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The Nobel Prize and More Honors

The University of Minnesota College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences

The world made Norman Borlaug a celebrity in 1970, the year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. No Midwesterner, it seems certain, has received more honor. A list of his awards and honorary degrees runs several inches in Who's Who, honors bestowed by a diverse set of nations: India and Pakistan, the United States and the Soviet Union, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Germany.

Called the father of the green revolution, Borlaug developed high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat plants and sent his personally trained army of hunger fighters to spread the technology to more than 20 nations. "Through his improvement of wheat plants," wrote the Nobel committee, "he has created a technological breakthrough which makes it possible to abolish hunger in the developing countries in the course of a few years." Norman Borlaug is credited for saving more lives than any human in history. His green revolution staved off starvation and miserable deaths for countless numbers of people worldwide.

Since the late '50s, Borlaug has received a stream of honors from the University of Minnesota, where he earned his bachelor's degree in forestry and master's and Ph.D. degrees in plant pathology. The University's great plant pathologist, the late EC Stakman, was his mentor. Now on a hill on the St. Paul campus, connected to Stakman Hall, is a new building dedicated in September - Borlaug Hall.

Borlaug was on hand for the dedication. He spent a week on campus, breaking away for speaking engagements in New York and Arizona, then jetting back to Minnesota. The University prevailed on him to deliver two public lectures and filled his days nonstop with meetings that continued well into the evenings. He spent two hours one afternoon in an interview for this article. The 71-year-old Borlaug never seemed to tire. He is a man with a mission, so he talks about it - about hunger problems, the agriculture of developing countries, the "population monster." More reluctantly, he talks about himself.

The Nobel Prize hit his life like a typhoon, Borlaug says, turning him from a behind-the-scenes worker into a very public person. The change was obvious from the day the prize was announced. That day, instead of staying at his home in Mexico City, Borlaug insisted on going to a nearby experiment station in Mexico's central highlands. Dressed in his usual khakis, work boots, and baseball cap, he taught an international group of young agronomists amid the wheat plots. When the media arrived, Borlaug nearly got into a physical confrontation with photographers who were trampling his precious wheat hybrids.

He adapted quickly. When needed, he would wear a suit and a flower in his lapel. An innately private man, he felt his new public prominence required him to speak out. Less than a year after receiving the prize he took on the environmentalist movement, warning that a ban on the pesticide DDT would cause widespread "disease and disaster" in developing countries. He was vilified, as he knew he would be, but events have weakened his critics' arguments.

"It would be helpful when you're working on these problems to develop a skin as thick as a rhino's hide, so you don't feel all the darts," Borlaug says. "Oh, there are lots of critics. If you don't do anything you'll never have critics."

If there's one thread running through Borlaug's life it's doing - acting with fierce determination. Working on a problem as fundamental as world hunger is a complicated business, and Borlaug is a complicated man, somehow balancing contradictions. He is the scientist and the dirt farmer; the advocate of common sense and the master of political subtleties; the humanitarian and the pugnacious fighter; the idealist and the consultant to governments of every political ideology. He has been called a peaceful revolutionary, and the tension in that term - between benevolence and aggressiveness - seems particularly apt.

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