Norman, Who?

Norman Borlaug (Source: World Food Prize Foundation)

If I asked you to name a famous Iowan, who would come to mind? TV and movie stars like Johnny Carson, Ashton Kutcher, John Wayne, or Cloris Leachman? Maybe sports greats Dan Gable, Shawn Johnson, or Kurt Warner? Former President Herbert Hoover or astronaut Peggy Whitson?

While these people are certainly famous, there is one very deserving name missing from this list. A person who most Americans have likely never heard of; Norman Borlaug, a scientist whose work is credited with saving over a billion lives. That’s right, the person who saved more lives than any other person in history is unknown by most.

I encourage you to take some time to dive into the life and work of Norman Borlaug by reading Our Daily Bread by Noel Vietmeyer or watching Freedom from Famine: The Norman Borlaug Story. But for now, here’s five things you should know about the life and accomplishments of Norman Borlaug.

  1. Norman Borlaug was an agricultural scientist, specifically a plant breeder. His work focused on improving crop genetics, mainly wheat and rice. In 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to fight stem rust, a fungus that infects wheat. At the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation and Vice President Henry A Wallace, he worked on research stations in Mexico to improve agricultural practices. He and his colleagues spent the next decade crossing thousands of strains of wheat from across the globe, ultimately developing a high-yielding, disease-resistant variety. Borlaug’s breeding techniques were soon expanded to other crops and laid the groundwork for advances in agriculture that helped to alleviate world hunger
  2. Borlaug is recognized as the father of the Green Revolution, a period of advancement of agricultural practices and technology between 1950 and the late 1960s that increased food production worldwide. The work of Borlaug and others to increase the yield of grain crops decreased famine and malnutrition, especially in Mexico, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and other developing countries. By increasing the amount of grain harvested per acre, Borlaug’s work also preserved natural habitats that would have been cultivated to meet the needs of the growing population.   
  3. Borlaug was raised on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, where his family instilled in him a strong work ethic and the value of education. Norman’s grandfather Nels saw great potential in Norm’s curious mind and encouraged him to pursue more education than was typical for a farm boy at the time. “Think for yourself, Norm Boy” and “Fill your head now to fill your belly later” are two things his grandfather would tell him often.
  4. Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 for his lifetime of work to feed a hungry world. He is one of only seven people in the world to receive all three honors. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa are some of the other honored seven. 
  5. Borlaug founded 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.  

I’ll admit, I was well into adulthood by the time I learned about Norman Borlaug. And it wasn’t until recent years that I really began to understand his work and why it had such a huge impact globally. I now feel compelled to share his accomplishments with others, especially students. And I hope you do, too.



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