Skip to main content

Why You Should Know the Name Norman Borlaug

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Food and Nutrition Research and Science
Mar 25, 2014

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog.  Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Most Americans have never heard the name Norman Borlaug—and that’s ironic, considering that he is hailed around the world as one of the greatest Americans ever.

Compared to storied politicians, creative industrialists, brilliant inventors, or military heroes, Borlaug’s accomplishments have never been the topic of discussion at the dinner table — he merely set the world’s table. But what a table. The simple Iowa farm boy is credited with saving a billion people around the world from starvation and malnutrition.

His honors and awards include the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Padma Vibhushan (India’s second highest civilian honor). Borlaug is the creator of the World Food Prize, an annual award that recognizes the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. In addition, USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service administers the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program, which provides training and collaborative research opportunities to scientists from developing and middle-income countries.

Today, on National Agriculture Day—what would have been Borlaug’s 100th birthday—he will be recognized with a statue in the United States Capitol. The statue will be unveiled at 11 a.m., with a live webcast available. USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden will host a public event from 2:00 – 5 p.m. at the Jefferson Auditorium in USDA’s South Building.

The statue, which depicts Borlaug conducting research in a wheat field, is essentially a snapshot of his career. Borlaug spent 20 years working with wheat producers in Mexico, where he eventually developed high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties and a double-season production system that defied conventional wisdom of the time. As a result, Mexico produced six times more wheat than before and went from an importer nation to a wheat exporter in 1963.

Borlaug followed his success in Mexico by taking on food shortage challenges in Asia and the Middle East. His efforts there were so successful he was credited with starting a “Green Revolution” that saw Pakistan increase its wheat yield from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million tons in 1970; India also improved its harvest, up from 12.3 million tons to 20 million tons in the same period. Since 1968, as India’s population more than doubled, the Borlaug-inspired wheat harvest more than tripled. The Green Revolution has since expanded into rice and maize, to cover the world’s three most important cereal grains.

Rather than rest on his laurels, Borlaug came out of semi-retirement in the 1980s to take his work to Africa. Maize and sorghum doubled from 1983 to 1985, and production of wheat, cassava, and cowpeas are also on the rise in the countries that employ his tactics.

Today, Borlaug’s family celebrates his 100th birthday, but in reality, we should all celebrate. He paved the way for agricultural science and technology to improve the well-being of people across the globe and improve the human condition.