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Tuesday September 29, 2009

I REMEMBER / NORMAN BORLAUG

Stanford Blade, executive director of the Alberta Agricultural Research Institute, remembers Norman Borlaug, whose obituary appeared on Sept. 14. I can't say exactly when it started, but Dr. Borlaug was my hero. Growing up on a farm in the Alberta parkland I had a sense of how technology was improving and diversifying our crops. After my undergraduate science degree (including a couple of term papers which featured Dr. Borlaug) I taught biology and chemistry for two years in Cameroon.

I wanted to make sure that I had the technical ability to make a useful contribution to African agriculture, so I did a year as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Ibadan, and then accepted the offer of a Canadian International Development Agency PhD scholarship.

Although registered at McGill University, my program included extensive plant breeding training and research at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (a sister institution of Dr. Borlaug's International Wheat and Maize Institute in Mexico). At my thesis defence I was asked how my work (improving the yield and quality of grain legumes, which are grown in complex, elegant intercropping systems across the African savanna) contributed to Dr. Borlaug's green revolution.

I didn't feel worthy of being mentioned in the same breath, but the question pleased me. I went on to work in international agricultural research, and had the opportunity to see Dr. Borlaug on a number of occasions. The last time we met was in 2005, at a meeting of scientists in Nairobi. The conference was dedicated to making sure that African agricultural researchers would have access to new scientific tools and innovations which would lead to enhanced productivity.

I joked with him that his Nobel Prize-winning program had 17 years of support, while our work was being asked to show progress in the first 12 months of funding. He provided some good advice about setting milestones - which donor agencies can measure - while committing to the long-term vision that is needed in a successful research program. We talked about the promise of African agriculture as an engine of social and economic development. As we shook hands to take our leave he looked me in the eye and said "work hard." Remarkable (and daunting) advice from a 90+ year-old scientist who had changed the world.

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