If pushed to guess, I suspect that few of the lengthy, laudatory obituaries published the week after his Sept. 12 death would have pleased Norman E. Borlaug, the Iowa farm boy turned hunger fighter.
Borlaug, after all, wasn’t into flowers or flowery words. He was a plain-spoken, dirt-on-the-shoes plant breeder whose semi-dwarf and rust-resistant wheat varieties are credited with saving an estimated 1 billion people from chronic hunger and starvation since their development in the 1960s.
In fact, when he was tracked down to a wheat field 50 miles west of Mexico City and told he had just won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarianism, he reportedly told the news bearer, wife Margaret, that it was a prank.
“Someone’s pulling your leg,” he insisted.
Even after being assured that, indeed, he was about to become history’s most famous plant pathologist, Borlaug remained in the field until his day’s work was completed.
Only then did he go to a Mexico City press conference, unwashed and still in his work clothes, because “I wanted to show the TV men what makes an agricultural scientist — dirty hands,” recalled the Des Moines Register Sept. 13.
To the world at large, the Nobel made him a star; to the desperately poor, perpetually undernourished around the world, the wheat — and subsequent breakthroughs in other grains such as rice — made him “the father of the Green Revolution.”
It was a grand and great title that Borlaug greatly disliked. “It’s a miserable term,” he once noted, partly because it lacked a shred of his ancestral Norwegian modesty.
But the Prize did give him a world-sized pulpit from which to advocate clearly, loudly and tirelessly for “continued investments from both the public and private sectors in efficient agriculture production technologies.”
That line is taken from an op-ed piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal July 30, less than 45 days before his death, at age 95, from cancer. The short column, titled Farmers Can Feed the World, is pure Borlaug: fact-laced, up-to-date and characteristically blunt.
Noting how world leaders responded to an earthquake that rattled Italy two weeks before — $20 billion in ag investments — Borlaug complimented them for their commitment.
“For those of us who have spent our lives working in agriculture,” his lead read, “focusing on growing food versus giving it away is a giant step forward.”
From there, it was a very small step even for an ailing Borlaug to, again, jab “some elements of popular culture (who) romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides, arguing that the U.S. should revert to producing only organic foods.”
Those who have “the will and the financial means” should be “able to purchase organic food,” the long-time, free market disciple readily conceded, “but not at the expense of the world’s hungry — 25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition.”
Don’t forget, he continued, that “current agricultural productivity took 10,000 years to attain” and the world’s “nearly 7 billion people consume that stockpile almost in its entirety every year.”
As such, and given the “shrinking land base” and “environmental demands caused by climate change… governments must make their decisions about access to new technologies, such as the development of genetically modified organisms, on the basis of science, not to further political agendas.”
He ended his final article with an admonition. “Of history, one thing is certain: Civilization as we know it could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply.
“Likewise …our children, grandchildren and future generations will not evolve without accelerating the pace of investment and innovation in agriculture production.”
His last words, like his long, productive life, are a call to action. You ready?