Iowa Public Television


Remembering the Father of the Green Revolution

posted on December 30, 2009

The world lost a hero last year, when the man credited with saving more lives than anyone in history, passed away at the age of 95.

Dr. Norman Borlaug is believed to have saved more than a billion lives by developing high-yielding strains of drought and disease-resistant wheat.

During the 1960s, the hybrids played a pivotal role in preventing massive famine in the third world... and Borlaug came to be known as the "Father of the Green Revolution" -- the period with the greatest increase in food production in history.

Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and to this day, he is the only person from the agricultural community to do so.

Producer Andrew Batt examined the life and legacy of Norman Borlaug and files this report.


Few young people grow up dreaming they will someday save one billion lives. Norman Borlaug was no different…the Iowa farm boy certainly never imagined a life full of seemingly insurmountable challenges would later become triumphs leading him to the world's utmost honors.

Yet, when the highly esteemed Dr. Norman E. Borlaug passed away last year at the age of 95, the world-renowned agriculturist left a legacy few could have possibly imagined nearly one century ago.

The son of Norwegian immigrants was born and raised in Cresco, Iowa, studied at the University of Minnesota and later sent by the Rockefeller Foundation to rural Mexico in the 1940's. A youthful Borlaug soon discovered a starving public toiling over an agricultural wasteland devoid of healthy crops.

Dr. Norman Borlaug (1994): "I never thought I could accomplish anything. When we got to Mexico…so much poverty and they had no technology. No machinery."

Borlaug tediously collected thousands of strains of wheat…crossbreeding them to develop disease-resistant crops with ever-increasing productivity. The results were astounding…a wheat crop that resisted rust and brought record yields.

Borlaug: "After 13 years of struggle, Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production."

Ambassador Ken Quinn: "This man fed the world. No question. The work later in India and Pakistan was groundbreaking."

Borlaug's Mexico triumph led to efforts in both India and Pakistan – two developing countries on the verge of widespread food shortages.

Borlaug: "This is a plant that is too tall for irrigation in India and Pakistan but under the dry or semi-dry conditions of Afghanistan it's probably what you want."

As alarmists claimed a looming "population explosion" would lead to widespread famine in both third-world countries, Borlaug insisted the two developing nations could be saved by science.

Borlaug: "The peasant farmer has always been accused of being conservative. He's not conservative. You show him a chance of making an improvement in his way of life. And if the difference between his former method and the results he gets with the new is great enough he'll go ahead with it."

Borlaug's vision was paved through decades of hard work and an earnestness to help those in need. Commonly known as the father of the "Green Revolution," Borlaug was praised by peasants and Presidents alike.

President Jimmy Carter (1994): "It's his practical willingness, even eagerness, to getting his shoes dusty or muddy and to stand side by side with farmers with sweat dripping off his face and with his shirt soaked...he feels at home there."

Borlaug's commitment to fighting world hunger and specifically the successes in India and Pakistan, were honored with the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, 1970: "There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort."

Borlaug's Nobel Peace Prize was a triumph for global agriculturalists and the former Iowa farm boy appealed to the Nobel Foundation to establish a recurring prize for agriculture – a request the Foundation declined. His vision to honor individuals making significant contributions to of food security gave birth to the World Food Prize in 1986.

Now awarded in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize has honored scientists and politicians alike – each driven with the goal of eradicating world hunger.

Despite resounding praise, Borlaug's work was not without its critics. Opponents of chemical fertilizers and genetically modified crops have accused Dr. Borlaug of harming the environment and tarnishing his legacy of feeding the world's hungriest people. Borlaug gave scant credence to those accusations and showed little patience for world leaders slow to embrace technological advances.

Borlaug (1994): "Your hands are untied now. You didn't have the technology before. Now it's there. Now all you have to do is implement this and things will change and sometimes they have changed. That is to me the biggest satisfaction."

Numerous international food programs brought a glimmer to Borlaug's eyes…especially global fellowships for students through the World Food Prize Youth Institute.

Ken Quinn: "Dr. Borlaug would always call and say ‘How are my students doing?' He was immensely hopeful for the next generation of scientists"

Dr. Norman Borlaug: "Will Rogers said it best when he said we are all ignorant – just ignorant about different things. So I tell my students to keep reaching for that star, study across discipline and be happy."

Questioner: "Are you happy?"

Dr. Norman Borlaug: "Yes. I think so."

In December 2006, Borlaug's life work was honored with yet another award – the Congressional Gold Medal. The lifelong friend to agriculture joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as the only individuals to receive the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.

President George W. Bush: "The most fitting tribute we can offer this good man is to renew his life's work and lead a second Green Revolution to feed the world and today we pledge to do so. Dr. Borlaug, I thank you for your service. I thank you for living a life of great purpose and achievement. I thank you for proving to Americans that what we learned as children is still true that one human being can change the world."

Dr. Norman Borlaug: "Thank you for your years of support, especially in the 60s ... when everyone said it couldn't be done. Look at it now. Thank you."

Ambassador Ken Quinn, World Food Prize: "How many people would have been dead? How many lives would have been cut short? How many children would have starved to death? How many mothers wouldn't be able to have the nourishment to take care of their kids? If it wasn't for Dr. Norman Borlaug."

This past October's World Food Prize marked the first ceremony since its world-renowned founder's passing. But the President of the World Food Prize Foundation pledges to keep Borlaug's memory prominent for many years to come.

Ambassador Ken Quinn, World Food Prize: "He physically is not going to be there. I'm going to turn and the chair he always sat in is going to be empty. It's going to remain empty as long as I have anything to say about it."

President Jimmy Carter: "His influence will be vivid and helpful long after he and I both are no longer going out into the fields. I hate to use the expression Borlaugs of the future because there are not going to be anymore Borlaugs. But the agricultural scientists of the future, the agricultural leaders of the future will come out of the environment which Dr. Borlaug has lived and created for them."

Dr. Norman Borlaug (1970 Nobel Peace Prize): "Alfred Nobel's dream of nations working together will come true. Let us pledge in our wills today we shall make it so. I pledge to follow this truth for as long as I shall live."


Tags: agriculture awards death genetic engineering hunger Iowa legacy Mexico news Norman Borlaug peace research wheat World Food Prize