Norman Borlaug: the hero you’ve probably never heard of

By Meghan Eldridge 

CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico — With three other students from the University of Missouri, one fellow journalist and two students from science disciplines, I spent my spring break not on the sandy beaches of Mexico but in the middle of the Yaqui Valley.

Together we reported from a conference aimed at solving an issue that will affect the world in the coming decades: how to feed an exploding population by 2050.

More than 700 people from more than 65 countries around the globe converged in Ciudad Obregon to celebrate the life and work of one man you’ve probably never heard of: Norman Borlaug.

Summit attendees tour the fields on March 25 where Borlaug did his research before the "Green Revolution." Photo by Meghan Eldridge

Summit attendees tour fields on March 25 where Borlaug did his research before the “Green Revolution.” More than 100,00 test plots are devoted to wheat research. Photo by Meghan Eldridge

The Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security brought together frontrunners in the fight against food insecurity worldwide, men and women working on solving the problem of a population growing far more rapidly than the food supply. The conference began March 25, the day that would have marked Borlaug’s 100th birthday if he were still alive. Borlaug died in 2009.

For four days, scientists and policymakers who study wheat and other food crops presented findings from research focused on creating wheat varieties that can withstand environmental stresses such as drought and high temperatures. These factors have been shown to be on the rise as climate change continues to alter the environment.

Wheat is grown on more land worldwide than any other commercial crop and is the most important grain source for humans, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The hundreds of researchers who attended the conference credit the start of their work to Borlaug.

Borlaug, a wheat geneticist during the 1940s and ’50s, studied properties of wheat in the fields of the Yaqui Valley. He developed varieties that were able to withstand environmental stress and disease, while maintaining exceedingly high yields. The varieties were developed and the technology shared with farmers in Latin American and Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan.

His research and the overhaul he sparked in the agricultural industry was named the “Green Revolution.” Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of over a billion people on the brink of starvation by increasing the food supply. His work won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

In his Peace Prize acceptance speech Borlaug offered a fair warning to the world: “It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction.”

Borlaug’s work in the fight against hunger continued until his death, and the inspiration he fostered throughout his life’s work continues now. Summit attendees noted Borlaug’s influence throughout the week and spoke of their desire to continue Borlaug’s legacy to get technological and scientific advances into the hands of farmers growing crops that will feed the world.

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