Borlaug: Not by bread alone

neewimageThe New York Times started its nearly 2,2,00-word obituary of the “Green Revolution” pioneer on A1, and the first graf of the obit explains the prominent placement:

Norman E. Borlaug, the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday night. He was 95 and lived in Dallas.

The obit by Justin Gills did a great job of answering journalism’s basic Who, What, When, Where and How questions, providing a fascinating overview of Borlaug’s work with plant breeding and crop management, his global impact, and the debates that have surrounded his work.

But the obit failed to address the big Why question, leaving readers wondering what motivated Borlaug’s lifelong crusade to combat hunger and famine by increasing food production. We are told he was “a high-spirited boy of boundless curiosity.” But is that it?

The organization Bread for the World added to our understanding of the man with their press release, “Bread for the World Mourns Passing of Norman Borlaug,” which was distributed by RNS’s Religion Press Release Services:

“Dr. Borlaug, a man of faith and compassion, was an advocate as well as a scientist. He convinced many political leaders to do their part in reducing hunger,” said (Bread for the World President) Rev. Beckmann, who will officiate during Borlaug’s memorial service in Dallas.

I asked Shawnda Hines, Bread for the World’s Press Officer, about the “man of faith” bit. Where could I find more? She directed me to Borlaug’s 1970 Nobel Prize lecture.

Not only does the lecture open and close with numerous footnoted biblical references, but it explains Borlaug’s deep conviction that hunger was an issue of social justice:

Almost certainly, however, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today fifty percent of the world’s population goes hungry. Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. Therefore I feel that the aforementioned guiding principle must be modified to read: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.

At the end of the lecture, he spells out these connections more clearly:

The recognition that hunger and social strife are linked is not new, for it is evidenced by the Old Testament passage, “…and it shall come to pass, that when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their King and their God. …”

Then, by developing and applying the scientific and technological skills of the twentieth century for “the well-being of mankind throughout the world”, he may still see Isaiah’s prophesies come true: “… And the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose… And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water….”

And may these words come true!

Wikipedia fills in the gaps on Borlaug’s Lutheran roots:

Borlaug was the great-grandchild of Norwegian immigrants to the United States. Ole Olson Dybevig and Solveig Thomasdotter Rinde, from Leikanger, Norway, emigrated to Dane, Wisconsin, in 1854. Two of their children, Ole Olson Borlaug and Nels Olson Borlaug (Norman’s grandfather), were integral in the establishment of the Immanuel Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in the small Norwegian-American community of Saude, near Cresco, Iowa, in 1889.

Exploring more deeply into the Why of what motivated Borlaug to do what he did would have presented a more rounded picture of the man and his lasting legacy. What we have here is a classic GetReligion ghost.

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  • Jerry

    classic GetReligion ghost. – It sure looks that way and it’s too bad when it happens.

  • bullmoosegal

    He spoke at my Ag program at UIUC once when I was there. I was part of the animal reproductive studies program, and he was addressing the ethics of reproductive & non-reproductive animal and plant breeding & cloning. His view was that any technological advancement is ethically acceptable when applied to the animal and plant worlds if the outcome was safe and used to expand either biodiversity or food sources. In particular, he emphasized genetic engineering in plant sources for vaccine delivery, increased nutrition and pest/disease resistance (in the plant – not the end-user). He was also opposed to the type of genetic engineering practiced by (among other organizations) Mosanto to control seed development in the 3d world. It was a remarkable and fascinating talk with a highly ethical and committed man.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I have deep Lutheran roots, too, but I am not a Lutheran today. Why is it so difficult to report on where the man went to church?

  • S. Newark

    We’re all much too lenient with socalled newspapers who are determined to misrepresent the true motivations of human kind with such a serious kind of lie or as you mildly suggest “ghost”. In fact their thinking is illegal as well as immoral.

  • Ken

    Unfortunately, Borlaug started what we recognize today as agribusiness, large-scale farms using heavy amounts of commercial fertilizer, and pest controlling chemicals. He pooh-poohed organic farming and was concerned primarily with the technological answer.

  • Cathy

    Ken, you may wish to visit for a 2000 interview with Borlaug where he explicitly addresses that issue.

  • Chuck Huckaby

    Thank you so much for setting the record straight regarding this scientists abiding faith in Jesus Christ as the inspiration for his life’s work.

    This is another example of how history has been transformed by the followers of the One who first turned the world on it’s head by His resurrection!

    Again, thank you!

    Chuck Huckaby

  • Ken

    Cathy, I have read the interview on and it supports what I said in my earlier comment. Feeding the present population is the short-term view. That is very important, but I see very little potential for sustainability in Borlaug’s ideas. It is very doubtful that technology will continue to provide sufficient food.

  • Jerry Gernander

    His home congregation is an ELS congregation: Saude Lutheran Church, which is part of a two-point parish with Jerico Lutheran Church near Lawler, Iowa.

    I believe that his son Allen is still an ELS member. I know he served on the ELS Board of Trustees in the past. I knew of Allen as very supportive of his congregation’s pastors.

    For those who don’t know: The ELS is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which was begun by 13 pastors and 9 congregations that/who refused to join the merger of three large Norwegian synods in 1917. Borlaug’s congregation was one of those. The new (non-merger) synod considered itself not a new synod, but the rightful heir of the name “Norwegian Synod” and was known by that name until 1958, when it changed the name to Evangelical Lutheran Synod. It is a synod with fellowship ties to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and various small Lutheran bodies around the world.

    Pastor Jerry Gernander (former newspaper reporter and a graduate of the University of Texas journalism school, which is part of the reason this is my favorite blog)

    Bethany Lutheran Church (ELS), Princeton Minnesota

  • MJBubba

    Well, there you have it. The New York Times never heard of the ELS.

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