Newswise — He was one of the most influential Americans in history and yet many Americans have never heard of him. At Texas A&M University and in developing nations around the world, however, the name Norman Borlaug is forever linked to a revolutionary humanitarian effort that is said to have saved a billion lives.
“The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind,” said Norman Borlaug during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. In 1977, he was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2006, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, just a few in a long line of honors bestowed upon Borlaug, known as the “father of the Green Revolution,” and who held the title of Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M from 1984 until his death in 2009.
He won the Nobel as a result of his work in developing high-yielding wheat varieties and saving millions from food shortages that threatened India and Pakistan in the 1960s. His work nearly eliminated chronic famine in South Asia and helped food production keep up with the demands of growing populations worldwide.
Today his legacy lives on at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M, the global outreach unit of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Julie Borlaug, the granddaughter of Norman Borlaug and a former Texas A&M student, Class of ’97, serves as the associate director for external relations for the Borlaug Institute.
“My grandfather was a very grounded and practical person,” she recalls. “He believed that education was the most powerful tool you could provide a person to better their lives. He was one of the most determined and at the same time stubborn people I have ever known, but it was these qualities that helped him succeed when much of the public believed countries like India and Pakistan would face mass starvation in the 1960s and ‘70s.”
Julie Borlaug says her grandfather believed science was the key to feeding the developing world, including the use of “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) ― crops created for human and animal consumption that have been modified in the laboratory to enhance certain traits such as pest and disease resistance, nutrition and drought tolerance.
“He believed that we must employ every ‘tool in the box’ to feed the world, from high-yielding varieties to GMOs to inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides and even organics when possible,” she contends. “He truly believed that we must continue to further the advancement of agriculture research in order to avert a future global food crisis.”
Former Texas A&M student Joseph King is currently the Borlaug Institute’s regional director for Sub-Saharan Africa and has previously served as the institute’s associate director, chief of staff and international business manager.
“Norman Borlaug’s singularity is that he showed us the power of science to advance humanity, not just the human civilization,” notes King. “Before Borlaug, the collective human conscious was a slave of nature and science ― fatalists to our circumstance. Civilization advanced with each new scientific discovery. After Borlaug, we realized that we are part of science and our existence is dependent on our creativity and stewardship of scientific inquiry.”
King says the institute has taken on Norman Borlaug’s unfinished mission to provide global food security and has seen success on a number of fronts. The group has assisted coffee farmers in Africa with a research program that drives innovation in the coffee sector and has directly improved the livelihoods of the farmers, he points out.
He says the institute has also been one of a very few organizations to work in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years. “In the midst of war, there is poverty, hunger and a lack of hope,” he explains. “Texas A&M has a proud military tradition and we’ve been honored to work alongside our military and government to bring peace and stability to these regions of the world. Agriculture is a powerful tool for peace because of its diffuse connection throughout rural societies.”
The involvement of students in the institute’s mission is critical to its success, says King, and the group affords a variety of opportunities for students to contribute. “The Borlaug Institute has had internships in places like Indonesia, Rwanda and Guatemala,” he notes. “The institute and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences host the Peace Corps Masters International program at Texas A&M combining graduate study with Peace Corps service. And the institute is a supporter of Study Abroad initiatives to give students a greater context about the world and the challenges facing our global society.”
Julie Borlaug agrees that the youth of today are instrumental in the global fight against hunger. “My grandfather always believed that ‘fear was the greatest obstacle to change’ and that as we get older, we are less willing to be innovative and take chances,” she explains. “The Green Revolution was successful due to the young scientist and farmers that my grandfather trained who were willing to utilize different techniques to improve yields.”
She says she hopes the younger generation will realize “that agriculture is the driving force of life. If you care about the environment and the health and well-being of children in developing countries and even in our own ― that starts with agriculture and food systems. If you care about conflict and unstable regions of the world, agriculture plays a lead role.”
Norman Borlaug believed that young people are more optimistic and thus willing to work hard, even against insurmountable odds, his granddaughter states. She contends that as time goes on and populations continue to grow, the stakes are ever higher, saying, “We will need to feed nine billion people by 2050 with limited resources, such as land and water, while also protecting the environment.”
Julie Borlaug encourages students to help meet this goal by joining the fight against global hunger. “My grandfather called the young scientist and farmers that trained under him ‘hunger fighters,’” she says, “so I offer a challenge to all the students reading this to become the next generation of hunger fighters in whatever capacity they can.”