Norman Borlaug: A Life of Service and Good Fruits

The year 1914 was significant. The Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, which event led to the start of World War I, a devastating conflict between many nations that left millions dead. 1914 was also the year the Panama Canal opened, providing quick access by boat from hemisphere to hemisphere. It was also the year that Sir Earnest Shackleton left for his expedition across Antarctica. In the U.S., 50% of the people who were born in the early 1900s could expect to live to age 60 (less than 80% would have been expected to live to age 20). In contrast, 50% of people born in 2004 can expect to live to about age 83 (source). Thus, since around 1914 we have added about 30 years to the average human lifespan. Most of this has come from reductions in infant mortality. Around the world, similar improvements in life expectancy have been made.

The world was in upheaval in 1914 but in an obscure rural town in Iowa a baby was born who would change the world. However this person largely remains unknown, at least within the United States. His name was Norman Borlaug. He died on September 12, 2009 at the age of 95. He grew up and received a PhD in plant pathology. He helped create hardier grain plants that increased food production by enormous amounts throughout the world.

“In 1950, as Borlaug began his work in earnest, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, with Borlaug’s concepts common, production was 1.9 billion tons of grain for 5.6 billion men and women: 2.8 times the food for 2.2 times the people. Global grain yields more than doubled during the period, from half a ton per acre to 1.1 tons; yields of rice and other foodstuffs improved similarly. Hunger declined in sync: From 1965 to 2005, global per capita food consumption rose to 2,798 calories daily from 2,063, with most of the increase in developing nations. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared that malnutrition stands “at the lowest level in human history,” despite the global population having trebled in a single century.” (Source).

Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work. He is one of the main reasons for a large increase in life expectancy worldwide. He spent much of his life living in the countries he was trying to help. His family went along too. In his own way, Borlaug was like Mother Teresa but on a much broader and macro level. His helping the poor and hungry was not ostensibly religious – it was based on science and plant genetics – but he had great devotion to helping and teaching those who needed help. Norman Borlaug was a man who was blessed with much and gave much. He never sought for fame and fame, for the most part, did not seek him.

None of us will likely ever have as great an impact on this world as Norman Borlaug did but we have all been given talents – spiritual gifts – that require us to use them for the good of ourselves and others.

“Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given; For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts. And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are…. For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby” (D&C; 46:8-12; emphasis added).

All on the earth are given at least one spiritual gift by God. Many are given many. They should be used and expanded for the profit of all. In the New Testament we read the parable of the talents (see Matt. 25:14-29). In this parable are three servants who are given talents (money) by their master as He leaves on a journey. The servant given five talents turned around and through wisdom and good sense turned the talents into ten. The servant given two talents turned those into four. The master was pleased with both servants. They were given talents and had increased them wisely. The third servant was given one talent. He, fearing his master, and not wanting to lose his talent, buried it; upon his master’s return the servant gave unto him his single talent. The master was not pleased. He stated that this servant should at the least have put the money in the bank, so to speak, where it might have earned some interest. Because this third servant had not been wise with his talent, it was taken from him and given to the servant with ten talents.

The moral of this parable is not based on how many talents the servants had originally; it is based on what the servants did with the talents allotted unto them. Both the servant with five and two talents had doubled their talents. They expended effort and did not hide or neglect their talents. The servant given one talent would have acted similarly had he been given ten talents instead of one. Again, it does not matter how much we have been given as it matters what we do with what we have received. That last statement is not strictly true in the broader sense (i.e., outside this parable), I believe, because those who have received more talents have a greater responsibility to wisely use and grow them. Jesus said unto Joseph Smith, “For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation” (D&C; 82:3). The more we receive, the greater our responsibility.

To me it seems that Norman Borlaug was given much. He had the intelligence, training, creativity, and support that enabled him to help others have the food they needed to survive. He was not selfish with his knowledge. He spent the time himself training others so that they might in turn be able to train others. Borlaug helped start what is known as the Green Revolution, a revolution not of swords and guns but one of plows and tractors. It helped modernize the agricultural techniques of many areas of the world. Before where famine and starvation were rampant, Borlaug’s work helped pave the way for surplus and plenty. He is a man who was given much and gave much in return. I do not know what he was like as a person but his fruits were good.

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