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Iowa-born Norman Ernest Borlaug left his legacy as a Texan

“The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.” — Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

He was born in Iowa, educated in Minnesota and came to Texas A&M University as a distinguished professor in 1984, a post he would hold for the rest of his life. Between his birth March 25, 1914 and his Sept. 12, 2009 passing, agronomist Norman Ernest Borlaug saved likely 1 billion people around the globe from death by starvation through his innovative, high-yield farming techniques that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He was one of only six people in history to accomplish that trifecta.

The Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M is testament to his lasting legacy, and continues his work. Today, for instance, the institute is wrestling with a Borlaug-2Norman Borlaug in Africa in August 2006. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M Univerisity/Agrilife)lack of adequate water resources in this country and around the world.

Said Craig Nessler, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, which serves all 254 Texas counties and operates 13 research centers throughout the state, “One of the things we’re very proud of is through our Borlaug Institute we are in areas of the developing world where water becomes one of the major limiting factors, places like South Sudan, for example. How do you attack the question of water? We have this conflict in Texas and other parts of the country and world between urban people who don’t realize where their food comes from wanting abundant cheap water in the city. So we have to find solutions and we’re doing that through all sorts of approaches — adapting irrigation practices, drip irrigation and timing. We’re looking at genetics very strongly for factors that influence water use. We’re trying to take a holistic approach to the question of water because ultimately we know that natural resource is something we have to protect and make sure that agriculture doesn’t get blamed as the water supply may diminish or change.”

That sort of creative thinking led Dr. Borlaug from Minnesota to Mexico, after a two-year stint working with DuPont in Wilmington, DE, on wartime issues. There he headed a program directed by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of the Mexican government focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology that eventually doubled wheat production by establishing two growing seasons — a feat thought impossible at the time.

But Dr. Borlaug was motivated. In 1935, economic conditions had made it necessary for him to leave school for a while and work with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. There, many of his co-workers were on the verge of starvation. “I saw how food changed them. All of this left scars on me,” he later wrote. It was a pivotal period.

Dr. Borlaug stayed with the Mexican project 20 years, developing a series of high-yield, disease-resistant plants. His varieties proved successful not only in Mexico but in India and Pakistan as well. Years later, the same technology was exported to Asia, the Middle East and eventually Africa.

By 1963, Mexico had become a net exporter of wheat. A year later, Dr. Borlaug was appointed director of the Wheat Research & Production Program at the newly established International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center near Mexico City, which enabled him to share his knowledge with thousands of scientists around the world.

This was the beginning of the green revolution and Dr. Borlaug was considered the father of it. Critics claim his techniques led to sometimes ecologically unfriendly modern agri-business and subsidized agriculture production. Dr. Borlaug said his work was “a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”

He answered critics, writing, “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

By the end of the 1960s, Dr. Borlaug’s methods were being applied to multiple crops around the world, feeding millions via new technology. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. The U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom followed in 1977 and he was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.

Today, the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M works to support and implement agricultural development programs throughout the world to further Dr. Borlaug’s vision of a world without hunger.