When leaders of the House and Senate gather in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to dedicate a statue of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, they will honor an American whose innovative agricultural research is credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation. Through his development of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties, along with the advancement of irrigation, fertilization and pest control prevention techniques, Borlaug’s breakthroughs rapidly bolstered food supplies in undeveloped parts of the world in what’s known as the Green Revolution.
What to many seemed like inevitable tragedy of historic proportions was averted due to Borlaug’s scientific research and development. Despite such great achievements, Borlaug never rested and always remained focused on doing more to feed the poor of the world, including training the next generation of scientists. He also established the World Food Prize, which annually honors those responsible for the world’s greatest food supply advancements and helps keep the critical issue of meeting the increasing demands for food at the forefront of the global community. It is fitting that Borlaug is one of only seven people to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
As the presidents of the three land-grant universities with proud ties to Borlaug — Iowa State University in his home state (the state his statue will represent), the University of Minnesota (where he earned his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees), and Texas A&M University (where he served as distinguished professor, actively teaching and conducting research in international agriculture development) — we seek to not only honor his life’s work, but to carry forward his commitment and passion to addressing the world’s greatest food needs.
Each of our institutions has Norman E. Borlaug institutes, centers, buildings or research facilities that simultaneously pay tribute to his achievements while focusing on the future by conducting research and training the next generation of agricultural scientists who are tasked with addressing new, global food supply challenges.
With the world population expected to grow from 7.15 billion to 9.5 billion people by 2050, scientists and farmers must find ways to produce at least 70 percent more food. As challenging as it is to meet these growing food needs of the not so distant future — and we know that 870 million people worldwide remain malnourished and more than 2 billion have micronutrient deficiencies — it is even more complex to develop solutions while dealing with water, energy, land and overall carbon footprint concerns and limitations.
Sustainable intensification, a major thrust of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed The Future initiative, seeks to optimize the use of water, fertilizer and other inputs to maximize production yields on existing agricultural lands while minimizing the impact on the natural resource base by limiting the clearing of forests, wetlands, and savannahs and protecting water sources from pollution. In other words, we must green the Green Revolution to sustainably meet the food supply needs of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America.
These challenges are complex and difficult, but the consequences of inaction, as Borlaug often warned, are unacceptable. Meeting these challenges requires a significant level of interwoven commitment from public, private, and international entities. For one, developing the breakthroughs to sustainably feed 9.5 billion people will require a serious allocation of research and development resources from the U.S. government, as well as other developed nations.
U.S. land-grant universities have a central role to play, just as they did in educating Borlaug and facilitating his international research advancements. One of America’s great success stories has been agriculture. That success has been driven by investments in science and technology while the foundation has been the quality of research, education and extension at our land-grant institutions. Now our land-grant system — with the support of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities — is prepared to take on this next global challenge.
In addition to our work in the U.S., land-grant institutions have developed international partnerships that enable us to build both human and institutional capacity in places of need. By training new agricultural scientists in their own countries and developing higher education institutions there, we are empowering these nations to be part of the long-term, sustainable solution. Norman Borlaug would have turned 100 today. Let us honor his legacy by remembering the lives he saved and continues to save — even after his own passing — and by carrying forward a full commitment to the land-grant mission of learning, discovery and engagement in order to save billions more.
Steven Leath is the president of Iowa State University and a member of the World Food Prize Council of Advisors, Eric Kaler is the president of the University of Minnesota and Mark Hussey is the interim president of Texas A&M University.