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Unveiling of Borlaug Statue Highlights Fight Over Biotechnology

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Borlaug was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 for his achievements in agricultural science.

Large-scale farming and agribusiness, derisively dubbed Big Ag by critics, look to polish their image this week with a Statuary Hall ceremony for a hero in the field and a screening of a documentary about young farmers and ranchers.

On Tuesday, top lawmakers, including Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, plan to attend the installation of a bronze statue of plant scientist Norman E. Borlaug. Borlaug is hailed as the father of the 1960s “Green Revolution” that improved crop production in Mexico and Asia.

He is credited with saving an estimated billion lives through his intense focus on hybridization and high use of fertilizers and pesticides for crop management. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for decades of work.

In his later years, Borlaug was a defender of biotechnology as a tool to speed development of sturdier and more prolific food crops. Borlaug, an Iowa native, died in Texas in 2009 at the age of 95. Tuesday would have been his 100th birthday.

Borlaug’s statute will take the spot of Samuel J. Kirkwood, a 19th-century Iowa governor, U.S. senator and Interior secretary under President James Garfield. Kirkwood moves down the hall to take over the site occupied by the statute of Iowa’s James Harlan, a U.S. senator and Interior secretary under President Andrew Jackson. Because each state is allowed to contribute no more than two statues to the Capitol, Harlan will head back to the Hawkeye State.

Borlaug “was a passionate believer in biotechnology and a passionate devotee of science,” said Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation begun by Borlaug. Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, said Borlaug took to heart an inscription in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences building that describes science as the “pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.”

The foundation underscored that connection to biotechnology last year, when it awarded its $250,000 food prize to three pioneers in the scientific field.

Then there’s the second part of the image improvement campaign. On Wednesday, the documentary “Farmland” will be shown at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The film by Oscar and Emmy winner James Moll focuses on six farmers and ranchers and the challenges they face in making a go in agriculture.

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