Last March 25 I sat in a crowded banquet hall at The Northwood Club in Dallas and listened to Dr. Norman Borlaug speak humbly but eloquently about what the agriculture industry must do to feed the world.
He celebrated his 95th birthday that day and took the opportunity to remind an admiring and awed audience that his life’s work was not done. Dr. Borlaug saved as many as 1 billion people from starvation through his efforts to increase grain production under diverse growing conditions. He worked in many third world countries where starvation was common and assistance was not.
He’s the father of the Green Revolution. He showed, as a humble USDA scientist, how much difference one man can make if he’s committed to helping others.
When I learned of Dr. Borlaug’s death Monday morning I realized that the world had lost one of its greatest humanitarians, one of its most dedicated public servants and one of its most revered scientists.
I don’t have many heroes. Celebrities and politicians, for the most part, are too involved in their own agendas, their own press clippings and the latest political or popularity polls to warrant adulation. Exceptions are rare.
Dr. Borlaug was more than worthy. He earned the highest accolades: the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Medal of Freedom. But prizes were not his motivation. Ending misery was.
He talked about misery and hunger back in March.
“Hunger and poverty do more than plant the seeds of despair,” he said. “They also plant the seeds of anarchy and terrorism. Hunger and misery have been part of human existence for thousands of years. There are references in both the Bible and the Koran. But all in this room today and thousands of others are dedicated to producing more food and doing it without destroying the environment.”
He said science and technology have thwarted global disaster so far. “We have survived.” He attributed success to the “generosity of affluent nations to put more and more support behind international programs.”
But the struggle continues. “We have to fight, fight, fight,” he said. “You don’t win by being afraid of change and change we must have. We are going in the right direction.”
Dr. Borlaug, in a brief personal conversation following the event, told me the Green Revolution must continue. He said genetic engineering, far from being an environmental nightmare, will be essential to feed a rapidly growing world population.
It would be easy to assume that Dr. Borlaug’s passing leaves a huge void in agricultural research devoted to ending hunger. And the assumption has merit. I’m not confident we will soon see the same commitment, dedication and self-sacrifice that motivated him.
But I could be wrong because Dr. Borlaug was also a teacher and one cannot help but assume that he passed along more than his knowledge of plant genetics to his students. I have to believe that more than a few also embraced his philosophy of service.
And one of the last honors agriculture bestowed on him was the creation of the Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program, which will identify and support young scientists interested in research and production to improve rice and wheat (Dr. Henry Beachell was a renowned rice breeder.). Monsanto announced its sponsorship of the $10 million, five-year program at Dr. Borlaug’s 95th birthday celebration. Texas A&M AgriLife Research administers the program.
Dr. Norman Borlaug will be missed, but his work will stand as a monument to what people of good will can do to improve the world. His scientific achievements will continue to feed hungry people and his inspiration will continue to encourage others to carry on his work.
His example will motivate others to take up his cause, as it did this sometimes cynical reporter on a cold, rainy day in March that turned out to be one of the most meaningful assignments of my career.