Green Giant

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. So why is a small cadre of activists bent on tarnishing his legacy?

Jeanie Laube wasn't sure what her father was up to in India and Pakistan in the late 1960s. He was almost never home, and he wasn't in the habit of calling, she says. That's why she was stunned one morning in 1970. While listening to her car radio in Wisconsin she heard that her daddy had won the Nobel Peace Prize. "I couldn't believe it. I had no clue," she admits.

If Laube was clueless then, the rest of America is largely clueless now. While other American Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Dr. Martin Luther King (1964), Henry Kissinger (1973), Elie Wiesel (1986, Holocaust survivor and author) and Jody Williams (1997, anti-land mine activist) might at least spark vague recognition, Borlaug's name would most likely elicit blank stares. Yet among many who know him, mention of his name draws forth a different response. "I believe that Norman Borlaug will eventually be recognized as one of the 10 greatest contributors to humankind of the 20th century," says Bruce Chassy, professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

Yet the pith of his greatness is--at least to those whose bellies have never cramped from hunger--mundane: cereal grains. In the mid-'60s, Borlaug traveled to India and Pakistan in an attempt to avert massive disaster. The countries had plunged into one of the worst droughts in years. Millions teetered on the edge of starvation. For several frantic months, Borlaug and his team dodged war, struggled with bum seeds and battled entrenched bureaucrats. Yet by employing agricultural techniques he developed in Mexico, he was able to nearly double South Asian wheat harvests between 1965 and 1970. His work was coined the "Green Revolution," and it spread rapidly across Asia. Largely because of Borlaug's work, global food production outpaced surging population growth over the closing decades of the 20th century, averting the global calamity so many predicted.

Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.

When Borlaug was selected for the Nobel Peace Prize, Laube says, Norwegian officials phoned her mother in Mexico City at 4 a.m., but Borlaug had already left for the test fields in Toluca Valley, about 40 miles west of Mexico City. A chauffeur was dispatched to take her to the fields to meet her husband. "And my mom said, 'You won the Nobel Peace Prize,' and he said, 'No, I haven't.'" He refused to believe it. "'I'm not going in to talk to the press,'" Laube says her father insisted after finally accepting the news. "It took some convincing," she says. "He thought the whole thing was a hoax."

In the years since, many have struggled to frame Borlaug's accomplishments as just that: a hoax; a brown revolution that has wreaked far more environmental and cultural havoc on the planet than benefit; a Western public relations stunt designed to fatten the agro-industrial complex, not feed the hungry.

Physicist and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi, decried this supposed disaster in her 1991 book The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. She blames the Green Revolution for the destruction of Indian crop diversity, drought vulnerability, dependence on agrochemicals that poison soils and waterways and for generating "pseudo surpluses" reflecting boosts in wheat and rice production while concealing declines in the production of pulses, oilseeds, millets and maize. "There was great violence at the heart of the Green Revolution," Shiva wrote in a 1994 article published in The Guardian in London. "People were at each other's throats."


Jeanie Laube says she never knows where in the world her father is. He skims the globe--sub-Saharan Africa, Oslo, Mexico, Tokyo--attending conferences, giving speeches, conducting scientific research, teaching scientists from developing nations. As a child growing up in Mexico City, she only saw her father on holidays or for special events. Infrequent family picnics would take place in Mexico's experimental wheat fields, where Laube would help her father put plastic sleeves around wheat stems to facilitate cross-pollination. But now, she says, her father is home in Dallas more than he ever has been, maybe three weeks out of the year, though technically the 88-year-old Borlaug has lived here for more than 20 years. "He's never anywhere except in an airplane," she says. "I don't know how he does it. His sleep schedule is all messed up. He probably sleeps four hours per day."

Because her mother, Margaret, now 91, is blind, Laube manages the mail that flows into her North Dallas home. The stream is heavy, with thousands upon thousands of requests from around the world for her father's autograph. She once came across a postage stamp with her father's picture on it that someone had requested her father sign. Laube doesn't remember from what country the stamp originated, but India issued a postage stamp in 1968 honoring the Indian wheat revolution her father fomented.

What confounds Laube is how little of this mail comes from the United States. "They have Time magazine with pictures of people who don't do anything for humanity," she says. "They have stamps for people who don't do anything for humanity. And here's this person, an American...I think he's really underappreciated in America."

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