Although Norman Borlaug acquired many awards in his life – a Nobel Peace Prize, a Congressional Medal and 55 different honorary doctorate degrees, to name a few – he never wanted fame. HE JUST WANTED TO FEED PEOPLE.
The first time Norman Borlaug ever saw hunger was when he left his boyhood Iowa agricultural community for the city life of Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. It was in the early ’30s during the height of the Great Depression.
The long, winding lines of people begging for food and the riots when there wasn’t enough to feed everyone shocked his naïve eyes. He was ashamed that there were people in the United States that were starving, and he realized the danger a lack of food posed to society. Being born into a farming family, it was natural for him to have an interest in agriculture, but realizing the magnitude of the hunger problem gave him a whole new purpose for his career and ultimately, his life.
Borlaug passed away in 2009, but his legacy lives on through the international agricultural center in his name at Texas A&M University (TAMU), his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren he impacted, the thousands of students he taught, and, as many estimate, about half of the world’s population who today consume grain derived from a line of cereal crops he helped develop.
Growing up in the 1920s in Cresco, Iowa, many of Borlaug’s peers dropped out of school to work on the farm. But, at the encouraging of his grandfather, Nels Borlaug, whom first instilled a love of agriculture in a young Borlaug, he remained in his one-room school with the intention of attending college, a rare goal for the time.
Because of his limited rural education, he didn’t have the necessary credits to get into his state land-grant college, Iowa State. Although he technically didn’t qualify at the University of Minnesota (UM) either, they let him enroll in their junior college to obtain the necessary coursework, partially because of his athletic ability. Borlaug agreed to join the school wrestling team, and made UM his home for the next nine years, obtaining bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in plant pathology.
It was also during that time that Borlaug met his wife of 69 years, Margaret Gibson Borlaug, who passed away in 2006.
After graduating in 1942, Borlaug took a position in research with du Pont, America’s third-largest chemical company.
Borlaug was always curious and never one to sit still when he could be working. When the opportunity to work in the field as a plant geneticist became available at the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program two years later, Borlaug moved his wife and 18-monthold daughter, Jeanie (Borlaug) Laube, to Mexico. Jeanie and the Borlaug’s son, Bill, who was born there, grew up in and called Mexico City home.
salvation from starvation
When Borlaug arrived in Mexico City in 1944, the country was only producing 1/3 to 1/2 of the wheat it needed to feed its people.
Aiming to breed wheat varieties that would adapt to the subtropical climate and soils of Mexico, as well as withstand disease and pest problems, Borlaug worked to develop a high-yielding crop. The problem was a Catch 22: the poor Mexican soil had been depleted of nutrients, limiting the grain’s production potential. But, Borlaug found that if he fertilized the barren ground, the seed head of the plant would become too heavy and topple the stem, leaving it unable to be harvested.
Through years of hands-on production, Borlaug came up with the solution and developed a “semi dwarf” plant that was stubby, yet could still support a high -yielding grain head. Borlaug’s persistence and discovery paved the way for Mexico to not only become self sufficient in producing enough food for its own people, but to become an exporter of wheat not even 20 years after his arrival.
Dr. Ed Runge, a professor at TAMU, became a colleague of Borlaug’s, as well as a close friend.
“He changed the world from an agronomic perspective,” Runge says. “But he still didn’t think his job was done.”
Borlaug continued his research, and his idea of the dwarf gene was later implemented in rice and other cereal crops, producing even more food. After stabilizing Mexico’s food supply, he then turned his attention to feeding the rest of the world.
He helped apply his grain varieties and crop production methods in Pakistan and India. He traveled so often, he had two passports, one that stayed in Washington, D.C., so he could quickly obtain visas, and one in Mexico, his grandaugher, Julie Borlaug, who works for the Borlaug Institute – TAMU’s international agriculture office – says. She, along with other university staff, continue her grandfather’s mission in multiple countries today.
In the late ’60s, Borlaug’s implemented crop varieties helped Pakistan and India develop an adequate store of food for the first time in history. Later in life, he focused on increasing cereal production in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Her grandfather’s motivation behind his work came from the responsibility he felt to make life better for others, Julie says.
“He said the first component to social justice is adequate food for all mankind,” she says. “That’s what drove him.”
This multi-nation increase in food supply, spawned the “Green Revolution,” and Borlaug is credited with averting the predicted disastrous “population bomb” in the ’70s and ’80s that had people convinced the world was going to become overpopulated and ravaged by starvation.
International policy work led him to D.C. many times, often with Julie after she started working for the Borlaug Institute. She cherishes those trips together, and the reason she chose to carry on his work was because she saw firsthand how important it was to him.
“We always knew my grandpa worked with starving kids and food production, but we didn’t know how much he did,” she recalls. “He didn’t make a big deal out of his awards – often he didn’t even invite us to the events. Not because he didn’t appreciate what they stood for, but he simply wanted to use them as yet another platform to highlight his message.”
In 1970, while wearing work clothes in the field outside of Mexico City – where Julie says he felt most at home – he found out he had been bestowed with the highest honor for his work, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Be passionate A young Borlaug took his childhood interest in agriculture and combined it with the need he saw to find a way to feed an expanding population.
Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t pursue your dreams “My grandfather was told by many he wouldn’t make it, coming from a one-room schoolhouse to a big university,” says Borlaug’s granddaughter, Julie. “And look what he did. He never let anything hold him back.”
Influence others Although he didn’t take the title of professor until the end of his career, Borlaug was always a teacher, not keeping his ideas to himself, but teaching farmers and scientists to implement them for their own countries.
Take opportunity Borlaug set up a program for high school students with the same interests he had. The World Food Prize Global Youth Institute provides opportunity for more than 100 students to expand their understanding of agriculture, and to learn about food security and international issues. A select few are able to participate in an international summer internship. For more information, visit worldfoodprize.org.
Think about others Borlaug’s entire career and life would have been devoid of meaning had he not had a passion for the people he was serving. “Finding a way to provide adequate food for all mankind was how he lived his life. It was what drove him,” Julie says.
In 1984, Runge, who only knew Borlaug by reputation, recruited Borlaug to teach at TAMU. By then, Borlaug’s children were grown and were both living in the Dallas, Texas, area with their own kids. Borlaug accepted the offer and taught one semester of international agriculture each year for 25 years.
“When he joined TAMU, he was supposedly ‘retiring’ and slowing down his career,” Julie says with a laugh. “But he always felt teaching was the most important part of what he did.”
Even when he was doing research, informally, his greatest impact was training thousands of farmers and scientists to carry on his successes, she continues.
“He would tell you that’s why the green revolution was a success. He taught farmers, who took the knowledge back home, and those farmers taught others,” she says.
When he was in Mexico, he taught many young people from developing countries to replicate his model for increased food production in their own homelands.
And at TAMU, he taught with the same passion he instilled in the field.
“His classes always ran over – potentially an hour over if he could keep the room. Eventually, they had to hire a TA to ‘move the class along,’” Julie says. “He wanted to get as much in and challenge his students as much as possible.”
At the end of his life, no matter how sick or weak he was, if a student came to his door to talk, he took the time to talk to them, listen to their stories and give them advice, she says.
Borlaug established the World Food Prize in 1986, the global award that applauds contributions in furthering the world food supply. His goal was to recognize those with the same passion as him and inspire others to continue to feed the world.
In conjunction with the World Food Prize, he also created a program for high school youth to get to attend the award ceremony, pick a research project, and potentially complete a life-changing summer internship dealing with food production overseas – anywhere from Egypt to Indonesia.
“His intention was to challenge students to think beyond the concept of what they thought was agriculture,” Julie says. “The majority of kids today think their food comes directly from the grocery store. He wanted to bring the focus of agriculture back.”
For all the success Borlaug saw, he also faced several trials in his long life.
“He would get emotional every time he talked about a child dying in his arms in Africa. It didn’t matter how many years had passed,” Julie says. “That’s why he worked so hard to move people out of poverty.”
The Borlaugs faced their own hardship when their second child, Scott, died of complications from spina bifida before his first birthday.
While Borlaug’s drive for helping others took him away from home often, he loved his family deeply. Even while traveling the world, Borlaug managed to make nearly all of son Bill’s Little League games when he was growing up. In fact, Borlaug actually started the first Little League baseball group in Mexico so that his son would have a chance to play.
“He was an avid lover of sports,” Julie says. “He felt what a child learned from participating – character, rules, discipline, and how to win and lose – was of upmost importance.”
Both of his kids and all five of his grandchildren played sports.
Although undergoing cancer treatment and aging into his 90s, Borlaug still managed to get out and play catch with his great grandkids. Something few people know about Borlaug is even before working in international food production, his lifelong goal was to be the shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. While it wasn’t quite what he had in mind as a boy, he was able to throw the opening pitch for the Boston Red Sox the year they won the World Series.
Borlaug was intense, disciplined, compassionate, observant and passionate, Julie says. Runge says the two had a friendship in which they could talk about anything.
“He never retired,” Runge says. “He accomplished more than anyone I ever knew.”
His wheat varieties changed the world, and the Borlaug Institute at TAMU is still carrying on his legacy for adequate provision for all mankind, Julie says. They work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and World Bank on projects to develop countries all over the world.
SPRAED is just one of their projects. In Rwanda, Africa, they help widows of the country’s genocide learn to grow, clean, sell and distribute coffee. Their efforts have resulted in a doubling of income for 40,000 Rwandan coffee farmers. Some of the coffee is sold to Starbucks® and other coffee retailers.
The Chicago Cubs may have missed out on a good shortstop, but the world has Norman Borlaug to thank for something far more important.
“He’s widely credited with saving a billion people,” Runge says. “No one else in the world can claim that.”