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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