A lesson in compassionate tenacity

Norman Borlaug, 1914-2009

Norman Borlaug

Photo: Morten Holm / NTB scanpix
Norman Borlaug returned to Oslo in 2007.


Brooklyn, N.Y.

At a time when scientists are having a resurgence of popularity—I dare say, they are even a little sexy again—I thought it would be apropos to feature a Norwegian-American scientist. I was inspired by his story, featured on the episode “Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Tried to Feed the World” in PBS’ American Experience.

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in Iowa in 1914. His great-grandparents immigrated from Vik, Norway, in 1847 because of the potato blight. They first settled in Wisconsin and ended up in Saude, a Norwegian-American community in Iowa, where Borlaug was raised. 

From a young age, he worked the farm and was incredibly productive but unhappy. He held little hope for his future, as it seemed preordained by the family’s poverty.

By the end of the 1920s, farming, which had been using the same methods for thousands of years, saw a marked change. Henry Ford’s tractor now allowed for a rise in farmers’ income. With this invention, they could produce food beyond mere sustenance. This new use of technology to improve the lives of farmers gave suddenly gave the young adolescent hope.

However, Borlaug was not living at a fortuitous time. The Great Depression hit when he was 15. This was followed by Iowa being consumed by swarms of locusts and then the Dust Bowl, blotting out possibilities of a better future. But he received sage advice from his grandfather: “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.”

After hearing these words, the young man left for the University of Minnesota in 1933. Looking for obtainable opportunities, he hoped to get a sports scholarship, as he did not consider himself intelligent enough to take the academic track. But no such scholarships were to be had, and he went into forestry, after trying three times to gain admission to the school.

There he met his wife-to-be, Margaret Gibson, and after graduation, he secured a job with the forestry department. But with the devastated economy, his job was eliminated. What to do? He returned to the university to obtain a doctorate in plant pathology, the study of plant diseases.

Outside the campus, civil unrest consumed Minneapolis, as dairy prices kept depreciating.  Dairy farmers decided to “cut off supplies to the cities” and dump their milk, as selling it would have cost them money.

Norman Borlaug

Photo: NTB scanpix
Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to stop hunger.

Those who were hungry reacted with a vengeance, and riots ensued. Borlaug experienced the violence firsthand. Caught in the middle, it “terrified him.” He internalized the experience and came to the conclusion that “hunger can turn men into beasts.”  

Living at a time of both civil and financial unrest shaped and informed Borlaug, who believed to his core that social instability was inevitable when there was a lack of food. 

In 1944, Borlaug toiled to assist struggling Mexican farmers and scientists to increase productivity. A project was created by the U.S. government in response to a feat that increased was created by the U.S. government, which feared increasing civil unrest from its southern neighbor. The Rockefeller Foundation provided support to this program to improve the lives of poor farmers and create better relationships between them and the government.  

Borlaug was one of four scientists commissioned and was tasked solely with studying Stem Rust, a kind of fungus found in wheat, the same disease that once depleted his family’s farm. He worked tirelessly, using a shuttle breeding method, growing between Sonora, Mexico, where wheat would grow in the winter, and central Mexico in the summer. 

But Borlaug’s boss decimated his support, telling him to stop. Yet he continued, motivated by his drive to ensure that poor families would be fed. It took years, but he eventually succeeded in breeding a strain of wheat that was able to resist Stem Rust and produce high yields.

The downside was that his variety of wheat required large quantities of water and fertilizer, which hurt poorer farmers with its high cost. And in turn, it required a smaller workforce, putting some of the population he had been tasked to help out of business, displacing them to urban areas.

Leaders at  the Rockefeller Foundation took notice of Borlaug’s work and wanted to use it as a way for the United States to curtail the spread of communism. They believed that providing food stability to “discontented peasants” would lead them toward democracy. The result was Borlaug’s creation of Dwarf Wheat, which proved to be a godsend at the time.

Food deficiencies due to an exploding global population and how to control this growth became a topic at the United Nations. In 1966, India suffered a drought, and Borlaug was there. The situation devastated him; he believed the suffering could have been prevented. 

The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked in his State of the Union address, “Next to the pursuit of peace, the greatest challenge to the human family is the race between food supply and population increase. That race tonight is being lost.”

Both Pakistan and India requested Borlaug’s assistance in combating food insecurities. Indian geneticist and administrator M.S. Swaminathan, known for his role in India’s Green Revolution, not only wished to eliminate widespread famine, he also wanted his country to become an agricultural exporter. “For years Borlaug promised he could save India,” he said. “Now it was time to prove it.” 

Many Indians were indignant about Borlaug’s non-traditional methods. There were philosophical differences in how both cultures utilized the earth and skepticism of America’s increasing influence on the country. However, Borlaug’s goal was to prevent hunger and his results could not be denied, as they produced unprecedented yields, one and a third times greater than the prior record.

In 1970, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to stop hunger and was dubbed the “father of the Green Revolution.” His carefully bred seeds and techniques were used and replicated around the world over and applied to other crops such maize and rice.

Borlaug believed that the Green Revolution would be a temporary 20-25 year stopgap measure until better population control could be achieved. He said, “We can’t relax; we must continue.”

Today, when leaders like New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo speak out about imagining and improving our broken systems, I think of Borlaug asking and hoping for the same in our food chain.

Once again, it is a time to create. One solution-based initiative is Cuomo’s plan to link farmers who currently have an abundance of food during the COVID-19 crisis with feeding programs for those who do not have enough to eat. More innovative thinking is necessary if we wish to deflate the impact of our current health and economic disaster.  

Borlaug was driven by generations of abject food insecurity from his own family and the inequities of the Great Depression. His life work was the perfect niche for his indomitable soul and for us a lesson in compassionate tenacity that can inspire us today.  His achievements can be summed up in five words: Borlaug saved 1 billion lives.

* All quotes from American Experience 

May 11, 2020.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.