A descendant of Norwegian immigrants, Norman Borlaug was born on a farm near Cresco, Iowa in 1914. He spent much of his spare time hunting and fishing, tending crops, and raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. Known for his athleticism, Borlaug’s high school days were highlighted by his achievements as a baseball player and champion wrestler.
Young Norman enrolled at the University of Minnesota through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration and graduated with a degree in forestry in 1937. After a stint with the U.S. Forestry Service, Borlaug enrolled in graduate school at Minnesota and earned both a Master’s and PhD in plant pathology and genetics. He went on to work as a microbiologist with the DuPont Corporation.
While Borlaug was completing his education and starting a new career, the U.S. government received a request from the Mexican government to assist in training a new generation of Mexican agricultural scientists. The country was relying heavily on grain imports to feed its people. With the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico was established with Borlaug as the lead geneticist and plant pathologist. He and his staff spent nearly 20 years in Mexico breeding a semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat.
In the face of global famines, a massive campaign began in 1965 to ship the “miracle” wheat to India and Pakistan and train local farmers in proper methods of cultivation. By 1970, wheat yields in the two countries doubled. Borlaug’s life-sustaining achievement became known as the “Green Revolution.” Because of Borlaug’s success with wheat, the production of high-yield, disease-resistant rice varieties spread the Green Revolution throughout most of Asia.
Borlaug’s contribution to the world food supply resulted in his selection as the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the only time in history the award has been given for agriculture and food production. He created the World Food Prize in 1986 and still works tirelessly to ensure that food security and access to modern agricultural technology will keep hunger at bay throughout the world. In addition to his role as distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, Borlaug remains a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Center in Mexico and serves as president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, a Japanese foundation dedicated to spreading the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.
“The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives” died on September 12, 2009. His legacy lives on in the work being conducted at Texas A&M University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, and by farmers around the world who benefited from his dedication. He is one of six people worldwide to be honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.