A different sort of revolutionary
Norman Borlaug died over the weekend.
OK. Borlaug’s name isn’t familiar to most, though he was one of only five people to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The other four recipients are Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, and Mother Teresa.
So why was Borlaug in such esteemed company?
He is credited with saving millions from starvation. Not through philanthropy but with science.
He collaborated first with Mexican scientists and then with Indians and Pakistanis on efforts to improve wheat production. High-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties pioneered by Borlaug in the 1960s led to successful increases in food production and earned him the title of father of the agricultural “Green Revolution.”
In my native India, Borlaug’s plant science was considered a godsend at a time when the nation could not match food production rates to a burgeoning population. Green Revolution technology enabled India to go from famine to agricultural self-sufficiency.
For helping alleviate human misery in developing nations, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The Statesman newspaper in India hailed him this week as the greatest hunger fighter of all time.
“It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years,” he said in his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway. “But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction.”
Some people say the ebb tide has set in. That Borlaug’s science didn’t really work. Millions of people suffer from food shortages.
Borlaug blamed high rates of population growth in defending himself against critics who argued that Borlaug’s science had created more problems than it had solved. Environmentalists said Green Revolution technology relied too much on chemicals and toxic pesticides. Social critics said it hurt small farmers.
But some humanitarian workers still hail him as a saviour.
“No single person has contributed more to relieving world hunger than our friend, the late Norman Borlaug,” said Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. “Normanwas truly the man who fed the world, saving up to a billion people from hunger and starvation.”
Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme said this: “His total devotion to ending famine and hunger revolutionized food security for millions of people and for many nations.”
Last month, Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Democrat Tom Harkin introduced legislation to designate Borlaug’s birthplace and childhood home near Cresco, Iowa, as a National Historic Site. He was born on a farm there on March 25, 1914.
“Dr. Borlaug and his work to save the lives of hundreds of millions people are historically significant for Iowa,” Grassley said in a press release. “By designating his birthplace and boyhood home a National Historic Site, we’ll be preserving his legacy for years to come and continuing to inspire future generations of scientists and farmers to innovate and lift those mired in poverty.”
Maybe now, more people will know Norman Borluag’s name.