Day celebrates hunger-relief pioneer

At 91, Norman E. Borlaug still travels the world helping raise food production.

Yelena Kibasova

University alumnus Norman E. Borlaug has reached red carpet status in the science world.

He’s been walking down it in the spotlight since he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Dr. Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Day is Oct. 16 in Minnesota. Borlaug Hall on the St. Paul campus was dedicated in his honor.

Borlaug has been on the front line of an endless battle for more than 70 years, devoting his life to fighting hunger.

At 91, Borlaug is still traveling the world and spreading his knowledge and passion in developing ways to increase food production in the countries most in need.

“As long as I can contribute something positive, I’ll keep working,” Borlaug said. “I’d just as soon die with my boots on.”

Born in 1914, Borlaug grew up near Cresco, Iowa, on a small mixed crop and livestock farm. He attended the University and received his bachelor’s degree in forestry in 1937, followed by a master’s and Ph.D. in plant pathology.

In 1944, he joined the poverty-fighting Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation, in cooperation with the Mexican government, had developed an agricultural program in Mexico that aimed to research local agriculture and improve and increase local food production.

Borlaug was in charge of disease control. He said he worked to battle wheat rust by crossing local wheat varieties to create new disease-resistant varieties.

Borlaug continued his work in different organizations nationally and internationally. By not only doing the work himself, but also teaching others by example, Borlaug’s research and discoveries have spread to countries all over the world and impacted millions of people’s lives.

“Many people now feel that he possibly is responsible for saving more lives than anyone in history,” said Don Henry a relative of Borlaug’s.

He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to agriculture production in Pakistan and Africa.

Borlaug is well known for approaching his work differently than other scientists.

“The impressive thing about Norm is that he goes beyond the normal scientists Ö A lot of scientists develop their improved wheat varieties or whatever and have them registered and put them out there in the market,” said Philip Pardey, professor in the department of applied economics.

“But Ö he physically lugged these varieties around the world, sharing them with local government officials or farmers and encouraging them to grow it,” Pardey said.

Some of those who have come in contact and worked with Borlaug are amazed by his character.

John Byrnes, program director at the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, met him in 2003 and 2004 when he visited the University.

“The thing that I was amazed at (was) that he was 90 years old at the time (and) just the amount of energy that he has and the ability to connect with people,” Byrnes said.

Borlaug now resides with his wife, Margaret, and family in Dallas. He enjoys fishing in his free time.

“I like to go fishing, freshwater fishing Ö I’m not much of an enthusiast for saltwater fishing. I guess that’s the effect of northern Minnesota; it’s only fresh water,” Borlaug said.

During his earlier work in Mexico, Borlaug contributed to the community in many ways.

“When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time with kids,” Borlaug said. “We introduced Little League baseball into Mexico so that our sons could participate.”

Borlaug hopes his efforts will progress around the world.

“I hope I would live to see a major breakthrough in one – or better, two – countries south of the Sahara desert in Africa,” he said. “If we can make a breakthrough in two countries, it’s like scoring a touchdown for a team that hasn’t scored a touchdown in years.”

Borlaug continues to travel the globe and work with various organizations to fight world hunger. He is also a professor at Texas A&M University, teaching international agriculture.

“I think his life is truly an example of what you can do if you have some talent and apply yourself toward a goal greater than yourself,” Pardey said.