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Agricultural Scientist Norman Borlaug has Saved Millions of People From Starvation

Nobel Peace Prize winning agriculturalist Norman Borlaug, 'Father of the Green Revolution'Ever since he was a young boy growing up in the 1920's on a small farm in Iowa, Norman Borlaug has loved tilling the soil and growing different plants. In the 1930's, when the nation was in the depths of an economic depression, he learned what poverty can do to people.

"When I went to Minnesota for the first time, there were hundreds, thousands of people with their hands out asking for a nickel to buy bread," he says. "There was unemployment everywhere! And there was food everywhere, but people were too poor to buy it! The early background of poverty and hunger in the 1930s made me more interested in world food problems."

In 1944, with degrees in forestry and plant pathology, Borlaug went to work on a Rockefeller and Ford Foundation-funded project to boost wheat production in Mexico, using newly-developed, hardier plant varieties. He says his work in Mexico also had an important educational dimension, beginning with the scientists. "One is to train a new generation of Mexican scientists -- men and women -- then moving the technology to the farmers' fields, then influencing public policy and economic policy," he says.

Borlaug employed similar strategies to double wheat and rice production and improve food security in Pakistan and India between 1965 and 1970, bringing both countries back from the brink of famine. Later, he helped other countries in Asia and Africa boost soil productivity. But Borlaug is modest about his role. "I was one of many thousands of people who contributed to make this so-called Green Revolution happen," he says.

Others, though, have recognized Norman Borlaug's agricultural leadership. In 1970, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in Asia's Green Revolution. Borlaug says the award inspired his call for the creation of a Nobel Prize especially for food and agriculture, but the Nobel Foundation, he recalls, was cool to the idea.

"They said, 'our hands are tied.' I said, 'but you did establish the prize for economics two years before I received the Nobel Prize for Peace,'" he recalls. "The Chairman in the main board meeting threw up his hands and said, 'Here is a perfectly legitimate request for a new prize category. But if we open the door once more, there will be an avalanche of requests, and so we have to say no.'"

After years of trying, Borlaug finally found a private sponsor in 1986 to fund a Nobel-like prize for agriculture to honor outstanding individuals who have helped to improve the quality, quantity, or availability of food throughout the world.

Since 1990, The World Food Prize has been sponsored by an Iowa agribusinessman and philanthropist named John Ruan. In 1994, Ruan and Borlaug jointly founded the World Food Prize Institute, whose mission is to encourage young people to pursue careers in science and agriculture. "I hope to continue to train young scientists, both men and women," he says. "I hope to see the application of science and technology to solve human problems, not to use it as ornaments and just the nice understanding of the biology of nature, but to make science useful."

Norman Borlaug has received more than 35 honorary degrees and dozens of awards from U.S. and international groups. In February of this year, President George Bush presented him with the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement. But Norman Borlaug has never been one to rest on his laurels. Now 92, he continues to hold down a teaching position at Texas A&M University and he travels the world speaking to presidents, policy makers and the public about the challenge we still face: to feed a hungry world.