Famous Plant Scientist, Dr. Borlaug, by John Parker

Since we are in the heart of the local planting season, it is appropriate to recognize a famous plant scientist, Dr. Norman Borlaug, whose plant research has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people world-wide.  Dr. Borlaug, who died in 2009, was honored last March 25 at our nation’s capital, for developed high yielding, disease resistant varieties of wheat that eventually were planted through-out the world.

His statue was unveiled on National Ag Day March 25 at the Capitol.  He would have been 100 on that day.  On the statue is the inscription “Father of the Green Revolution” and it shows Dr. Borlaug with his sleeves rolled up hard at work, different from most statues in the Capitol.

In his work he used a slow form of biotechnology that was available at the time he did his research.  By selecting the hardiest and most disease resistant plant from his research fields, he gradually developed his improved varieties of wheat.  This was actually genetic modification using the process known when he was doing his research.  His work included developing disease and drought resistance along with short, stiff strawed varieties. 

Dr. Borlaug also worked closely with farmers and lawmakers in many parts of the world demonstrating how his improved varieties would help feed their people.  Sometimes getting acceptance met with resistance of concern about something new.  This concern can also be seen today when farmers plant seeds that are genetically modified, but proven safe.

Some years back I met Dr. Noel Vietmeyer at the National Academy of Sciences.  He knew and worked with Borlaug and has written his three volume biography.  Dr. Vietmeyer has also written another book titled “Our Daily Bread” that is a summary of Borlaug’s life and his work.

In his prologue to his book, he said this “Norman Borlaug grew up hungry; he grew up poor; he only wanted to be a forester.  After creating super-productive food crop varieties he donated their seeds to the world and saved millions from starvation.  He is our age’s humanitarian hero.”

Noel Vietmeyer’s book is an interesting one that I enjoyed.  If you would like a copy, contact Bracing Books, 5921 River Drive, Lorton, VA 22079.  You will find it both interesting and informative.

For his dedication and work, Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.  Only two other Americans have been honored this way.

Today we are able, through gene splicing, to develop new varieties or add specific traits to existing ones at a much quicker rate.  Before they can be planted, genetically modified varieties must be checked by three different federal agencies to be sure they are safe.  This takes time but is well worth the time to assure us they will produce food safe for us to eat.

GMO seeds have improved yields, reduced the tillage needs and lowered the use of pesticides and herbicides.  They have helped farm income and have improved our environment, important results.

So as we reflect on Norman Borlaug’s life and work, let’s remember the importance of agricultural research, technology and education in helping put our dinner on the table.

Parker is retired from The Ohio State University and an independent agricultural writer.