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?

The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. Agriculture is not a sexy subject. The beneficiaries of his innovations and energies are primarily brown and yellow people from Third World countries. Then there is simply this: Desperate hunger is an alien affliction in the United States, where malnourishment is more likely to result in obesity than distended bellies.

Yet more than that is a prevailing criticism that a cadre of elites--from activists to academics to business and governmental organizations--has leveled against Borlaug since he embarked on a radical plan to feed the desperate millions in South Asia in the mid-'60s. They thought his program was pure madness, an example of reckless arrogance.

Borlaug wrote in 1988 that this faction of "clairvoyant doomsayers" was both surprised and dismayed when his success proved them wrong. During the 1980s as Borlaug turned his attention to Africa, some environmentalists took aim at high-yield agriculture as a global ecological threat and sought to starve him of funding by pressuring foundations and donor countries to steer clear of Borlaug's work, which utilized heavy doses of chemical fertilizers. The pressure repelled the Ford Foundation and the World Bank from Borlaug's efforts.

Jeanie Laube, Norman Borlaug's daughter, says her father thought his Nobel Prize selection was a hoax.
Jeanie Laube, Norman Borlaug's daughter, says her father thought his Nobel Prize selection was a hoax.
Top: Borlaug at the Big Creek Ranger Station, Idaho National Forest, 1937. Middle: Borlaug, left, with a group of Mexican scientists in Chapingo, Mexico, 1946. Bottom: Borlaug in a wheat field in Sonora, Mexico, 1957.
Top: Borlaug at the Big Creek Ranger Station, Idaho National Forest, 1937. Middle: Borlaug, left, with a group of Mexican scientists in Chapingo, Mexico, 1946. Bottom: Borlaug in a wheat field in Sonora, Mexico, 1957.

"These people have never been around hungry people," Borlaug says of his well-fed critics. "They're Utopians. They sit and philosophize. They don't live in the real world."


In 1999, the Texas A&M University Board of Regents named its Center for Southern Crop Improvement in honor of Borlaug, who has been a distinguished professor of international agriculture at the university since 1984. But the part-time professor didn't take an office in the handsome $16 million complex. Borlaug works in the Heep Center in a shadowy section of the building drenched in drab green. There is no plaque to indicate a Nobel laureate dwells among the papers, books and pictures from Mexico and Africa stuffed into a room barely larger than a broom closet. Instead, a slip of paper with his name printed on it is taped to a raised rectangle affixed to the wall.

Despite his age, Borlaug is sharp and articulate. His speech wavers but is vigorous, and he has never been one to shy away from physical danger or discomfort. For the past 60 years he has trekked through the globe's most desperate and backward corners--Peru, Guatemala, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan--in a relentless drive to teach people how to adequately feed themselves.

For most of his adult life Borlaug has rarely indulged in the comforts of the industrialized West for any extended period of time. His choice has been to immerse himself in locales where people stare death in the face every day.

"Traveling in the back country is not very pleasant," he admits. "The hotels were miserable. The food was bad. In any of these countries I'd never eat fresh food that wasn't cooked, unless I knew where that damn lettuce came from. Chances are pretty good it was irrigated with sewage water."

He was born in 1914 and grew up on a small farm in the northeastern corner of Iowa in a town called Cresco. He and his family raised corn, oats, timothy hay, cattle, pigs and chickens. Schooling was in a one-room schoolhouse that spanned kindergarten through eighth grade.

Borlaug's main diversion growing up was wrestling, and he was a feisty competitor who in 1992 was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He also loved baseball and had it fixed in his mind that he would one day play second base for the Chicago Cubs. His more practical dream was to be a high school science teacher and coach, but a lack of money kept that pursuit at bay.

"I am a product of the worst of the Depression," he says. "I didn't have any money to go to college." So after high school, Borlaug went to work, collecting wages working the harvests and cutting fence posts and wood, as well as trapping muskrats.

Through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, Borlaug was able to enroll in the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis to study forestry, working mostly as a waiter in a sorority house to earn his keep. What he saw when he first arrived in the city in 1933 shook him irrevocably. Huge numbers of desperate, hungry people huddled in the streets, begging for food, sleeping on newspapers spread over the sidewalks. He saw a riot sparked by a milk truckers' strike where milk trucks were stopped and their contents dumped into the street. The city was boiling with unrest. "That's how close we were to the breakdown of our whole government," he says. "Most people don't know how unstable everything was."

Instead of being repelled by the desperation, Borlaug was compelled by it. When his money ran out in 1935, he dropped out of school and got a job in the Civilian Conservation Corps supervising emergency work programs in forestry and soil conservation. The men under his charge, many 17 and 18 years old, were starving. "At the camps they were able to recover some semblance of health and self-confidence," Borlaug said in a 1991 interview published in the academic journal Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems. "I saw how food changed them...All of this left scars on me."

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