December 10, 1970
Norman Borlaug, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, wins the Nobel Peace Prize. A leader in the fight against world hunger, Borlaug has developed a new high-yield, disease-resistant strain of wheat that greatly improves the crops of poorer countries.*
Norman Ernest Borlaug was born March 25, 1914 in northeast Iowa to father Henry and mother Clara (Vaala) Borlaug. Howard County and the nearby town of Saude were comprised of mostly Norwegian-Americans. His family tree is typical of the area in that the Borlaug and Vaala branches both came from Norway circa 1850 and settled on a simple farm that maintained a bread and butter existence. **
His youth could be encapsulated in a few key events that seem extreme to modern ears, but suffering was not lost on his generation. As a kindergarten student, he got stranded in a winter storm and had to be rescued from a snowbank by his cousin Sina. He loves working with grandfather Nels, and becomes his “shadow”. (This same cousin, Sina, pushed his parents to educate Norm beyond the 7th grade and not keep him on the farm. “She states that Norm might not become a great scholar but he has great promise and he has grit.” He witnesses the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, and brings food to the sick with his mother. All work on the farm is done with draft horses or human power until 1929 when they get their first tractor.**
Again, it seems Borlaug’s direction was shaped by the timely intervention of a friend; this time it was none other than star Minnesota Gopher running back George Champlin ca. 1931-34. George actually drove out to the Borlaug farm and talked him into the educational and athletic opportunity of the University of Minnesota: as a student, as a strong wrestler, and as a hopeful for the football program. In those days, when outstate tuition was $25 per quarter and rent $5/month, a student with a job could truly pay their own way. **
If we fast forward thirty five years to Dr. Borlaug’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1970, we find an article, (printed entirely) that validates his choice in education and vocation.
“A central figure in the “green revolution”, Norman Ernest Borlaug (born March 25, 1914) was born on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, to Henry and Clara Borlaug. For the past twenty-seven years he has collaborated with Mexican scientists on problems of wheat improvement; for the last ten or so of those years he has also collaborated with scientists from other parts of the world, especially from India and Pakistan, in adapting the new wheats to new lands and in gaining acceptance for their production. An eclectic, pragmatic, goal-oriented scientist, he accepts and discards methods or results in a constant search for more fruitful and effective ones, while at the same time avoiding the pursuit of what he calls “academic butterflies”. A vigorous man who can perform prodigies of manual labor in the fields, he brings to his work the body and competitive spirit of the trained athlete, which indeed he was in his high school and college days.
After completing his primary and secondary education in Cresco, Borlaug enrolled in the University of Minnesota where he studied forestry. Immediately before and immediately after receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937, he worked for the U.S. Forestry Service at stations in Massachusetts and Idaho. Returning to the University of Minnesota to study plant pathology, he received the master’s degree in 1939 and the doctorate in 1942.
From 1942 to 1944, he was a microbiologist on the staff of the du Pont de Nemours Foundation where he was in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives.
In 1944 he accepted an appointment as geneticist and plant pathologist assigned the task of organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. This program, a joint undertaking by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, involved scientific research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. Within twenty years he was spectacularly successful in finding a high-yielding short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat.
To his scientific goal he soon added that of the practical humanitarian: arranging to put the new cereal strains into extensive production in order to feed the hungry people of the world – and thus providing, as he says, “a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation,” a breathing space in which to deal with the “Population Monster” and the subsequent environmental and social ills that too often lead to conflict between men and between nations. Statistics on the vast acreage planted with the new wheat and on the revolutionary yields harvested in Mexico, India, and Pakistan are given in the presentation speech by Mrs. Lionaes and in the Nobel lecture by Dr. Borlaug. Well advanced, also, is the use of the new wheat in six Latin American countries, six in the Near and Middle East, several in Africa.
When the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in cooperation with the Mexican government established the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an autonomous international research training institute having an international board of trustees and staff, Dr. Borlaug was made director of its International Wheat Improvement Program. In this capacity he has been able to realize more fully a third objective, that of training young scientists in research and production methods. From his earliest days in Mexico he has, to be sure, carried on an intern program, but with the establishment of the Center, he has been able to reach out internationally. In the last seven years some 1940 young scientists from sixteen or so countries (the figures constantly move upward) have studied and worked at the Center.
Dr. Borlaug is presently participating in extensive experimentation with triticale, a man-made species of grain derived from a cross between wheat rye that shows promise of being superior to either wheat or rye in productivity and nutritional quality.
In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Borlaug has received extensive recognition from universities and organizations in six countries: Canada, India, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, the United States. In 1968 he received an especially satisfying tribute when the people of Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, in whose area he did some of his first experimenting, named a street in his honor.” ***
But now we turn to give You honor, Lord of the Harvest, the Emancipator of Ecology, and the Seed of All Life! We sit humbly and wait for Your yield. You balance the cosmos better than any scale. You prompt the “instincts” of every form of creaturely life in precise time. And this astounds us further; it is not for Your benefit, (Your contentment and confidence endures forever), that all this cultivation occurs. All the growing, sowing, and reaping in this universe are to benefit we creatures!?!
Yes, You are the greatest! The King of the Universe! Yet You only ask that we bring a tithe of all You give us. (For those unfamiliar with this notion, it’s as if a stranger gave you $100, and then asked if you could pay forward or share $10 in gratitude.) I.e. Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”
But our benevolent King is even more generous than this; He loves those who give lavishly out of joy and trust. Perhaps this is the implied meaning in the story of Cain and Abel? These, the first brothers of the earth’s first family, bought the first fruits of their first harvest, or did they? Abel gave “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock”. Cain did not, but gave of his crops “in the course of time”. G-d accepted Abel’s first fruits, but rejected Cain’s. Lord, was this because Cain gave You his leftovers instead of his best? He seemed to give after he was sure he would have a surplus, and perhaps, out of duty rather than exuberant gratitude and trust of the Grower of All Things. Only You know, but again we see a hint of Your heart in Hebrews 11:4 from the pen of Paul.
“By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.”
Can we move with You now, Spirit of Life, to contemplate the history of Mr. Borlaug? Let’s begin with relish, shall we? Help us remember, and commend to You, the Council of Heaven, and the ekklesia things great and small that You have done to shape Norman’s life!
We cheer his connection with his grandfather! How nurturing and honoring it is when young men are patiently listened to and taught by their male elders. We remember the input of Grandpa Nels and the impact of his teaching on young Norman. We see echoes of this in Borlaug’s joy in teaching, mentoring, and co-working with “dirty hands scientists” a.k.a. applied agricultural research and production students. ****
Applause to You, Sovereign, for the nurturing female friendship of his cousin Sina. Where would he be without her bravery that rescued him from the blizzard? Who would advocate for his intellect were it not for her recognizance of Your spark in him? Thank You that Sina truly appreciated the tenacity and grit that would propel him through future intellectual blockades as well as physical obstacles.
Again, we commend Your name and abilities to shape a life, Eternal Father! Mr. Borlaug learned how to respond to a pandemic from the example of his mother Clara. He gained a heart of compassion through caring for the sick who could not even feed themselves! What nurse is better than the neighbor who knows us and our our home?
In the end, we think of the perpetual motion of his father Henry. It was his arms and legs that were the tractors that powered the farm. His guts and determination raised the level of their survival, in spite of losing his son’s labor during the school year. We remember his kinetic energy and commitment to the survival and betterment of the Borlaug family.
Next we look at the transformative events of Dr. Borlaug’s educational years with You at the University of Minnesota. The first of these is not academic, but competitive and relational in nature. What role did this tremendous school and its students play in Borlaug’s life?
Were it not for the persistence of the athletic George Champlin, and his commitment to drive out to meet Norman in person, would this exceptional human being have attended teachers college in Iowa? Once there, would he have studied forestry, plant pathology, and microbiology? Would his character and physical man be hardened by wrestling and enjoyment of football? Lord, it seems sure the course of Norman’s life was steered by this; another significant relationship. We thank You that Mr. Champlin was able to encourage young Norman to choose a different mountain to climb! We praise You that his academic and sporting years at the University of Minnesota pointed him to discover Your vision of what he could possibly achieve!
How can we credit the impact of a single speech on a young adult? Borlaug’s pathway shifted after attending the Sigma Xi lecture by the innovative Elvin Charles Stakman. Dr. Borlaug credits Stakman with convincing him to invest his future in plant pathology instead of forest pathology. Later, it is Stakman that offers him a chance to impact hunger as a geneticist in Mexico and eschewing the security of a career with Du Pont. * We pause to remember that through Stakman, Norman heard Your “bat kol”; which means “daughter of voice, sound, and resonance” in Hebrew.
We also thank You for the controversies and even sharp professional differences of his life. A major thread of his work life is termed the “Borlaug hypothesis”. This position argues that by maximizing crops yields through responsible fertilization and insecticides (including DDT), we ultimately best protect our ecosystem. How? When agricultural lands are productive, then we don’t have deforestation or other habitats being converted to farm lands.
This core belief was a point of disagreement in an otherwise mostly positive relationship with Rachel Carson. He argued with the famed author of “Silent Spring” that we don’t have to sacrifice our ecosystems or human life. We can feed the world, and protect the environment at the same time. Lord, we remember with You this bone of contention, but also thank You that we are sharpened and refined by our adversaries.
Now, we turn to ask and intercede in this moment of history. What will You bring to our spirit? What points of separation need addressing as illustrated in in Dr. Borlaug’s life 1914 through 1970?
We remember the covenant and committed relationships of our family and friends. Let’s use each as a point of repentance and blessing:
Grandfather Nels – Norman received a sense of being and curiosity from his grandad. Will You forgive us our glossing over the stories and lessons they are constantly trying to teach us? Will You forgive our offense of closing our ears to their wisdom? Will You bless Minnesota with renewed connection between grandpa and grandkids?
Sina – Sometimes, it is a woman who rescues a man! We praise You for our aunts and cousins. Forgive us from closing our minds to her insights. When we reject her, we have rejected You. Will You forgive us this offense? We have rejected Your Spirit spoken through them and have offended You. Will You reverse this curse and leave us with a blessing of women who will face the blizzard in Minnesota?
Buddy George – Messiah, how grateful we are for true friends! We remember the life altering chat Champlin had with Norman. What if he didn’t listen to Your voice that day? But he did! Jesus, we thank You so much for new life we get from a real friend. Will You forgive us when we fail our friends by fearing to offer a challenge to their point of view? We trust so little in the power of friendship. In this, we deeply offend You, and block so much love, goodness, and connectedness from our lives. Will You heal us to put ourselves out for the blessing of others when it is in our power to do so?
Clara – Master, we acknowledge to You the compassion taught to Norman through this good woman! It’s just like You to enable us to feed and heal others, and especially so when it is truly a danger of getting sick ourselves. Where we haven’t taken in the compassion of our mothers, will You forgive us? We have denied You when we ignore Mom’s big heart. Will You bless Minnesota with Clara’s brand of selfless healing, and willingness to just plain help our neighbors?
Henry – Holy One, we see You in Norman’s dad Henry. We can feel the Norwegian stoicism that never gave in to pity or stopped working to bless his family. Will You give us honor for our fathers who work too hard? Will You bless Minnesotan’s to lighten his load, and pay our respects to dad? Will You bless our future with such men who live to better the next generation? Where we ignore them, we have ignored You. Forgive us as we forgive our fathers!
Lord, why are we a people so full of judgment? Here is man who quite possibly and quite literally lived up to his press; “The man who fed a billion people.” Yet, he is both loved and hated to this day. Will You hear us as we repent for these further points of prayerful discussion?
For our first flow chart, we see that Stakman led Borlaug into genetics, which led to CIMMYT (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo), which resulted in astounding crops yields 50, 60, or 70x their original yields, and millions of Mexicans fed. (Later, millions of Indians, and Africans would be fed through similar programs.) What began in the past as cross polinization, can now entail changes to a species DNA or mRNA. Though this technology offers us dazzling possibilities, it’s critics argue that we may permanently alter individual species and cause ripple effects through the ecosystem.
To these conflicts past and their lingering echoes present we plead to the Lord, will You first heal us from our judgments? Will You forgive Borlaug’s critics past, present, and future of their bitter judgments of his awe-inspiring work to advance food science and environmental science? We, his beneficiaries, can go off half-cocked!
We can often criticize with so little accurate information as to the depths of human suffering he fought to alleviate. What would we do if we could attempt a cure for hunger knowing full well that we may fail? Isn’t learning from that observable failure the very heart of science? Perhaps, this explains Borlaug’s admiration for “dirty handed scientists”; at some point theoretical science must be left behind. Someone must make a brave decision to make a valiant experiment, or abandon progress. Where we have judged this scientist, we have judged You. Where Borlaug judged his detractors, he appears to have judged You. Will You forgive the North Star state and bless us as agricultural scientists in the future?
Lastly, we face the dilemma of the food scientist versus environmental scientist. Wise Judge, will You hear the pain in the face-off between the man who longs to ease human suffering, Norman Borlaug, and the woman who longed to end the suffering of ecosphere, Rachel Carson? We can see much more accurately in hindsight that they both had profound overlap and admiration for each other as scientists. We also can accept that they simply had differing professional opinions. Yet, what could explain these schisms that have grown between the farmer and the ecologist?
Perhaps it could come down to the locus of their study? Was Carson, as environmentalists are prone to do, viewing the world as collection of interdependent systems? Could this explain that she saw hunger through an external, macrocosmic lens? Was she a theoretic scientist, or one with dirty hands?
Conversely, Borlaug in his genetic studies, perhaps, saw the world through a microcosmic lens. His focus on making minute, internal changes that would manifest in the next generation. He answered one question at a time, and led thousands of others in similar experiments. He seemed to only theorize when a hypothesis failed.
Eternal Father, will You balance us so that we can contribute, like Dr. Borlaug, to right the imbalance of food resources on this planet? Will You give us the grace, like Carson, to dare to ask huge systemic questions? Will You give both types of researchers the humility to restrain themselves to evidence-based science? We have greatly offend Our Father where we judged our neighbor on these points. Will You bless us to see your Creation as sufficient? Will You make us wise to create proper boundaries around genetics? May we also feed our prideful hunger for significance, and accept that You already have spoken inalienable worth into every life? How we love You, and need You to survive!
“The recognition that hunger and social strife are linked is not new, for it is evidenced by the Old Testament passage, ‘and it came to pass that when they shall be hungry they shall fret themselves, and curse their King and their God.” Norman Borlaug quoting Isaiah 8:21 in his Nobel Peace Prize 1970 acceptance speech.
Matthew 13-37-43 ESV
“He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, …”
P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
** College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Internet. https://borlaug.cfans.umn.edu/about-borlaug/child
*** Norman Borlaug – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Mon. 7 Mar 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1970/borlaug/biographical/
From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972
**** Internet. Iowa State University. Library. Curation Services. Norman Borlaug – Revolutionary. Created 1971. Posted December 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkCTV2S3jZo
University of Minnesota. 2005.”Borlaug and the University of Minnesota”. Archived from the original on March 10, 2005. Retrieved June 18, 2005.
* Borlaug, Norman E. Mankind And Civilization At Another Crossroad (Speech). UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 7th McDougall Memorial Lecture.