Extolling Iowa’s lifesaver
DES MOINES – Had Norman Borlaug become a science teacher as he once planned, this Iowa native might have impacted hundreds of students during his career.
Instead, he became the genius behind the Green Revolution and may have saved more lives than any person who ever lived.
“Norman Borlaug is a hero,” said Kenneth Quinn, president of the Des Moines-based World Food Prize, which recognizes breakthrough achievements in the fight against hunger.
“When I took this job with the World Food Prize in 1999, however, I was shocked that very few people knew who he was,” Quinn said. “How could it be that someone with Norman’s accomplishments was more well-known in India than in Iowa?”
All that is changing, thanks to the World Food Prize headquarters’ new Hall of Laureates, which recently opened in the renovated downtown Des Moines public library.
Not only is the $30 million project creating office space and exhibit halls for the World Food Prize, but it is renewing interest in the work of a quiet and self-effacing, yet determined, farm boy who never forgot his rural Iowa roots.
“Norman Borlaug led the single-greatest period of food production in human history, and this remarkable building preserves his legacy in an awe-inspiring way,” Quinn said.
Wrestling with hunger
Born in 1914, Borlaug grew up on a Howard County farm near Cresco and was educated in a one-room country school.
As a young man, he took a friend’s advice to attend the University of Minnesota, where he pursued a forestry degree, competed on the university’s wrestling team and worked odd jobs to pay his tuition.
“This is also when Norman saw hungry people on the streets of Minneapolis and first became aware of hunger in America,” said Quinn, a former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia.
This wasn’t the only transformative experience for Borlaug, who took a full-time job with the U.S. Forest Service after graduation.
“When Norman heard a lecture by Dr. Evan Stakman from the University of Minnesota about rust disease,” Quinn said, “he was so inspired that he decided to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D in plant pathology.”
After earning his advanced degrees, Borlaug became an agricultural researcher for DuPont.
In 1944, he accepted an appointment as geneticist and plant pathologist with the new Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico.
This joint undertaking by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation focused on scientific research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy and soil science.
In his quest to improve wheat yields in some of the poorest parts of Mexico, Borlaug first tried conventional plant breeding techniques, but faced many challenges, Quinn said. “He would come close to success, but there was always something wrong.
“The wheat needed better disease resistance, or sometimes the plants were so lush with grain that they would fall over.”
The Eureka moment came when Borlaug began working with Norin 10, a semi-dwarf wheat cultivar developed in Japan after World War II. Its thicker, sturdier stalks prevented lodging, and Norin 10 also allowed Borlaug to develop a high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat.
In just a few short years, Borlaug’s highly adaptable wheat allowed Mexico to move from being heavily dependent on wheat imports to being a wheat exporter.
It also benefited people around the globe, averting a famine that many thought was inevitable in India and Pakistan as the countries’ populations boomed during the 1960s and 1970s.
Thanks to Borlaug’s efforts, India’s wheat yield nearly doubled from 1965 to 1970, and Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968.
“Borlaug encouraged farmers in these countries to not only adopt his wheat,” Quinn said, “but to revamp their whole production system with irrigation, fertilizer and more.”
This Green Revolution earned Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. When news of the award arrived, Borlaug was hard at work in the fields and didn’t want to lose focus on the task at hand.
“When his wife, Margaret, came to find him, he said in a dismissive tone, ‘I have much work to do,’ and sent her away,” Quinn said.
Leaving a legacy
Borlaug continued to work well into his 90s on behalf of the world’s starving people, extending his influence more than 30 years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to promoting food production for a growing global population (which he called the population monster), he received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
He also spoke out through the New York Times and the Washington Post to emphasize the value of biotechnology in agriculture and challenge activists who never experienced hunger.
“Dr. Norman Borlaug was a hero for Iowa, America and the world,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is pleased that a new sculpture of Borlaug will soon be installed in the National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. “Borlaug was one of history’s rare blends of genius, insight, instinct and persistence. His life’s work is credited with saving as many as a billion people from starving to death. No one has made Iowans more proud.”
By the time Borlaug died at 95 in 2009, he had forever changed the course of history and played a pivotal role with the World Food Prize, which he wanted the world to view as the Nobel Prize for Agriculture.
“It’s so important to carry on Norman’s legacy,” said Quinn, who noted that the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, Iowa Hunger Summit and World Food Prize youth programs are held in Des Moines each October to support this goal.
“The World Food Prize continues to inspire great achievements that are needed to feed a hungry world,” Quinn said.