For Norman Borlaug, it was always about the farmers.
He loved to meet them, talk with them, work beside them. That’s what he did until the day he died in 2009. His last words, in fact, summed up the focus of his life: “Take it to the farmer.”
I met Dr. Borlaug several times, most notably at the World Food Prize in Des Moines—and it was always special. As an Iowa farm girl, it was important to be reminded that an Iowa farm boy could achieve so much.
Dr. Borlaug, of course, was more than just an Iowa farm boy. He was a world-historical figure: an agronomist and humanitarian who sparked the Green Revolution by utilizing new techniques and technologies to boost agricultural production around the globe, especially in developing countries.
Some scholars have estimated that Dr. Borlaug’s research and advocacy saved more than a billion people from famine and starvation. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970—and in the lecture he delivered in Oslo, he expressed his characteristic modesty: “I am but one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers—mostly small and humble—who for many years have been fighting a quiet, oftentimes losing war on the food production front.”
I, and the farmers I am privileged to work with through the Global Farmer Network®, are members of that vast team. Call us “Team Borlaug.”
The Global Farmer Network®, and specifically the Global Farmer Roundtable project held in conjunction with the World Food Prize, is focused on Dr. Borlaug’s legacy and intended to follow his example. Any event devoted to food security, after all, should include farmers who can articulate and are willing to share their unique insights on nutritional security, access to innovative technology, agronomic practices and trade that gets food and feed where it is needed.
The five Iowa farmers who started what is now the Global Farmer Network® in 2000 wanted to take the principles that animated Dr. Borlaug’s life as well as the Green Revolution and extend them into the 21st century. With a mission to “insert the farmers voice into the global dialogue regarding food and nutritional security”, the GFN® identifies, empowers and engages farmers across the planet, helping them tell their stories. Today, that includes talking about the Green Revolution’s successor: The Gene Revolution and innovative technologies that are needed to address shared challenges like climate change, environmental sustainability, poverty alleviation and nutritional security.
Over the years, we’ve brought almost 200 farmers from six continents to Des Moines to be part of this conversation. Dr. Borlaug never missed a chance to meet the farmers. He was always busy at the World Food Prize, and his hectic schedule might allow only a five-minute “drop by” visit. Yet he routinely stayed much longer, sometimes ‘ignoring’ the aides who kept tapping on his shoulder to remind him that he had other places to be.
The simple fact is that Dr. Borlaug enjoyed nothing more than meeting farmers, hearing what’s on their minds, and thinking about ways to help them. Our farmers could be star-struck in his presence, but he always won them over. He listened more than he spoke, engaging in a true give-and-take dialogue. Dr. Borlaug and the farmers could be separated by nationality, age, and even language—but they shared the common goal of seeking to improve food production and farm profitability in a sustainable way.
Dr. Borlaug died a decade ago, but we’re still learning from his wisdom. In 2000, on the 30th anniversary of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, he spoke as a prophet: “I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people,” he said.
“The more pertinent question,” he continued, “is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic methods,’ the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.”
This indeed may be the central challenge in agriculture today, as we debate the merits of GMOs, gene editing, and crop-protection tools.
Dr. Borlaug wanted to “take it to the farmer” because he understood that farmers are the most trusted and authoritative voices on questions of food. What they know and say about production, innovation, natural resources, conservation, and safety can provide confidence to consumers and perspective to policymakers alike.
The farmers of the Global Farmer Network® are indebted to Dr. Borlaug and inspired to tell their stories as a tool to uphold the legacy of Norman Borlaug and continue his life’s mission as partners committed to feeding the world.
This column first appeared in The Borlaug Blog at The World Food Prize.