Speech by Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program, on the passing of Norman Borlaug

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(Given in El Batán, Mexico, on 15 September 2009.)

Today we come together to celebrate the 199th anniversary of Mexico’s independence but it is also the saddest moment in the history of CIMMYT, since we are mourning Dr. Borlaug. I am sure, if we could ask him, Dr. Borlaug would insist that we celebrate “El Grito” today. He knew the importance of this tradition, for he not only lived 62 years in Mexico, he loved Mexico, the Mexican people, and Ciudad Obregon, which he considered home.

Dr. Borlaug influenced the thinking of thousands of agricultural scientists. He was the most influential breeder ever and, equally important, his stature enabled him to influence politicians and leaders around the world. His legacy and his work ethic––to get things done and not mind getting your hands dirty––are the basis of Borlaug’s philosophy, which influenced us all and remains CIMMYT’s guiding principle today. He was a giant, a global leader in agriculture, a visionary and, at the same time, very down to earth. In Germany we have the word “Uebervater”––father above all fathers––which best describes what he meant to us and to millions of people.

Over the years, thousands of trainees sweated side by side with Dr. Borlaug in the field. Irrespective of their cultural background, they were infected with the Borlaug bacillus to work together to help others. This core of young scientists became his troops in fighting hunger. Many later became leaders in their own countries, where they implemented Norm’s life philosophy: Don’t be afraid, do your best, never give up, and you will succeed. Training young people was always at the center of his heart. The last time I saw him in Obregon in March, he specifically mentioned that CIMMYT should start in-service training again. Norm, we take this as an order.

Yes, he was a giant, but people at CIMMYT who worked with him will remember Norm as a caring and engaging person. When I was a young man working in Turkey, he called me into his office and asked me how zinc research was progressing. I had just started explaining when he had to leave unexpectedly. One year later, we met again, and he immediately said, “Well, Hans, last year you didn’t tell me the zinc story, so tell me now!” How could he have remembered after one year?

But my most memorable meeting with Norm was in 2005, at the 7th IWC, when I just had been appointed Wheat Program Director. After the conference dinner, at 11:30 pm, he asked me to come to his room, where we talked until 2:30 in the morning. He gave me a lot of advice, some very personal. But two things I can share. One: never, ever, hurt people’s dignity and pride, and never be arrogant. And the other: he said, “I’ll help you!” And help he did. Without his advice, I’m not sure what the Wheat Program would look like today, but for sure not as strong as it is now.

This is how Dr. Borlaug led his life. His generosity affected millions. We will greatly miss his intellectual inspiration, his leadership, and his support. The world has lost one of the greatest human beings ever, and all who knew him should be immensely grateful.

When he talked to Art Klatt and Bill Raun about nitrogen sensor technology, Dr. Borlaug’s parting words were: “Take it to the farmers.” I think these words best summarize what Dr. Borlaug stood for. Farmers––poor farmers and their families––were always in his thoughts. And I promise this was, is, and will remain CIMMYT’s ultimate goal. If we fail in this, we fail in everything we do, and we will not pay Norman Borlaug the tribute he deserves.

Media relations training for WEMA

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A workshop on media handling and science communication was held for spokespersons of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project during 4-5 August 2009 at the Nairobi Safari Club. Organized by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA), this workshop aimed to equip scientists and WEMA principal investigators with skills for effective communication with the media and for designing and packaging comprehensive communication briefs on the project. Among other things, participants were shown the journalistic “inverted pyramid” model for writing, whereby texts should lead off with the most important information and then move on to background or supporting information.

The event brought to light the challenges faced when communicating about topics like risk. Perceptions of risk differ across countries, as succinctly expressed by Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard University: “In the US, products are safe until proven risky. WEMA1In France, products are risky even when proven safe. In India products are safe even when proven risky. In Africa, products are risky even if they do not exist.” Participants were advised to be believable, convincing, clear, and concise, and to remain positive under questioning.

Communication theories and the principles of communication were introduced, and participants were encourage to follow the APP model (anticipate, prepare, practice) that involves preparing for interviews with the help of communication personnel to anticipate all manner of possible questions, and practicing before the interview. Avoiding jargon was also emphasized. “I gained new insight into media relations, which will help me communicate with better with the media,” said Stephen Mugo, CIMMYT senior scientist, at the end of the training.

A complementary follow-up event that focused on confidentiality in technology development was held 6–7 August. Organized by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) with the WEMA management team, the event was attended by project country leaders and communications staff. Among the principles that emerged was an agreement that information should be shared on a “need-to-know” basis, and that project participants should be careful  about what information is marked as confidential. Resource persons were Francesca Re Manning, an advocate working with the Central Advisory Service for Intellectual Property (CASIP), Rome, together with Gabriela Wehrle of Monsanto, and Lucas Oluoch, legal officer at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Attending from CIMMYT were Yoseph Beyene (associate scientist), Anne Wangalachi (communications officer), and Judie- Lynn Rabar (science writer/editor). Stephen Mugo (senior scientist) was among the organizers of the training as the WEMA-Kenya project leader. Logistics were jointly organized by AATF and CIMMYT, with Mildred Khalumba as CIMMYT’s representative.

Hybrid maize breeding course in Hyberabad

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Forty-five maize scientists gathered at CIMMYT’s office in Hyderabad, India, from 31 August until 5 September for a course on maize hybrid breeding for rainfed areas in Asia. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), and the Generation Challenge Program (GCP) organized the course, which received nearly 90 applications from interested scientists.

Various aspects related to hybrid maize breeding were covered by competent and qualified scientists from CIMMYT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Indian maize programs, and the private sector. “This course was very successful,” said Harun-or Rahsid, a participant from Bangladesh. “We were introduced to several new ideas that we can use to develop stable maize hybrids in a more effective and resource-efficient manner.” The majority of participants came from India (23), but others came from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. The private sector was well represented; 12 participants came from the following companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, BIOSEED, Krishidhan Seeds, Ajeet Seeds, ABS Seeds, Safal Seeds, JK Seeds, VNR Seeds, and Vibha Agri-tech.

“I’m glad the CIMMYT-Asia program took the initiative to organized this much anticipated course,” said CIMMYT scientist S.K. Vasal. “It will strengthen partnerships and collaboration in the region and help us to achieve our goal of doubling maize production by the year 2020.”

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ZM 309 gets presidential nod in Malawi

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On 3 September 2009, a new drought tolerant maize variety received presidential approval in Malawi. The variety, ZM 309, known by locals as ‘msungabanja’ (that which takes care of the family), will be included in the national farm input subsidy program and is to be planted by farmers in Malawi’s most drought prone areas this October.

Malawi1Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika hosted CIMMYT’s Wilfred Mwangi, project leader of Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA), and Peter Setimela, maize breeder, at the State House in Lilongwe. The two briefed him on CIMMYT’s maize research activities and collaboration in Malawi, which date back to 1974. “The new maize variety, ZM 309, released under the auspices of the DTMA Project, will give Malawi farmers an advantage because it is high yielding and drought tolerant,” said President Bingu wa Mutharika on receiving a 10-ton consignment of ZM 309 seed presented by Mwangi and Setimela on behalf of CIMMYT. “We welcome this research because it will help Malawi cope with climate change and improve food security.”

The variety will be grown in Balaka, Chikwawa, Nsanje, and Karonga, and the consignment is adequate to plant a minimum of 400 hectares. “We at CIMMYT commend Malawi’s leadership for implementing innovative agricultural policies that have made the country a great example for improving national food security in Africa,” said Mwangi. “We will work with the government of Malawi to help farmers cope with climate change by using drought tolerant maize technology.”

ZM 309 is a drought tolerant, open-pollinated maize variety, meaning farmers have the option to save seed for subsequent seasons with minimum yield loss. ZM 309 was developed through collaborative research efforts with CIMMYT, Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, and Chitedze Research Station. CIMMYT also included an information leaflet on ZM 309 in each 10-kilo bag of seed as part of efforts to provide information about new varieties to farmers. CIMMYT is most grateful to Andrew Daudi, Malawi’s principal secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, and to Jeff Luhanga, controller of Agricultural Extension and Technical Services from the same department, for their support and facilitation assistance. Collaboration with SeedCo Malawi in producing the required seed is also acknowledged, and particular gratitude is due to SeedCo employees Dellings Phiri, general manager, and John Lungu, operations executive. Also participating in the event was Anne Wangalachi, CIMMYT science writer/editor.

Farewell to Norman Borlaug: World loses its leading hunger fighter

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CIMMYT joins with members of the international development community to mourn the passing of Nobel Peace Laureate and renowned wheat scientist, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, who died Saturday night at the age of 95 from complications from cancer, after an exemplary life dedicated to fighting hunger in developing countries.

Dr. Borlaug worked as a CIMMYT wheat breeder and research director for nearly four decades and was a CIMMYT scientist at the time he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

High-yielding wheat varieties and improved farming practices, first developed by Borlaug and his team in Mexico during the 1950s, were introduced into South Asia in the 1960s and may well be responsible for saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. Known as the Green Revolution, Borlaug’s work gave rise to science-based agriculture in developing countries. Today, high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties based on Dr. Borlaug’s pioneering work are grown on 80 million hectares (200 million acres) throughout the world.

Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Prize for those achievements, and his success led to the establishment of a network of 15 international agricultural research centers, including CIMMYT.

Borlaug’s full-time employment at CIMMYT ended in 1979, although he remained a resident part-time consultant until his death. In 1984, he began a new career as a university professor, teaching one semester a year at Texas A&M University, which continued for 23 years. In 1986, he joined forces with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Nippon Foundation of Japan, under the chairmanship of Ryoichi Sasakawa, to develop an African agricultural initiative. Over a 20-year period, the Sasakawa-Global 2000 agricultural program, as it is known, has been working in 15 African countries to transfer improved agricultural technology to several million small-scale farmers.

Borlaug was especially proud of his role in establishing the World Food Prize in 1986. This prize has grown in stature and is now considered the “Nobel Prize” for food and agriculture. Some 25 men and women have been recognized for their outstanding contributions to increasing the quantity, quality and availability of world food supplies. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation has also developed outstanding educational programs to engage young people in world food issues.

Dr. Borlaug always considered himself to be a teacher, as well as a scientist. Today, several thousand men and women agricultural scientists from more than 50 countries are proud to say they were Norman Borlaug’s “students.”

Borlaug used his fame and influence to champion the cause of smallholder agricultural development around the globe. Over a 63-year career, he traveled tirelessly to more than 100 nations, visiting farmers and agricultural scientists in their fields. It is estimated that over his lifetime he personally spoke to more than 500,000 students and ordinary citizens, explaining the challenges and complexities of world food production.

Borlaug was voted a member of the academies of agricultural science of 11 nations, received 60 honorary doctorate degrees from those countries, and was honored by farmer and civic associations in 28 countries.

Of all the places that he visited, his beloved home was Mexico, and in particular, the irrigated Yaqui Valley in the state of Sonora, in northwest Mexico. “This is where I truly feel at home, and where I am at peace,” he would often say. The feeling was reciprocal. In Ciudad Obregón, in the heart of the Yaqui Valley, one of main streets is named after Borlaug, and hundreds have known him since they were born.

Although probably better known outside the United States—in Mexico, India, Pakistan, China and Latin America, Borlaug’s work has also been widely recognized in the USA. At the federal level, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science and the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.

CIMMYT was also home to Dr. Borlaug, who was known as a simple and charismatic figure, who spoke Spanish fluently and truly cared about people, greeting and chatting with researchers and field workers alike. His dedicated pragmatism and vision of applying science to benefit the poor live on as core values of CIMMYT and several other institutions with which he was closely associated.

Norm, as he liked be called, lived his life as a dedicated hunger-fighter, but one who was forever vigilant. As he said in his acceptance speech of the 1970 Nobel Prize: “…It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better…but ebb tide could soon set in, if we become complacent…”

We can think of no greater tribute to Norm than to carry on the work to which he dedicated his life: applying agricultural science for humanitarian benefits. Thus, he lives on in our hearts and, through our efforts, the work he began will also live on.

“Today we stand bereft of Borlaug’s physical presence, but not of his spirit or ideals,” says Thomas A. Lumpkin, CIMMYT Director General. “Norm once said: ‘I personally cannot live comfortably in the midst of abject hunger and poverty and human misery.’ Millions of small-scale farmers in developing countries today still practice low-input, subsistence agriculture, condemning them and their families to lives of poverty. They typically spend at least 70% of their income on food, and most are at risk of being malnourished. The world cannot be at peace until these people are helped to feed themselves and escape poverty.”

The CIMMYT family extends its condolences to the Borlaug family, who live in Texas, California and Iowa. He is survived by his son Bill, his daughter Norma Jean, five grandchildren, and several great grandchildren.

News from Human Resources

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Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub, hosted and managed by the International Livestock Research Institute, is offering a technical/research paper writing workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 15–21 November 2009. Attendees will use their own advancedstage draft manuscripts in the training, with a goal of publication within two months of workshop completion. The application deadline is 17 September and applicants must be fluent in English, possess a Ph.D. or M.Sc. in a bioscience related area, and be currently employed by an African national research program or university. The Gender & Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) encourages African women scientists and professionals to apply. For more information please contact Ms. Rachel Njunge, r.njunge@cgiar.org or visit http://hub.africabiosciences.org/.

American students visit CIMMYT-Mexico

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WisconsinsMany young and eager minds passed through CIMMYT-Mexico this past month. Three students from the University of Wisconsin, USA, visited from 8-16 August while 12 from Texas A&M University, USA, stayed from 12-22 August. The goals of both groups were to further their understanding of agricultural systems in Mexico and to observe CIMMYT’s work with international research.

The students completed a comprehensive program that contained all aspects of CIMMYT’s research areas and included field visits and presentations from the maize, wheat, and conservation agriculture programs and the Crops Research Information Laboratory (CRIL) at El Batán. Students also had the opportunity to explore other CIMMYT stations in Mexico: at Tlaltizapán the groups learned about maize and double haploids, at Agua Fria they discussed quality protein maize and met with local farmers, and in Toluca they learned about bread wheat improvement and traveled to local subsistence farmer communities. Students from Texas A&M also visited the research station of Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research (INIFAP) near Chapingo and the INIFAP headquarters, where they were received by director Pedro Brajcich.

This is the third time a group of students from Texas A&M has visited CIMMYT. Each time they have been accompanied by great friends of the center: Ronald Cantrell and Steve Hague. Special thanks to all scientists and staff who gave their time and expertise to make the visits a success.

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