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Celebrating the Centennial of a Little-Known 20th Century Hero

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One hundred years ago this week (March 25, 1914), a boy was born in rural Iowa who became one of the greatest -- and least recognized -- heroes in human history.

That extraordinary description in no way overstates the case for Norman E. Borlaug, who -- although he became known as "the man who saved a billion lives" -- insisted that everyone just call him Norm, and who, even as an old man, would glare at you if you tried to carry his suitcase.

Norm earned his nickname for his work in breeding new, higher-yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat and then introducing them in Mexico, Asia and Latin America. This work, which he conducted primarily from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s, often at great personal sacrifice, resulted in huge increases in production that enabled India and Pakistan to avert looming famines. It was largely because of Norm that Paul Ehrlich turned out to be so spectacularly wrong when he wrote in his 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb: "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."

Norm's labors certainly brought him awards, including a Nobel Peace Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet what percentage of Americans do you think would recognize his name today?

Of course, an absence of fame wasn't the sort of thing that would bother Norm one bit. He was so humble, and his work ethic was so strong, that when his wife drove out to a wheat field where he was working in Mexico to tell him he'd won the Nobel Prize, he reportedly told her, "Someone's pulling your leg." When she convinced him otherwise, he kept on working, saying celebration could wait.

Norm still has a lot to teach us. I know he had a lot to teach me. I was privileged to get to know him and even to count him as a friend during the last 25 years or so of his life. Although he died in 2009, I can still hear his "Normanisms" ringing in my ears. Small wonder, because Norm held to his beliefs with tremendous strength.

"Hunger never sleeps," for example. Norm, who had been hungry himself as a Depression-era undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, knew that Mother Nature was forever devising new threats in the form of evolving diseases and insects and other pests. To defend against those threats he believed, farmers needed to be equally resourceful, and armed with every possible tool.

"Helping farmers helps alleviate poverty" was another. Norm spent most of his career in the developing world. No one knew better than he that most farmers in those countries were poor. By helping farmers increase their crop yields, Norm knew you could sustainably address both hunger and poverty.

And finally, "You'll always face opposition. Someone will always fight change -- and you must be prepared to fight even harder."

Readers of any of the Borlaug biographies cannot help but be impressed at the astonishing tenacity the man showed in battling every kind of opposition throughout his life. As a boy, Norm had stood out for what a cousin called his "grit"; it was this gift of character that led his hard-pressed family to make sacrifices for his education. As an adult, Norm overcame his own boss and conventional scientific wisdom in developing his pioneering "shuttle breeding" project in Mexico; overcame entrenched Asian seed, grain and political interests to introduce his new seeds in India and Pakistan; and overcame ignorance and fear about what these new seeds might do to farmers and the environment. And that's only a partial list of the battles he won.

Norm never stopped fighting. Only a few months before he left us, I had the chance to visit with him along with other Monsanto leaders at his home in Dallas. There, in his charming and tenacious way, he called on my company to do something to advance wheat and rice breeding around the world. Although we weren't involved with those crops commercially, we knew we couldn't say no to Norm, so we established Monsanto's Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program. Today, this program serves as the industry's leading graduate student fellowship program in the world for these two crops.

As that story suggests, Norm hadn't stopped worrying about the global food supply, despite the successes of the Green Revolution he fathered. To the contrary. In a speech he gave in Oslo, Norway, in 2000 to mark the 30th anniversary of his winning the Nobel Prize, he summarized some of his fears for the future.

In his Nobel acceptance speech 30 years earlier, he noted, he had called the Green Revolution "a temporary success in man's war against hunger." He'd called it temporary, he explained, because he'd believed that the Green Revolution's gains would be erased if the population didn't stop growing by the end of the 20th century.

But now, he said, he had changed his mind. The population could keep growing for several more decades, unless needless blocks to progress were imposed:

"I now say that the world has the technology - either available or well advanced in the research pipeline - to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra-low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called 'organic' methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.

"It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year," Norm continued. "By 2025, we will have to nearly double current production again. This cannot be done unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yielding crop-production methods as well as new biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields, dependability, and nutritional quality of our basic food crops."

Food for thought, one might say.

Before I close, I'd like to quote one other remarkable statement from that speech of Norm's in 2000. I can't help but note its relevance in the context of a recent report to the British government by the country's science advisers, arguing that there is no rational basis for the stringency of the regulatory process the European Union has imposed on genetically modified crops. The regulations are raising the expense and delaying the use of beneficial GM crops, the report said.

Here's Norm, 14 years ago in Oslo:

First and foremost, governments must establish a regulatory framework to guide the testing and use of genetically modified crops. These rules and regulations should be reasonable in terms of risk aversion and cost effective to implement. Let's not tie science's hands through excessively restrictive regulations.

Five years since his death and 100 since his birth, Norm Borlaug is still speaking common sense wisdom to humanity. I hope, for all of our sakes, that people listen.

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