Scientist Norman Borlaug received the nation’s highest civilian honor–the Congressional Gold Medal–on December 6, 2006, making him one of only 300 or so people who have received the medal since it was first given to George Washington in 1776.
Technologies to Defeat Hunger
Borlaug is widely regarded as the “Father of the Green Revolution” and was lauded by Congress for developing technologies that dramatically increased food production, particularly in Third World nations.
Those technologies include the use of pesticides to fend off crop-destroying insects, nitrogen fertilizer to increase plant growth and food yields, irrigation projects to expand crop acreage, and high-yield seeds created to absorb additional nitrogen from the soil.
In a December 6 news release, Rep. Tom Lathan (R-IA) referred to Borlaug as “an American superhero,” noting, “Dr. Borlaug’s work and leadership gave the world’s poorest people access to food, ensuring that children who would have been victims of malnutrition could thrive.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), in a separate December 6 news release, said, “It is fitting that we honor this man who has done so much to alleviate hunger and human suffering, improve the quality of life surrounding the globe, and promote understanding of peace among all of the world’s people.”
Spreading the Green Revolution
In 1944 Borlaug began working for a research project in Mexico aiming to increase wheat production. The project was a joint effort of the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Borlaug continued with that project until 1960. It was during his time in Mexico that he “made his breakthrough achievement in developing a strain of wheat that could exponentially increase yields while actively resisting disease.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, Borlaug worked in a variety of capacities to improve food production. From 1960 to 1963 he worked with the Inter-American Food Crop Program, and from 1964 to 1982 he worked with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, based in Mexico.
During that time he also was a consultant to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in North Africa and Asia. He also served as a consultant to many governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The Congressional Award cited in particular his work in Mexico, Pakistan, India, and the Middle East.
Continuing the Green Revolution
Now in his early nineties, Borlaug has continued to promote the application of science to agriculture. In addition to a current academic appointment at Texas A&M University, he continues to give many significant lectures.
Borlaug also serves as president of the Sasakawa Global 2000 Africa Project, which seeks to spread improved agricultural techniques to the nearly 800 million people who live in sub-Saharan Africa.
In 1986 Borlaug established the $250,000 World Food Prize to recognize scientific achievements that improve food production. That award is sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize” of food and agriculture.
In a 1997 essay in Atlantic Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook called Borlaug a “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity” and said his “discoveries sparked the Green Revolution” and “have saved literally millions of lives.”
Numerous Prestigious Awards
Borlaug has been honored hundreds of times during the past 40 years for helping to usher in the Green Revolution. His most famous recognition was the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him in 1970.
He has received 50 honorary doctorates from leading colleges and universities around the world. Agricultural organizations, such as the Bangladesh Botanical Society and American Society of Agronomy, and science organizations, such as the American Chemical Society and National Academy of Sciences, have given him many awards. He is a member or honorary member of many national academies of science.
Borlaug was born March 25, 1914 in Cresco, Iowa and was raised on a family farm.
He worked for the U.S. Forest Service from 1935 to 1938, and during that time earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota. He continued his education at Minnesota, earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in plant pathology.
Borlaug put his education to work as a microbiologist for the DuPont company from 1942 to 1944.
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College.