Remembering Dr. Norman E. Borlaug - He Would be 105 Years Old this Month
“Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”
“Yes, Africa has potential, but no one can eat potential.”
The above quotes are by the late world-renowned hunger fighter, philanthropist, scientist,
US Congressional medalist, Iowa born, University of Minnesota educated, Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug.
I present to you my most favorite of Dr. Borlaug’s pictures.
Going by the cap on his head, he must have been somewhere in Africa. He looked pensive, probably wondering whether he had done enough for Africa. Look, he got started in Africa in his seventies, after already winning his Nobel Peace Prize for “saving Asia from starvation” with his technologies that saw grain yields quadruple. Things did not work exactly the same way in Africa as they had done in Asia. Norm (as we fondly refer to him), Mr. Ryoichi Sasakawa (late) and President Jimmy Carter together did a lot in Africa in their later years. They started in 1986 after establishing the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA). According to his daughter and granddaughter, Dr. Borlaug expressed sadness at how Africa’s food security situation was still bad. Surely he had done his best; in this world, that is all we can hope to do. He had devoted more than 20 gold years of his life to Africa. In countries where they engaged, the trio would arrive and go straight to the Head of State. They did this in 14 African countries.
During the Green Revolution in Asia, political leaders played a key role to make it happen. The idea was: teach a man to fish, instead of giving him/her fish. This achieves a number of things: one, it affords those individuals their dignity; and two, it is a more sustainable way of ensuring food security especially at family level. Dr. Borlaug was a unique scientist; he had a moral compass! It was important for him that science should help humanity. He believed that without ample nourishment, nothing else mattered. It bothered him that more than half the world population was hungry and that most of these were in the developing world. He did not understand presidents who were not perturbed by this fact, nor did he hesitate to talk about it.
Dr. Borlaug started the World Food Prize in 1986 as the “Nobel Prize for agriculture,” the same year he co-founded the Sasakawa Africa Association. It was then followed by the Youth Institute. He valued the youth as he envisioned their role way into the future, when he would no longer be there physically. The work of the Youth Institute ensures that at any one time, there are champions to carry on with advocacy and promoting THE message.
I try to attend the World Food Prize Dialogue in October of every year, and every year I get re-inspired to do more. That event has been brought to a whole new level by the amazing efforts and vision of its President, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, and his team of mostly young people and dedicated volunteers. Last year following the World Food Prize, I was given a chance to speak at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus about Dr. Borlaug’s work in Africa and about my own work. Visiting that campus and seeing his statue everywhere made me realize how valued Dr. Borlaug is in Minnesota as well, where he did his three degrees. The day of the lecture every year is normally declared Norman Borlaug Day in the State of Minnesota. I like it that both Iowa where he was born and Minnesota where he did his University education each honors him in a very special way.
I have also had a chance to visit Dr. Borlaug’s birthplace. That is when you realize that we really have no idea what path our lives will take when we are born; fate can take you from humble beginnings to true greatness, positive greatness that touches people and improves their lives the world over. That is the story of Norman Ernest Borlaug.
The challenge of feeding the world that Dr. Borlaug was concerned about continues unabated. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet millions of people still go to bed hungry every day. His legacy lives on. His work and fame have inspired so many others who do good work in this area. All these individuals can be found all over the world; thanks to them, Dr. Borlaug’s light keeps shining.
The papers presented in the special issue of African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND Issue 84) are testimony to Dr. Borlaug’s desire that his life’s work should outlive him. The LEAP (Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program) that ran from 2005 to 2018, supported by many individuals and institutions and the US government, has nurtured scientists through a competitive Fellowship Program, and they in turn can inspire many younger scientists. The Program, spearheaded by Drs. Tag Demment and Susan Johnson of the University of California at Davis, had many partners and financial supporters.
In 2009, I was invited to join the Sasakawa Board by Dr. Borlaug; sadly, he passed away the same year. Little did I know that a year later I would be asked to step in his place to chair the organization. It has been an honorous task. Unfortunately I have no picture of me and Dr. Borlaug. I envy those who do. My memorable meeting with him was in 2006 at the Africa Fertilizer Summit in Abuja, Nigeria, where he held my two hands and looked in my face and said: “Ruth, in Asia, it took political leaders to realize the green revolution; you must do it.” I too have had a lot of what I do inspired by Norm Borlaug. May his spirit continue to inspire us all.
Surely look at me. What do I have in common with Norm? Love for and hope in humanity. The struggle continues.