By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in food production. India joined it in that status in 1974.
Eventually, however, a backlash developed. In the 1980s, environmental groups began pressuring foundations and the World Bank to stop funding shipments of fertilizer to developing countries, particularly in Africa. Critics contended that the inorganic fertilizers used caused massive pollution; they argued in favor of "sustainable" agriculture using "natural" fertilizers like cow manure.
Borlaug was indignant. Using manure would require a massive expansion of the lands required for grazing the cattle and consume much of the extra grain that would be produced. At best, he said, such efforts could support no more than 4 billion people worldwide, well under the nearly 7 billion now inhabiting the planet.
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the Earth, but many of them are elitists," he told the Atlantic Monthly magazine. "They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Borlaug formally retired from the International Wheat and Maize Project in 1979, becoming a professor at Texas A&M University. But in 1984, he got a call from Japanese industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa, who offered Borlaug funding for five years of work to aid agriculture in Africa.
Speaking through an interpreter, Borlaug said, "I'm 71. I'm too old to start again." Sasakawa called back the next morning and said, "I'm 15 years older than you, so I guess we should have started yesterday. Let's start tomorrow."
Borlaug later said: "I assumed we'd do a few years of research first, but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, 'Let's just start growing.' " He soon had projects running in several countries, including Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.
But progress has been much slower in Africa than in Asia, principally because -- unlike in the Asian subcontinent -- the region lacked the infrastructure of roads and irrigation systems necessary to support high-intensity agriculture. Armed conflicts have also impeded the work, and starvation remains widespread.
Meanwhile, the world is facing a new threat, a virulent strain of black stem rust called Ug99, first discovered in Uganda in 1999, that attacks the resistant strains of grain. It has subsequently been found in Yemen and Sudan and, because rust spores are carried by the jet stream, is likely to reach crops around the world.
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born March 25, 1914, on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, in a portion of the state called "little Norway" because so many of its residents were immigrants from that country. His education began in a one-room schoolhouse.
According to his friend Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, Borlaug developed a dogged tenacity from participating in his high school wrestling program -- a tenacity that propelled him to the top of the intercollegiate wrestling world and election to the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame.
After graduating from high school in the depths of the Depression, he worked for 50 cents a day as a farmhand to earn enough money to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He put himself through school working in a coffee shop, parking cars and serving meals in a sorority house. In the summers, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service.
He had planned to join the Forest Service upon receiving his degree in forestry in 1937, but shortly before that could happen he received a letter from his supervisor saying a shortage of funds precluded him from starting for at least six months.
Coincidentally, he attended a lecture on wheat rust by plant pathologist Elvin Charles Stakman and was so impressed that he enrolled in the graduate program to work with Stakman, receiving his doctorate in plant pathology from Minnesota in 1942.
Along with his wife, the former Margaret G. Gibson, Borlaug is survived by daughter Jeanie Borlaug Laube, son William Gibson Borlaug, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
The family asked that instead of flowers, donations be sent to the Borlaug International Scholars Fund. Plans for a memorial service at Texas A&M were pending.