The week of Dec. 6, I was in the Land of the Texas Aggies, to see my boss Ron Smith, accept the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Plant Protection Association at their annual conference. On the drive to and from, Ron and I discussed writing assignments, who’s who (because Ron knows EVERYONE), and the sermon his pastor had given that Sunday entitled, “Sometimes we need a hero.” He said his pastor taught from the book of Daniel about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The trio, who refused to worship a golden image or serve the king’s gods, was to be thrown into a blazing furnace—which was heated seven times hotter than usual. These men were in need of a hero.
When Ron first half-way mentioned his upcoming award, all my ears heard were, “lifetime achievement award.” I was impressed! But then he asked, “Do you know who Norman Bourlag is?” I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t. Ron went on to explain a bit about him and then he said, “He’s my hero.” In fact, upon receiving his award, Ron said, “Dr. Borlaug is probably as close as anybody I’ve ever known to being a true hero, and to have my name associated with his is beyond imagination.”
So, who is this Norman Borlaug, known for his scientific and humanitarian achievements? Who is this recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and Congressional Gold Medal? What is the story behind this person named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century and recipient of over 50 honorary Doctorate Degrees? Where does a man known for having kept starvation at bay for millions of people in third world countries get his motivation to change the world? Knowing what Dr. Borlaug accomplished is mind-blowing, but to understand how he got there is a story worth telling. So, on the chance that you are like me and not familiar who he is, I want to tell you a bit about a man that made a big difference in this world.
Borlaug was born in 1914 to Norwegian-American parents and grew up on a farm outside of Cresco, Iowa. His education began in a one-room schoolhouse with other Lutheran Norwegian children. In high school he competed in wrestling, a sport he excelled at, eventually leading him to the top of the inter-collegiate wrestling world and later earning him an induction into the NCAA Wrestling Hall of Fame. To save money for a year of college at the University of Minnesota, Borlaug worked for 50 cents a day as a hired farm hand. While at the university, he majored in agricultural science, met his wife Margaret, and earned a PhD in Plant Pathology.
While he attended college, he spent his summers working as a ranger for the U.S. Forestry Service, stationed along the Salmon River in western Idaho. It is written that during this time, he began to embrace the solitude of the forest and care deeply about the plants and wildlife sustained there. He had hoped to hire-on full-time with the Forest Service but upon graduation, due to agency budget constraints, his employment was delayed. As fate would have it, this would lead Borlaug to enroll in more courses at the university and to a billboard with a notice about a lecture posted to it that would help him change the world.
The notice was about a lecture to be given by Dr. Elvin Stakman, the head of the university’s plant pathology department. Borlaug attended Stakman’s lecture where he talked about rust, a parasitic fungus that attacked a wide variety of plants and trees. It was Stakman’s ending charge, “that it was science which would ‘ . . . go further than has ever been possible to eradicate the miseries of hunger and starvation from this earth,’” that ignited something in Borlaug. It was then that he met with Stakman and asked to be admitted into the PhD program in plant pathology, sacrificing the possibility of a career in the Forest Service—a decision that would change his life, and save one billion people.
Following graduation, Borlaug was asked to join a struggling research project by the Rockefeller Foundation in rural Mexico. When he arrived in 1944, Mexico’s farmers raised less than half of the wheat needed to meet the demands of the population, their crop ruined or diminished by rust. They needed a hero.
For 13 years, Borlaug labored with a team of agricultural scientists to develop a disease-resistant wheat. “Aided by the use of fertilizer and irrigation, Borlaug’s new wheat varieties enabled Mexico to achieve self-sufficiency in 1956. His belief in scientific research and a hands-on connection to the farmers paid off in what was considered an agricultural miracle.”
Borlaug’s “breakthrough technology” would be implemented to save populations from starvation world-wide, in countries like Pakistan and India. His successes in wheat would later be adopted by other scientists and replicated in other grains, such as rice. “Together, with countless others, they helped avert famine and starvation in much of the developing world in the second half of the 20th century.”
And this is just the beginning of a bigger story in Dr. Borlaug’s 95 years of life. When you have a minute, Google his name. He’s a fascinating man who endured hardship, never backed down and overcame so much, not for himself but the world. So, maybe this Christmas you need a hero or better yet, maybe someone needs you to be there’s. Do something great for someone in need this Christmas this year! You may not save the planet but you can make a difference and be the hero that somebody needs. Merry Christmas and God bless!
(Information about Norman Borlaug’s life for this column was found at the World Food Prize website, https://www.worldfoodprize.org/en/dr_norman_e_borlaug/extended_biography/.)