It has been 50 years since Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for developing a high-yield, disease-resistant wheat that saved an estimated billion human lives from starvation.
His alma mater, the University of Minnesota, honored his achievements and its incalculable impact on global agriculture at a symposium earlier this month, while also shining a light on the new challenges facing humanity and the younger generation of students who will try to solve them.
Borlaug is credited as the Father of the Green Revolution, a series of scientific advancements that created far more reliable harvests and booming outputs in the 1960s. The world was facing severe food shortages in many developing nations as populations ballooned after World War II.
The wheat varietal he developed became a linchpin in diets worldwide.
On Borlaug's death in 2009, the writer and critic Gregg Easterbrook wrote, "The very personification of human goodness, Borlaug saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived."
The Green Revolution coincided, and helped facilitate, industrialized crop production. Pesticide use increased in the 1970s as seed breeding improved, leading to some criticism of the methods Borlaug championed.
"There are a lot of opinions out there, but I see the Green Revolution as really a humanitarian triumph. Something like a billion people were saved and that humanitarian aspect speaks to the heart and intention of Norman Borlaug and his team," said James Bradeen, professor and head of the U's Department of Plant Pathology. "At the same time, science evolves. We are in a very different place than we were 60 years ago. Borlaug was a huge advocate of building solutions based on the latest scientific research. Even late in his life he was advocating for changes and adoption of new methods."
Food insecurity was a problem then and it remains a problem still, Bradeen said. Today's challenge to food and agricultural production is the changing climate.
"Our crops are growing in a climate that is far less stable than it was 50 years ago," Bradeen said. "We also have a greater understanding of the environmental impacts of agriculture."
The virtual event was held the same day that this year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations World Food program (WFP) for its work in trying to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war.
The symmetry was not lost on participants who heard from Arif Husain, also a U alum who is now chief economist and director of research for WFP.
"Like for Dr. Borlaug, it's a special day. That was 50 years ago. For us that special day is today," Husain said.
The WFP's work draws connections between starvation, destabilization (or war) and migration. When food is leveraged as a weapon, Husain said, conflict pushes people out of them homes and toward opportunity elsewhere.
He gave a charge directly to the students of the U's College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences: "You have to start to believe that you cannot dismiss things as somebody else's problem."
A war may be in Syria but the refugees show up in Europe, for instance, or instability in Central America will send migrants to the United States.
"We spend a lot more resources and a lot more effort to then keep them out or to try and help them in the countries when they've arrived, but we don't do enough to make their lives better in places where they wanted to stay. And that means addressing the root causes."