The Legacy of Norman Borlaug

Sometimes I ask friends and colleagues, who have spent significant portions of their lives working among those in poverty in developing countries, a single question:

“If you were to bring friends from the community you are serving to the United States, what would they find most surprising?”

The answer is almost always the same. “A grocery store.”

The first time I asked and heard this answer I was caught off guard. I assumed modern technology would be the most impressive. But it is not our society’s technological bells and whistles that much of the world craves. It’s simply food.

When I have occasion to step back for a moment and survey a typical American grocery store with shelves stacked high, I have to admit I experience an internal dissonance. Most days it’s simply easier to not look and to move quickly through the aisles, filling the cart with everything I need…and everything I want. I have never known anything different. I get upset if I can’t find a convenient parking space or if the wheels on my cart wobble or squeak. I have the arrogant confidence that the food will always be there when I want it.

Yet, the contrast between my world and the developing world is becoming harder to swallow these days. Our abundance is sometimes overwhelming. The stores get bigger. The packaging is a bit brighter and more attractive. Incentives to buy less nutritious foods are increasing. Meanwhile obesity rates are a growing health concern for our citizens. There is something overwhelming about having such an abundance of food. I don’t think I have the appreciation for food that it deserves.

I am not a person easily motivated by guilt. I often like to say, “I don’t do guilt.” I tend to respond more to challenge and opportunity. So, when I contemplate my role as a citizen of the U.S. and the world, I sometimes wonder what is required of me. What challenge should I take up? What opportunity should I pursue? What should I do about hunger?

I hear echoes of the Hebrew scriptures as recorded in Micah 6:8 where we read,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

If I accept this ancient articulation as a guide for what I should do, then here is how I need to respond. First, I am hearing more these days about food security. I think this is helpful. The term was established originally in 1974 at the World Food Conference and was understood at the level of the nation-state or as a matter of national security. In 1996, however, the World Food Summit recast this idea of food security at the level of the individual, placing an emphasis on the human rights dimension of food security. If we do not feed those who are hungry in our communities and around the world, in the end we all lose as societies degrade into diverging bands of wealth and poverty. This serves only to breed conflict and leads to greater and accelerating injustice. For me this means that I need to do what I can every day to help feed other people locally and around the world. Justice demands this.

Second, through the course of my life I have observed that extending kindness almost always involves food. Our instinct when we encounter someone in need is to provide nourishment. We bring food to a new neighbor. When a family has been through an ordeal or transition, we feed them. When we honor those who have died, we provide food to those who mourn. It’s a natural instinct because nourishing others is the foundation of family and community. This begins in our homes, but also reaches far into the public sphere where we can measure the kindness of a nation by how it nourishes its people and how it helps to feed people in other nations. For me this means I need to do all I can to inspire kindness in feeding people and treat food less as a personal commodity and more as a symbol of individual, family, community and societal well-being.

Third, we are called to walk in humility. I have never found wealth to be a deterrent to humility if it is placed in generous hands. Sometimes we think wealth and arrogance go together, and there are certainly examples of this unfortunate alignment. But I have found arrogance in those who have little as often as those who have much. Humility for me is about a willingness to both listen with compassion and respond with determination in the service of others. We honor people when we feed them if we do so in the right spirit. Preserving human dignity is a task for all of us. For me this means I need to help educate a generation of students about adopting humility and extending dignity to others who we may see as different, but who deserve our respect.

Issues of hunger have been on my mind these days as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Norman Borlaug by commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth. Norman Borlaug is my hero. Tuesday, March 25, 2014, his statue will be placed in the U.S. Capitol Building representing the very best Iowa has offered the nation and the world.

In a biographical memoir written by Ronald L. Phillips we read,

Borlaug has commonly been called the father of the “green revolution” because of his tireless efforts, beginning in the early 1940s, to make Mexico self-sufficient in wheat production; and his subsequent saving of millions of people in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere from starvation through high-yielding wheat varieties. By 1963, Mexico was an exporter of wheat, and wheat yields in Pakistan and India nearly doubled between 1965 and 1970. Similarly, “miracle rices” developed at the international rice research institute (IRRI) by Hank Beachell and colleagues significantly raised the yields of rice and benefited poor people across Asia. Thus Borlaug needs no introduction to people in many countries. But in his home country of the United States relatively few members of the public know his name. So even though this is a man who would seem to “need no introduction,” he does need one for many of his compatriots.

Borlaug was one of only five people to have received all three of the following awards during their lifetimes: the Nobel Peace Prize (1970); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977); and the Congressional Gold Medal (2007), which is the highest award that the U.S. Government can bestow on a civilian. (The other four were Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Elie Weisel.) Borlaug was elected to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States in 1968 and in 2002 received its Public Welfare Medal, which recognizes “distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare.” At a White House ceremony in 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest honor for scientific achievement. Over the years, he was awarded more than 50 honorary doctorates from universities around the world and a seemingly endless number of other prizes and awards.

Today his legacy lives on through the World Food Prize. In 1986 Dr. Borlaug founded the World Food Prize, which he hoped would “both highlight and inspire breakthrough achievements in improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world,” and which is now often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.” The Hall of Laureates for the World Food Prize is located in Des Moines, Iowa, and has a reach that extends across the nation and around the world. The World Food Prize mission is one of recognition for those who are making a global impact on food supply and one of education as it encourages students at all levels to understand and explore the worldwide need for food. It is an impressive organization under the capable leadership of Ambassador Ken Quinn. Central College is proud to be an active participant in the work of the World Food Prize.

We have a great challenge and opportunity to advance the vision of Norman Borlaug and live out his legacy characterized by justice, kindness and humility. I urge you to visit the World Food Prize website today and record your next steps in addressing hunger along with thousands of others. Honor Dr. Borlaug’s legacy through your participation and find new ways to address hunger in your community and around the world.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



5 responses to The Legacy of Norman Borlaug

Don Huffman says:

This is an excellent reminder that a rich legacy characterized by justice, kindness and humility is not limited to those from a tradition of liberal arts, nor of private education. Norman Borlaug was a plant pathologist/plant geneticist at the Univ. of Minnesota, and part of a large network of scientists with similar skills who used comtemporary science and technology to improve crop yield, specifically of wheat. He directed a massive Rockefeller Foundation grant in Mexico which succeeded in large part because of his commitment to improve crop yields for an expanding human population.
While some colleagues preferred to emphasize population control; Borlaug saw a greater need to improve crop production by standard methods of genetic resistance to plant diseases and seed distribution.

Kay Evans says:

Dear Mark, thank you for sharing info about Norman! He was a cousin of my friends, the Nelson family, of Elma, Iowa. I went to CUI for my 1st 2 years of college: 1967-69, then transferred to Wartburg College to sing in the Wartburg Choir, and go on the 7-wk, 7-country European choir tour in 1970. I graduated from Wartburg in 1971, moved to NYC, went to Columbia Univ. & graduated with my MA in Music, before I taught music in Charles City, IA for a year. It was in Charles City that I met teacher Hazel Nelson & learned more about her mother’s cousin, Norm. Because of my 40-year friendship with Hazel, I was able to see the Norman Borlaug statue at the US Capitol yesterday afternoon, and enjoyed the 2-hour reception Monday evening at the National Press Club in Washington DC. Because I was a singer in the USAF and my husband was a career tuba player with the President’s Own MARINE BAND in DC, we live close to the Capitol City, in Woodbridge, VA. I was wondering if Central would like to share some of our personal photos of this week’s event on NATIONAL AG DAY & the night before. Contact me, if there’s an interest. Sincerely, Kay M. Robinson Evans (703-590-3692)

Jim Zaffiro says:


With these inspiring words, you honor our mission and goals as an institution of higher learning.

I will do my small part in trying to walk the walk this fall, when I offer my new Senior Capstone Seminar: Food Justice:

“The richest 300 people on Earth have more money than the poorest 3 billion”
–“Global Wealth Inequality” (July, 2013 YouTube video)

Course Description:
This course is about the intersection of food, agriculture, and human rights mediated through political, economic, and social systems. It is integrative and transdisciplinary, in the sense that such a complex, multifaceted issue can best be approached and understood through the lenses of many disciplines, including:
• Politics, Government and Public policy
• Sustainable development
• Global trade and agriculture
• Agro-ecology
• Food anthropology
• Urban sociology

It is intended to help raise individual awareness and collectively empower local communities with practical knowledge, civic engagement opportunities, and community organizing tools to engage in the increasingly vital work of creating more just and sustainable global, national, and local food systems, and thereby, a more socially just and sustainable world.

The significance of this topic stems from the fact that you will be graduating and living within dominant global, national, and local food systems which are unsustainable as well as unjust, in terms of meeting basic human needs—and rights—to food. President Obama has pledged to work to eliminate child hunger in this country by 2015. Living in a country of unprecedented food abundance, we still have 49 million Americans on food stamps and severe pockets of hunger and malnutrition. Hunger and food insecurity today are greater than a generation ago. Globally, the situation is much worse in some areas—Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, and slowly improving in other areas—Brazil, Ghana, Mexico, are notable examples. Locally, there are an increasing number of vibrant, successful, and globally sustainable alternative food system models and community-based initiatives, including many in Iowa, for us to explore, learn about, and connect with.

Andy Thompson says:

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Borlaug at a dinner for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he was honored. His message of abundance through innovation contrasts with the Malthusian viewpoint that we’re always on the verge of destroying our species through our greed. I believe in the Cornucopian vision of a Julian Simon as opposed to the failed prognostications of Paul Ehrlich. We have the capacity and the ability to utilize our resources in a way that is efficient so long as government doesn’t distort things through its regulatory Colossus and its insatiable appetite for greater control and financial resources.

If we have hungry people in America it’s a failure of government, not the private sector. The multitude of programs that have been instituted to solve hunger are beyond comprehension; we simultaneously have a hunger crisis and an obesity crisis, often among the same group of people? Is it possible that government is not doing too little, but rather too much? The Great Society has been a demonstrable failure, as nearly everyone concludes. We’ve created lots of government jobs, but we now have record numbers of people on food stamps, while workforce participation is near historic lows. If the president has another brilliant plan for solving the hunger crisis, I’d be careful what you wish for. His health care “solution” is going to be responsible for even more misery than we’re currently experiencing. No thanks, Mr. President, we’ve had enough. I miss Norman Borlaug!

Don Huffman says:

Hi Andy,
We all miss Norman Borlaug more than we know. Part of his attraction is that he developed his successful programs in Mexico under a huge grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, not a U.S. government program. His wisdom, as I’ve understood it, is that he saw the concern for feeding the world’s hungry as a greater priority than population control at the time of his accomplishments.
What could be achieved if most high level research were funded from Foundation funds rather than by government programs? Would most U.S. citizens support foundations in preference? It’s a question without a certain answer, but it would be interesting.
Don H.