Nobel Laureate Borlaug honored for agriculture, fighting starvation

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (TheLoop/AP) — Colleagues and friends of Norman Borlaug remembered the Nobel Peace Prize winner on Tuesday as a humanitarian who “built armies of agricultural workers” to combat famine in the world’s developing countries.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was president of Texas A&M University during the scientist’s tenure at the school, told about 1,000 who attended the memorial that Borlaug was a teacher, a scientist and a warrior against hunger.

He “inspired thousands to work to feed the world, and inspired millions to believe it’s possible. Our most important observance of Norm’s passing,” Gates said, is to persist in that work and in that belief.

“This was Norm Borlaug the builder who at every opportunity encouraged learning, and built armies of agricultural workers,” Gates said.

Borlaug was known as the father of the “green revolution,” which transformed agriculture through high-yield, disease-resistant crop varieties and other innovations, helping to more than double world food production between 1960 and 1990. Many experts credit the green revolution with averting global famine during the second half of the 20th century and saving perhaps 1 billion lives.

Borlaug, who was 95 when he died Sept. 12 from complications of cancer, was described Tuesday as a humble, compassionate, soft-spoken and dedicated man who believed all have a duty to contribute to the eradication of hunger worldwide. The Nobel Peace Prize he won in 1970 is the only one ever awarded for agriculture.

“He was in favor of anything that would keep hungry people fed,” Ed Runge, the retired head of A&M’s soil and crop sciences department and a close friend who persuaded Borlaug teach at the school, said before the memorial. “He used science to advance food production.”

The Iowa native wasn’t the sort of scientist who passed his life in a lab. He worked side by side with farmers in the fields of Mexico, India, Pakistan and in African countries.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, said the Nobel laureate persisted against often great odds by relying on principles he learned as a young man. The first was to do his best, Vilsack said, and with it, Borlaug left a legacy.

“Norman Borlaug by any measure gave his best and expects us to do the same,” Vilsack said at the memorial. “It is my firm belief that his best work is yet to come.”

Recently, the U.S and other industrialized countries pledged $20 billion to help developing nations improve agricultural practices to alleviate hunger, said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, who spoke at Borlaug’s memorial.

“Agriculture has been neglected a long time,” he said afterward.

Borlaug began the work that led to his Nobel Prize in Mexico at the end of World War II. There he developed disease-resistant varieties of wheat that produced much more grain than traditional strains.

He and others later took those varieties and similarly improved strains of rice and corn to Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa. In Pakistan and India, two of the nations that benefited most from the new crop varieties, grain yields more than quadrupled.

His successes in the 1960s came just as experts warned that mass starvation was inevitable as the world’s population boomed.

But Borlaug and the green revolution were also criticized in later decades for promoting practices that used fertilizer and pesticides, and focusing on a few high-yield crops that benefited large landowners.

Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation which funded Borlaug’s work in Africa, said Borlaug’s efforts went beyond satisfying hunger in starving bellies. He promised to carry on Borlaug’s dream that African children would someday not have to go to bed hungry.

“You cultivated a dream that would empower the farmers, you planted the seeds of hope, you watered them with enthusiasm, you gave them sunshine, you inspired with your passion, you harvested confidence in the hearts of African farmers,” he said. “You never gave up.”

In 1986, two years after beginning to teach each fall semester at A&M, Borlaug established the Des Moines, Iowa-based World Food Prize, a $250,000 award given each year to a person whose work improves the world’s food supply.

He received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress, in 2007.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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