Norman Borlaug, Champion of Life

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared on, March 31, 2014.

Every state is allowed to have two statues of its greatest sons and daughters in the U.S. Capital. Earlier this month, the state of Iowa "unveiled a statue of (Iowa native) Norman Borlaug on Tuesday in a ceremony on what would have been his 100th birthday. Borlaug died in 2009."

Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution," won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. He held a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics. His name is unfamiliar to many, but it shouldn't be. It is estimated that Dr. Borlaug's contributions to agricultural science through the development of hybrid grains has saved as many as one billion lives. As Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said at the statue's unveiling, "Using his techniques, scientists soon developed similar high-yield strains of rice and corn. Later in his career, he turned his attention to the African continent and introduced programs in sub-Saharan Africa to modernize farming practices."

What is ironic is that near the end of his life, Dr. Borlaug's fiercest critics were extreme environmental activists. One would think that people who profess to care so much for the earth would rejoice in his life-saving advances. Instead, they attacked him for saving too many lives.

Yes, you read that correctly. So incensed that Dr. Borlaug's ingenious techniques for developing disease-resistant crops would actually bolster population, he ran into "green" opposition. As recounted by Steven Ross Pomeroy in FORBES, "When Borlaug attempted to extend The Green Revolution to Africa in the 1980s, environmental lobbyists unified to stop him. Arguing that Borlaug's farming methods would despoil the continent's environment, they successfully persuaded the World Bank and the Ford Foundation to pull back almost all of their funding for Borlaug's efforts. Even the Rockefeller Foundation, which had originally funded Borlaug's wheat research in Mexico, withdrew monetary support."

Yet as Pomeroy relates, "Despite that incalculable setback, Borlaug tirelessly strove to feed Africa. His efforts helped Ethiopia, where 28 percent of all child mortality is associated with under-nutrition, boost yields of their major crops to record levels. But ultimately, Africa remains swamped with malnutrition."

Borlaug had little patience with his "let's be organically pure, even if it costs lives" critics. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine 17 years ago, he said, "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

A man whose innovations in agriculture brought life and hope to hundreds of millions being attacked for wanting to save more lives? There are times when Alice's Wonderland seems saner than our own.

Borlaug went on to predict: "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years."

And in another interview, Borlaug concluded: "(Environmental) extremists who are living in great affluence ... are saying that poor people shouldn't have roads. I would like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their children raised out there. Let's see whether they'd have the same point of view then."

Starving children are more important to God than chemical fertilizers or genetically-modified food. Should we treat the earth respectfully? As stewards of the Creator, certainly. But nothing is as important as the lives of those He has made in His image and likeness, and providing them with the means of providing for themselves and their loved ones should not be debated. The Savior of men put it succinctly and beautifully: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29-31).

I don't know about Borlaug's faith, but his desire to feed the hungry mirrors the values of an Eternal King. If you can pay respects to a man by visiting his statue, I intend to.