Posted: Friday, October 02, 2009 12:00 AM
Norman Borlaug was one of the greatest innovators of our time. His work in plant breeding and hybridization is credited with saving a billion people worldwide from starvation. He died on Sept. 12 at the age of 95.
Borlaug's life example is a testament to human achievement and determination. Although he was well-known in several countries susceptible to drought and famine, Borlaug was relatively unknown here. Among his specific accomplishments were developing wheat and rice varieties in Latin American and Asia that increased yields by 10 times, earning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and helping to develop a saltwater-resistant adhesive used to hold shipping crates together during World War II. The crates were floated ashore at night to resupply soldiers on Guadalcanal because the Japanese controlled most of the island and the air.
In spite of all his success, environmental groups attacked his efforts to modernize Third World agricultural practices and said the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are "unsustainable." To them he replied: "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."
Borlaug was a farm boy of modest Iowa upbringing. He failed his entrance exam at the University of Minnesota in 1933. He was, however, allowed to enroll in the school's newly created two-year general college. At UM he was a varsity wrestler but took periodic breaks from school to earn money for his education. In 1935 he took a job as a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Many of the people who worked for him were starving. The food lines and economic devastation of the Great Depression had a profound effect on his future. He learned that people without food will often turn to violence. "I saw how food changed them. ... All of this left scars on me," he later recalled. When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1970, he said an adequate food supply is "the first component of social justice. ... Otherwise there will be no peace."
He earned a bachelor of science degree in forestry in 1937 and worked for the U.S. Forestry Service, spending one summer in Idaho's Salmon River backcountry. He went on to earn a doctorate in plant pathology and genetics in 1942.
Borlaug met his wife, Margaret Gibson, while in college. They later had two children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Margaret Borlaug died in 2007 at the age of 95. They were married for 69 years. He taught at Texas A&M University from 1984 until his death. Following are two important quotations from Borlaug:
"I now say that the world has the technology -- either available or well advanced in the research pipeline -- to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called 'organic' methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot."
"It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year. By 2025, we will have to nearly double current production again. This cannot be done unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yielding crop-production methods as well as new biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields, dependability, and nutritional quality of our basic food crops."
Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.