Today I saw Julie Borlaug along with Gary Toenniessen give a talk on The New Green Revolution for the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Julie spoke on “The New Green Revolution” and how she is workting at the Borlaug Institute for International Affairs to help extend and improve her grandfather Norman Borlaug’s original Green Revolution.
She began her talk with a few stories about Norman that she hoped would humanize him. She wanted to do this, because she felt that if people knew of him at all they didn’t think of him as a human as she knew him. Her description of her grandfather made me reflect upon his legacy. I think that more people should know about what Borlaug did. In fact, he ought to be considered an American hero.
Though he is one of only six people to have won a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal, Borlaug is not widely known. Borlaug’s life was affected by some of the most significant events and changes in American history. He grew up on a farm in Iowa, and went to school at the University of Minnesota. His schooling was funded in part by the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program that sought to alleviate the problems of young people in the Depression. As an undergraduate, Borlaug studied forestry, and he took time off of school to work for the Forestry Services with the Civilian Conservation Corps. As a graduate student, he studied plant pathology and genetics, and earned his PhD in 1942.
For a man that would go onto dedicate his life to feeding hungry people in developing countries, these formative experiences were significant. The University of Minnesota is a land grant university. Land grant universities were established by the Morrill Act of 1862. The Morrill Act gave federally owned tracts of land to the states that they could use to house or fund a public university. The universities established and funded by land grants were supposed to be centers of agricultural research. The land grant universities prospered and have become the source of much agricultural innovation. It is no accident, then, that Borlaug got his start at the University of Minnesota.
His Depression era experiences are also significant. Often termed the Greatest Generation, Borlaug and his cohort that grew up during the depression went on to oversee the time of greatest prosperity in American history. It was also a time of the greatest influence America had on the rest of the world. New Deal era programs were designed not just to provide employment, but also to serve as social incubators. Participants in New Deal era programs saw the value of collective action first hand and learned to think of themselves in solidarity with the rest of humankind. Borlaug’s commitment to solving world hunger certainly has its roots in his Depression era experiences.
It is ironic that Borlaug is not more widely known in a time when Americans are thinking more than ever about how we get our food. Much of the renewed interest in food systems comes from the food movement that prefers an organic system which is in opposition to Borlaug’s high yield methods. The organic movement is based on ideologies rooted in the 1960s counterculture, which is in opposition to the thought and actions of the Greatest Generation. In order for Borlaug’s work to be appreciated, the Millenial generation must seek a cultural mode that integrates the best parts of Greatest Generation and countercultural ideologies.