The Legacy of Norman Borlaug
Posted March 24, 2014
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
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.