Story and illustrations by David Hong.
Even though he changed the world and helped feed countless people, the average American isn’t familiar with Norman Borlaug. As an agriculture policy wonk and shameless fan, I drop his name in conversations all the time and people ask me, “Who is Norman Borlaug?”
What do you mean you don’t know who Norman Borlaug is!?
Norman Borlaug is one of the most impressive Americans who has ever lived. And for Thanksgiving, the only thing I beg of you is this: Please, do yourself a favor and get to know him. During this season of gratitude and abundance, it’s time to say “thanks” to Norman.
To make it easy for you, I’ve drawn (yes, drawn) some cartoons about his life and pulled out some amazing facts about him:
1. His work has saved as many as 1 billion lives
Borlaug was a plant scientist and developed high-yielding varieties of wheat that helped countless farmers grow more food. These new crops were popularized throughout Mexico, Pakistan, and India – and it’s estimated that his work saved as many as 1 billion people worldwide from famine and starvation. In 1997, The Atlantic wrote, “Norman Borlaug has already saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived.”
2. He’s in the company of heroes, including MLK, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela
Borlaug is one of only seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize (1970); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977); and the Congressional Gold Medal (2007), which is the highest award that the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian.
The other six are Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Muhammad Yunus, and Elie Wiesel. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he raised the link between peace and food security, “Never think for a minute that we are going to build permanent peace in this world on empty stomachs and human misery. It won’t happen, and the sooner our leaders at all levels of society reflect on that, the better.”
3. He made the fight against hunger famous
Borlaug asked the Nobel Foundation to create a Nobel Prize for agriculture. Unfortunately, under the interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s will, the foundation concluded it could not create such an award. Undeterred, Borlaug created his own award – the World Food Prize – to honor “hunger fighters” from all over the world. Award recipients include scientists, advocates, policymakers, and heads of state.
Of course, every hero has his detractors. Some critics claim that Borlaug’s seed varieties caused environmental damage because they demanded high levels of pesticides and fertilizer. While his model of agriculture wasn’t flawless, these innovations laid the groundwork for new methods – such as sustainable intensification – that are poised to help farmers grow more food while simultaneously nurturing the environment.