Water for Food

Norman Borlaug bucked conventional wisdom, and inspired a generation

March 25, 2014

Stephen Baenziger (left) and fellow agronomist Jerry Johnson, of the University of Georgia (right), met Normal Borlaug in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2005.

Stephen Baenziger (left) and fellow agronomist Jerry Johnson, of the University of Georgia (right), with Norman Borlaug in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2005.

By guest contributor Stephen Baenziger, DWFI fellow and University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomist

Years ago, I found myself high in the Andes, hours from anywhere, at a research station to visit barley plots. While waiting for my Peruvian host, I wandered over to a small plaque commemorating the station’s opening. And there, prominently displayed, was Norman Borlaug’s name. He’d given the dedication speech at this remote research station years earlier.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Norman Borlaug touched people’s lives in all corners of the world. And while he was a great scientist widely recognized as the father of the Green Revolution, the 1970s agricultural movement that broadly expanded food production, he was also a modest man who gave tremendous energy and enthusiasm to training and supporting others, whom he called “revolutionaries.”

This week, the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security is celebrating Norman Borlaug’s life and legacy in Mexico, where he spent most of his career developing high-yielding crop varieties for the developing world in an effort to end world hunger. His work and dedication inspired me and an entire generation of agriculturalists.

I was 17, eager to start college to become a nutritionist, when I read the Population Bomb. The message in Paul Erhlich’s 1968 best-selling book — and others’ at that time — was bleak: No matter what we did, mass starvation was inevitable. The prevailing view was the lifeboat response: figure out how to get the most people in the lifeboat without capsizing it. In other words, let hundreds of millions starve, so the rest of us would live.

It was inconceivable. America was thriving in a can-do era of optimism and prosperity. The Peace Corps was sending thousands of young people out to help the world’s less advantaged, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was promising to eliminate poverty and we were a year away from sending men to the moon. Yet we had conceded defeat on one of the most basic fundamental human rights — access to food — and risking hundreds of millions of lives. I wanted to challenge hunger as a nutritionist, but could I really make a difference?

Norm never accepted the future so many took as absolute certainty. So while others were measuring lifeboats, he was sending his remarkable wheat seeds to India and Pakistan, the seeds that would help avert famines in the Middle East and around the world. When Norm won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1970, while I was in college, it sent a new message: You don’t have to accept conventional wisdom; you can create the future you want to have. I understood then that agricultural research could make a powerful difference in people’s lives. I decided to become an agronomist.

In the 1940s, Norm had chucked a cushy career with chemical company DuPont to move to a rural Mexican town to lead a Rockefeller Foundation initiative to help farmers in that starving country improve their wheat crops. His work, often conducted under physically challenging conditions, led to a sixfold increase in Mexican wheat production by the 1960s, a success later repeated in India and elsewhere. His advances in plant breeding were also successfully applied to rice.

Norm predicted the Green Revolution would buy us 30 years. It actually got us 40. He warned that we must continue the commitment to fighting world hunger, but instead we declared victory and walked away. Now the reservoir of food and knowledge he helped create is running low as the world’s population soars. Complacency has allowed the threat of widespread famines to again loom large.

We may not have another Norman Borlaug to lead this century’s Green Revolution, but we have a new generation of revolutionaries, young scientists unwilling to accept the status quo. I work with many remarkable young people from diverse backgrounds, and I am encouraged by their energy and determination to tackle the challenge of food and water scarcity into the future.

DWFI is a sponsor of the Borlaug Summit on Wheat and Food Security, which is hosted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and takes place March 25-28 in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico.

Dr. Stephen Baenziger has been an agronomist, specializing in small-grain breeding, for 38 years. He joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1986. You can follow him on Twitter at @Huskerwheat.

Disclaimer: The Daugherty Water for Food Institute welcomes blog articles from guest contributors. Please note the comments shared by guests represent their own views and not necessarily those of DWFI, the University of Nebraska or any institutions with which DWFI may be affiliated.

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