of the ‘Mexican Program’.