Op-Ed

Norman Borlaug 'fed the world'

The extraordinary humanitarian legacy of plant scientist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug was a testament to the value of education, hard work and a sense of wonder.

And what a legacy it was.

Borlaug, who died Sept. 12 at age 95, was described as the "man who fed the world" and credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation with his work on multiplying wheat harvests.

But for Borlaug's development of disease-resistant varieties of wheat capable of yielding many times the harvest of traditional strains, the decades since 1960 would have seen famine's death toll increased by up to a billion. His work aided farmers in Latin America, Africa, China and the Indian subcontinent, among many other global communities.

His career was groundbreaking in the literal and figurative sense — to the point where Borlaug was bent over a wheat crop in a field near Mexico City when he received news of his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

That scene was a reminder of his youth as an Iowa farm boy of Norwegian stock who, according to relatives, was intensely curious even then about why grass flourished in some areas and not others.

Borlaug's natural curiosity would be tested by years of painstaking work on crop development in Mexico, where he was sent by the Rockefeller Foundation to do research critical to that nation's farmers being able to feed themselves and others.

Borlaug actually attended the proverbial one-room school of country lore, and he might well have ended his education early to work on the farm. But he was urged by a little-educated grandfather to go on to college despite the Depression. He studied forestry and eventually earned a doctorate in plant pathology, paving the way for his discoveries in food production.

Upon his death, Borlaug was heralded by colleagues who noted the irony that this would be the first time many people became acquainted with the scientist.

In the West, that's no doubt a product of the fact that we take for granted a bountiful food supply. It may also be a sad reflection of the flagging interest and emphasis on studying basic sciences — and perhaps the undermining of scientific knowledge for political aims on topics like climate change.

If anything, Borlaug's work demonstrated that the nation neglects scientific inquiry at its peril.

Not that the scientist's legacy was unalloyed. Indeed, he came to question the environmental cost of the heavy use of fertilizers and social impact of agribusiness. Those challenges loom even larger as the world population nears seven billion.

Beyond growing food that's green by today's definition, the global community remains stymied by man-made factors contributing to famine — notably poverty, political and ethnic conflicts and armed clashes.

It was the Nobel committee's hope in honoring Borlaug that providing "bread for a hungry world ... will also give the world peace." That remains the work of many others to follow.

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