Reading Randy Cohen's piece in the NYT this morning, in which he asks why people don't make more tv shows or films about "heroes" who do astonishing work without any need for guns, led me back to Norman Borlaug. He died recently, age 95.
Borlaug was a plant pathologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing and spreading around the world high yielding wheat varieties resistant to disease. In 1986 he established the World Food Prize to honor those who had worked to lessen global hunger. He was close friends with one of our gurus, John Niederhauser, the legendary potato breeder who was a World Food Prize Laureate in 1990.
Early on, hungry people made an impression on Borlaug. In 1935, still a student,he was a leader in "the Civilian Conservation Corps, working with the unemployed on U.S. federal projects. Many of the people who worked for him were starving. He later recalled, "I saw how food changed them ... All of this left scars on me".
We had chatted with the engaging Dr. Borlaug on a few occasions, and recognized his and Niederhauser's shared global views, deep intelligence, diligence and high energy. These were not narrowly focused office guys, diddling around 8 hours a day. They never stopped working.
Borlaug was attacked in later years by those who felt his approaches had led to ecological degradation and an over reliance on chemicals. In a NYTimes interview with John Tierney, 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 fifty 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".
He worked to lessen the use of pesticides, in the end, but continued to lament that governments were not doing more to address the world's burgeoning populations.
We expect to have ample food to eat, every day, but we pay little attention to those whose toil provides it. Food production is not sexy, so don't expect a mini series on it any time soon.