This month marks the 50-year anniversary of Norman E. Borlaug winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
To honor the historic moment, the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences’ Department of Plant Pathology and Alumni Relations hosted a virtual ceremony titled "Nobel and Beyond: Building on the Legacy of a Hunger Fighter" on Dec. 10.
Event moderator James Bradeen, U of M professor and head of the department of plant pathology, said there were over 400 registrants from across the country who tuned in to the presentation, including from Brazil, Mexico, China, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Italy, Kenya and more.
Borlaug's biography included with the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize described him as an "eclectic, pragmatic, goal-oriented scientist" and the "Father of the Green Revolution." His research in plant genetics mobilized crop innovations and saved populations from starvation in multiple countries.
Borlaug studied forestry at the U of M and received a bachelor's degree of science in 1937. He went on to receive a master’s degree in plant pathology and genetics two years later, and earned his doctorate in 1942, both from the university. According to the university, many U of M graduates followed Borlaug into international agriculture and more than a dozen worked directly for him.
The ceremony featured a number of distinguished speakers who highlighted the work of and inspired by Borlaug, as well as the need for research in the area of food security.
Joan Gabel, U of M president, explained how Borlaug, a "humble Iowa farm boy" began school at the university during the "depths of the Great Depression" in 1933. Gabel said Borlaug had a "rough academic start" and was a member of the practice squad of the Golden Gopher football team.
Borlaug's Nobel Peace Prize biography said he accepted and discarded "methods or results in a constant search for more fruitful and effective ones, while at the same time avoiding the pursuit of what he calls "academic butterflies."
From the 1940s to 1950s, Borlaug established a large and innovative wheat breeding program in Mexico that led to the development of high yielding wheat varieties. Gabel said Borlaug's "bin busting varieties made Mexico self-sufficient for wheat in less than a decade."
His success in Mexico made other countries seek his help, and Gabel said in the '60s, when mass famine was imminent in India and Pakistan, it was Borlaug's work that prevented it.
"He tirelessly worked to export his high-yielding wheats into India and Pakistan and then applied the latest agronomic practices to make them super productive," Gable said. "Borlaug and his Green Revolution wheats are credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation."
Ronnie Coffman, professor of plant breeding at Cornell University, shared his memories as being Borlaug’s only doctoral student. Coffman was in the field with Borlaug on the day he received the news of his Nobel Peace Prize.
The two were in Toluca Valley in central Mexico when Borlaug was informed of the news, Coffman said. A car pulled up that day and it was Margaret, Borlaug's wife, who didn't know her way around the work station, he said.
"She was on the other side of a very large irrigation ditch, about a hundred yards from where we were working," Coffman said. "She stopped the car, got out, and she had a very strong voice so she said 'NORMAN, YOU WON THE NOBEL PRIZE.'"
Coffman said Borlaug was confused and didn't believe his wife at first, so they shouted across the ditch for a few minutes to clarify. Margaret then left, and Borlaug turned around, and he and Coffman went back to work.
A half-hour later, one reporter with the Associated Press showed up, said Coffman, and 30 minutes after that an "army of reporters" came to speak with Borlaug.
The ceremony, which was recorded, also featured words from Jeanie Borlaug Laube, daughter of Norman Borlaug and chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative; Arif Husain, chief economist and director of research, assessment and monitoring at the United Nations World Food Program; Hale Ann Tufan, associate director of Feed the Future Innovation Lab; Shenggen, dean of the Academy of Global Food Economics and Policy at China Agricultural University; and Barbara Stinson, president of the World Food Prize Foundation.