Agricultural Pioneer: Dr. Norman Borlaug

It has been said that Norman Borlaug has “More than any other single man of our age,…provided bread for the hungry world.” As a scientist and humanitarian, Norman used the lessons he learned growing up in Iowa to start a “Green Revolution” and try to feed the hungry throughout the world.

Growing Up in Iowa

Norman was born to a family of Norwegian immigrants on a farm near Cresco, Iowa in 1914. His parents left Norway to escape food shortages. Norman obtained his early education in a one-room rural schoolhouse. His classmates were from different cultural backgrounds. Some were Czech, others were Norwegian. These children discovered, in that small Iowa school, they had much in common. They saw their parents working together on farms despite ethnic and language differences to ensure sufficient food was provided for all. It was an experience of seeing people coming together to ensure there was food for all that would remain with Norman throughout his life and would come to influence his work.

College in Minnesota

Norman attended the University of Minnesota where he studied forestry. He was also a successful athlete, participating in the wrestling program. The determination and dedication it took to be a successful wrestler would stick with him throughout his life.

After he received his degree in forestry in 1937, he worked for the U.S. Forestry Service at stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. He later returned to the University of Minnesota to study plant pathology and received his master's degree in 1939.

While at the University of Minnesota, Norman listened to a lecture from Dr. Elvin Stakman, the head of the university’s plant pathology department. It was at this lecture that Norman heard Stakman talk about how science would “ . . . go further than has ever been possible to [end] the miseries of hunger and starvation from this earth.” Norman was hooked and decided then to work towards his doctorate. He received that degree in 1942.

The “Green Revolution”

When Norman graduated with his Ph.D. in 1942, it was during World War II. He began work with DuPont, a company that then specialized in using science and chemistry to create new and innovative products. But he was soon offered a position with a new research project in Mexico. He accepted, and Norman began his work as a research scientist.

It was while in Mexico he first saw the plight of poverty-stricken wheat farmers. They were barely able to sustain themselves due to many poor harvests. Norman believed he could use his knowledge of science to help these farmers.

Norman was responsible for researching wheat production. For the next 16 years he worked in Mexico to try to create a variety of wheat that could produce a large yield, or harvest, and could also resist fungus and disease. By 1960 he was successful in using genetics to create high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. The creation of these new wheat varieties and improved crop management was the start of what would be called “The Green Revolution.”

Reaching the Rest of the World

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization was inspired by Norman’s work in Mexico. They asked him and his team from Mexico to turn their attention to the Middle East and South Asia.

The problem of extreme poverty and failing harvests affected not only Mexico, but also much of the developing world. Throughout the 1960s, Norman worked in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. There he taught scientists and farmers how planting new varieties of wheat could help feed the hungry in their countries.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner

In 1970 Norman was nominated for, and won, the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end world hunger in India and Pakistan. Norman remains the only agricultural scientist ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and one of its least known recipients.

The World Food Prize

To bring more attention to the issue of hunger, Norman asked the Nobel Foundation to create a category for food and agriculture. When he was refused, he sought financial sponsors and in 1986 created what he hoped would be an award equally as prestigious as the Nobel Peace Prize—The World Food Prize.

The annual World Food Prize ceremony is held in Des Moines, Iowa—and the prize money totaling $250,000 comes from fellow Iowan and philanthropist, John Ruan. John Ruan said that he began his work with the World Food Prize because “Close to one billion people still suffer from malnutrition, nearly one-sixth of the world population, primarily women and children, infants and the unborn.” This yearly ceremony continues to draw attention to the problem of world hunger and the role agriculture can play in solving that problem.

Environmental Critics

Norman’s work was not without critics. Over the years environmentalists criticized Norman, saying the crops he developed demand high levels of chemical fertilizer and other chemicals that could damage the environment. In later years he was criticized for his support of continued research and use of genetically modified crops. He continued to defend his work, arguing for the need to feed the world.

Congressional Gold Medal Honor

On December 6, 2006 the United States House of Representatives voted to honor Borlaug with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. This honor was awarded to Norman on July 17, 2007 at the United States Capitol. To date, he is the only person to be awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor as well as the Nobel Peace Prize.

A Lasting Impact

Norman continued his efforts to promote the use science to feed the hungry until his death in 2009.