Alumnus gets top U.S. honor for pioneering in agriculture

Norman Borlaug is said to have combated hunger around the world by developing wheat production in poor countries.

Megan Kadrmas

The namesake of the St. Paul campus’ largest building was awarded the National Medal of Science on Monday by President George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., becoming the 417th person to be so honored since its creation in 1959.

But this isn’t Norman Borlaug’s first taste of recognition. The University alumnus’s extensive work with wheat crops in developing countries already had won him global recognition and a Nobel Peace Prize.

“By combating hunger around the world, some say that Norman Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone in the history of humanity,” said Jim Anderson, assistant professor of agronomy and plant genetics and a wheat-breeding expert at the University.

“It’s a proud day for everyone at the University,” said Mary Buschette, the program director for the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.

Borlaug, born in Iowa, graduated from the University in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in forestry. He later returned to earn his master’s degree and doctorate in plant pathology.

After leaving the University, Borlaug’s research led him to the development of shorter, more durable wheat. These variations had higher crop yields, were disease-resistant and had wider climate ranges.

Borlaug used his wheat variations in developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

“He thinks that solving world hunger will lead to a more peaceful world for everyone,” Bruschette said.

While he did his research in Mexico, it was Borlaug’s work in India and Pakistan that earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. In the three countries, there was a shift from dependency on wheat imports toward self-sufficiency.

“The thing that makes him stand out is that he really sees the global perspective,” said John Byrnes, director of communications for COAFES.

Borlaug’s work also has affected domestic wheat production.

“He was one of the first wheat breeders to commercialize short variations of wheat. Today, most varieties (of wheat) have origins in Borlaug’s plants,” Anderson said.

But Anderson said he has to be “careful” in giving Borlaug too much credit.

“He wasn’t the first to commercialize short wheat,” he said. “He just did so much more extensively than others.”

Despite his international résumé, Borlaug has kept his local ties, and the state of Minnesota celebrates Oct. 16 as Dr. Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Day.

“He always kept a close connection to the University,” Byrnes said. “He is extremely interested in (Gophers’ wrestling) and I’m amazed at how he still remembers students that he met years ago.”

At the age of 92, Borlaug is a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M. He still is active with global-hunger issues, including his work with former President Jimmy Carter to bring improved varieties of wheat, corn and other crops to Africa.

“He is an inspiration and a role model,” Buschette said. “Who would have known that a kid from rural Iowa could make such a difference in the world?”