Few people have ever head of Norman Borlaug, from the tiny town of Cresco, Iowa. This is despite the fact that he is one of only 5 people to have ever won a Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal, in addition to the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific achievement award in America. Mr. Borlaug is quite possibly one of the greatest humanitarians in human history – and the most unknown, his death in 2009 attracting little attention despite his monumental contributions.
An agronomist with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, he is considered the father of the Green Revolution, a pivotal development in agriculture that increased food production to astounding levels and reversed decades of starvation in the developing world. It all began with his research in Mexico during the 1940s, in which he was seeking to develop a strain of wheat that was more resilient and provided higher crop yields. Growing up in a farming community of Norwegian immigrants in Iowa, he often noted with curiosity as to how some crops grew different in certain areas. This observation of plant variance, along with his innate sense of inquisitiveness and compassion, put him on the humbly heroic path to saving millions.
During the years of backbreaking work in Mexico, where he worked with locales and lived in austerity, he cross-bred and experimented with varieties of wheat before creating several strains that were resistant, faster growing, and yielded more grains. He had a promising career waiting for him in the DuPont corporation, but he declined the offer in order to go to Mexico and work on the field to help poor farmers feed themselves and make a profit as well. Within two decades after his work, Mexico reported their wheat yields as being reached 6-times higher than the year that Borlaug arrived. Now only was Mexico free of having to import food, but it’s farmers were able to feed themselves and have enough left over to sell in the market, enriching themselves and the entire country. made developing countries surplus producers of food.
Soon, Borlaug’s wheat strains – in addition to his methods and ideas, which were applied to rice as well – spread to other countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which also had to rely on imports and deal with horrific famines. Long predicted by scientists at the time to be approaching a Malthusian catastrophe, India soon recorded some of the largest crop yields in it’s history, after having invited Borlaug to conduct research with their own scientists. Neighboring Pakistan eventually got access to his wheat varieties as well, reporting similarly historic gains. Soon, scientists in China and the Philippines, with the help of philanthropists organizations, began following those remarkable examples and soon too brought bountiful harvests to their nation. Borlaug and his colleagues eventually distributed strains to numerous other nations in Latin America, the Middle-East, and Africa.
Norman Borlaug is believed to have saved anywhere from 245 million to even 1 billion lives, not including the millions more that might never had been born from the surplus his research contributed to. One estimate claims that half the world’s population is fed from one of the high-yield crops he and his fellows helped create. Granted, he didn’t do all this single-handedly: he had the financial support of numerous host governments, in addition to universities and charitable foundations.He worked with hundreds of researchers the world over. But that doesn’t dilute the fact that this simple, humble man, who refused to believe he even won the Nobel Prize when told so in 1970, did all this out of simple will and compassion. Even into his 80s and 90s he continued to work, notably helping to bring higher yields to dirt-poor and famine prone Ethiopia.
The Green Revolution he helped create wasn’t perfect, and it brought problems of it’s own, though it was hardly his fault. All he wanted was something simple but wholesome: to help the world. As he himself said, only a few years ago, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” I dearly hope I can come within a fraction of such compassion and humanity.