The year is 1945. In Mexico, stem rust has ravaged wheat harvests. The farmers are appalled that a U.S. scientist is performing research on the very same crop that had nearly destroyed their livelihoods.
And yet he persists, winning their commitment and developing high-yielding, stem rust-resistant breeds of wheat. By 1963 these seeds effectively eliminated stem rust and increased Mexico’s wheat harvest sixfold. The once struggling Mexican agriculture sector had grown fully self-sufficient in wheat production, leading the country to become a net exporter of wheat.
Dr. Norman Borlaug’s success in Mexico inaugurated a wave of increased agricultural productivity that spread from Latin America to South Asia. High-yielding wheat strains served as the catalyst for what became known as the Green Revolution. And Dr. Borlaug, well, he would become “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives” (yeah, that’s really Penn & Teller talking about Norman Borlaug) and receive the highest civilian honors given by the U.S. President and Congress (the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal), the Nobel Peace Prize and the Padma Vibhushan – the second-highest civilian honor given in India.
Many have developed theories and practices that shape the way we think about the world around us. But to be credited with saving the lives of at least one billion people (and counting)? Forget it. No human being other than Norman Borlaug (tweet me if I’m wrong!) can wear that title.
Lest we become pedantic, there is something to learn here: That hard work, a full mind and – most of all – a relentless and kind spirit can better the world for generations to come. Agronomists and other agriculturally minded scientists are still gleaning from Borlaug’s work and using it to feed our growing population. Who says it can’t be done again, and even better?
“Standing on the shoulders of giants,” we all need to work to make better lives for the people of the world. But we must do it together. Borlaug’s seeds needed fertilizer to grow as surely as you and I need each other to spur research and development that will help the less fortunate.
So, for Dr. Borlaug’s birthday, let us resolve to not simply remember his work but honor it by continuing to reach for his dream with the same belief that “Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”