Saturday, March 29, 2014

Local Boy Done Good

Dr. Borlaug's statue in the U.S. Capital, full cite below, fair use claimed

Greetings All:

I'm working on a post that I will publish sometime next week that will certainly be one of my more somber ones.  Before that drops, however, I've got a "good news" story.

The photo in the statue is Dr. Norman E. Borlaug.  He's in the news this week as his statue was unveiled in the U.S. Capital.  Each state gets only two statutes, so this is a big deal.  He is the latest edition from my home state of Iowa. 

Dr. Borlaug was like countless of other young Iowa men in the depression.  He had no family wealth to rely on but likely had an abundance of concern about the future.  He faced this first by getting an education and then by figuring out a way to help feed a LOT of hungry people.  Through his amazing work in developing grains that would grow in rough spots around the world (rough in soil composition and otherwise) he earned many accolades.  In the commentary about his statute, the Architect of the Capitol's website offers these words:

"Borlaug remained active and interested in the challenge of feeding the world’s increasing population throughout his life. For his achievements in this field, he became one of only three Americans (and seven people worldwide) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1970), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), and the Congressional Gold Medal (2007)."

This is an incredibly impressive list of accomplishments.  However, what strikes me as particularly wonderful about this man was his humble pursuit of a noble cause-feeding people.  In his obituary in the New York Times, it discusses his learning about winning the Nobel Prize.  He at first thought it was a joke.  Then when convinced it was real, he kept working in his Mexican field, saying he'd celebrate at a later time.  I suppose he was thinking less about the tux and speech in Norway than the people still needing food.

Dr. Borlaug with his wife, Margaret, after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. From the New York Times Obituary cited below, STR/AFP/Getty Images,fair use claimed
 I am always curious about what inspires people to do such extraordinary things.  I think the following quote from the Times obituary answers this question:

"Norman worked his way through the University of Minnesota during the Great Depression. More than once in those desperate years he encountered townspeople in Minneapolis on the verge of starvation, which sharpened his interest in the problems of food production." 

And a sharpened interest it was.  I am not a big numbers guy and my farming career consisted of precisely six hours of baling hay one day in high school.  So I like this bit (again from the obituary):

"Gary H. Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs for the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that Dr. Borlaug’s great achievement was to prove that intensive, modern agriculture could be made to work in the fast-growing developing countries where it was needed most, even on the small farms predominating there. 

By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution."

Half the world, most impressive.  Unfortunately, we still have a l-o-n-g ways to go to address hunger in the world.  According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, undernourishment is at a mind-boggling 842 million people., fair use claimed

 Then again, when one looks at where the hunger is located, these are also in places of the world where things are a mess.  By example, let's just look for a moment at the Failed State Index.  I am not going to spend too much time on this except to say that if you line up the map above with the nations that are falling (or already have fallen apart, the connection between that and hunger is all too easy to make.  There are some things that even the dogged efforts of Dr. B cannot address.

As I try to be an optimist (hey there Cubs fans) I will conclude with some good news.  According to the UN report, the number of hungry folks is down from 19% of the world's population in 1990-1992 to 12% in 2011-2013.  That is progress.

Dr. Borlaug was a humble Iowa boy who headed up to the Twin Cities and saw the face of hunger first-hand.  It moved him to act.  Perhaps it was the haunting images of the hungry from his college days in the Twin Cities.  Perhaps it was his belief that there was a way to grow more food.  perhaps it was the fact he was a descent man who elected to use his skills, education and abilities to make the world a better place.  

As I think of Dr. B's accomplishments, I recall the quote of Robert F. Kennedy:  
"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why.  I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

Norman Borlaug dreamed too of things that never were, like grain growing where it never had before.  He truly is a local boy done good. 

Be well my friends,


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