As the bronze statue of Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug was unveiled this week at the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, the accomplishments of this agricultural scientist came into focus as a way to consider what all science should be about.
Borlaug was the father of the “Green Revolution” developing wheat varieties for years in Mexico that could survive in harsh climates of India, Pakistan and other places where millions of people needed food. The statue was unveiled on what would have been Borlaug’s 100 th birthday. Each state is allowed only two statues in the hall and Borlaug is joined by other great Americans like civil rights champion Rosa Parks.
Borlaug’s discoveries and work have been estimated to have saved a billion people from hunger. All this came from a humble Iowan, schooled at the University of Minnesota. From a young age, he saw the potential for agriculture to feed millions and worked tirelessly many years away from family to make it a reality.
As a plant geneticist he developed high-yielding strains of wheat resistant to disease. He came to be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in 1970, but also the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Only Martin Luther King Jr., and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel have won all three awards.
By many accounts Borlaug was a humble man and would not have considered the recognition he received without acknowledging the many farmers he worked with to develop his wheat.
Even at the mention of Borlaug’s honors, environmental groups were quick to point to what they saw as the drawbacks of Borlaug’s work, such as in increase in the use of scarce water resources or overuse of chemicals that pose risks to human health.
We suspect Borlaug would welcome the discussion. Unfortunately, today’s discussion of science seems to focus on politics and what political advantage political parties might gain by a particular scientific story line.
We would all do well to recognize that the overriding purpose of science at one time was the pursuit of making the world a better place. And Borlaug’s life helps us remember that.