Julie Borlaug continues grandfather’s fight against world hunger

Farm Forum

The lifelong passion of a man integrally involved in the advancement of agriculture is highlighted this week with the unveiling of a bronze likeness in one of the most visited locales in Washington, D.C.

On what would have been his 100th birthday on Tuesday, March 25, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and father of the Green Revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug will stand tall among those chosen to best represent their states in the esteemed location of Statuary Hall.

The bronze statue, created by the hands of Aberdeen sculptor Ben Victor, will honor the many facets of this Iowa man who dedicated this life to agriculture and fighting hunger.

Borlaug’s family and those involved in modern agriculture are excited to be part of the celebration.

“I hope my grandfather’s statue reminds students and visitors of the importance of our agrarian roots and the important role that ag plays in all our lives, both in the present and future,” Julie Borlaug, granddaughter of Norman who works at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture located at College Station, Texas. “Hopefully, it will inspire the next generation of hunger fighters!”

Julie sees the placing of the statue as a way to highlight all that her grandfather worked on through the years and the work that continues. It is a way to focus on her grandfather’s work to fight hunger around the world.

“He would have had a hard time with all of the accolades,” Julie said. “If he were here, he wouldn’t want to talk about the past. He’d want to focus on all that can be done through innovation and technology for the future.”

“As grandchildren, we are really excited for the unveiling of the statue,” she said. “We’re hoping that his legacy will be a permanent part in United States history. It’s neat that the entire family will be there to witness the unveiling. To think that his statue will be one of only 100 people to be honored in this way. It’s truly amazing.”

Julie praised the work of sculptor Ben Victor of Aberdeen. “Ben was so passionate about learning about my grandfather and what he did. He brought that out in the work he did to create the sculpture and involved our family in wonderful way. What’s more, my grandfather would have loved that Ben also is involved in mentoring the next generation.”

As a young girl, Julie was aware that her grandfather was involved in agriculture and knew he was helping people.

“I first recognized that he was pretty important when I was in third grade,“ Julie said. “At that time we had some reading comprehension tests called SRA. It provided an essay about a topic and then there would be questions to answer. When I saw that he was the topic of one of sections, I thought, ‘Wow, he must be important.’ “

According to Julie, much of Norman’s drive to fight hunger was rooted in what he witnessed in Minnesota while he was going to the University of Minnesota during the 1930s. He watched people standing in bread lines and witnessed parents struggling to feed their children. In this country, there were riots because of the lack of food. Those images stuck with Norman as he focused on the places in the world that didn’t have the advantages available in this country. Fighting hunger became his calling.

Some of Norman’s greatest achievements were developing improved wheat varieties, educating and preparing future generations of scientists and creating alignment between policymakers, scientists and the public and private sectors to bring advancements in agricultural research to farmers. He is credited with having saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived. His mission continues in various ways as those following in his footsteps seek to identify solutions to address global food challenges.

Farmers need to tell their story

When asked what role farmers in South Dakota can have in this fight against hunger, Julie replied, “Tell people what they do. Tell people what farming means to them personally and the difficulties they face each day and each season. When speaking to people outside of agriculture, remember that they don’t have an agrarian background. Farmers need to let people know that they are working to feed the world.”

There’s a group out there that has a romantic notion about farming, Julie said. Things can’t go back to the way things used to be. Africa has shown that won’t work. To feed the growing numbers, innovation and technology are needed, she said.

“With our famers, we have the capacity to look at weather and provide irrigation to crops,” she said. “Think of those countries that don’t have that information. We worry about what climate change will mean to our farmers. Think of what it will mean to those in developing counties.”

Fight hunger in underdeveloped countries

“The reality is that it’s going to take an huge investment in agriculture to get a Green Revolution developed in places such as Africa,” Julie said. “The effort needs to combine public, private and non-governmental groups to get the work accomplished.”

And that’s what the Institute she works for is trying to accomplish. Julie has a background in working with non-profit groups and fundraising. She feels very fortunate that she was able to work with her grandfather as a colleague as she became immersed in efforts to fight hunger through international agriculture. And now she continues that work through the Borlaug Institute.

Julie said the people of Africa deserve to have an infrastructure and opportunity to sell their products. Foreign governments need to be involved with the private sector to get agriculture up and growing.

Julie noted that one agency that is seeing some impressive results is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). This public-private partnership has had breakthroughs in developing high yielding maize that is drought resistant. It is also non-GMO.

Their website notes that: “If rural women in developing countries had the same access to land, technology, credit, education and markets as men, their yields could increase by 20 to 30 percent. Estimates show this alone would raise agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, which could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.”

“Feeding people is what we need to do,” Julie said. “Fighting hunger is truly a passion, and I want to continue [my grandfather’s] legacy.”

Julie believes, “If we could simply get women these basic rights, they would have access to credit to improve their land and be able to afford high yielding seeds and inputs. Women are the driving force of ag in developing countries, and by empowering them we could change the current situation significantly. Empowering women means that they would be able to increase their incomes and thus send their children to school and so forth. It’s a simple fact and is so frustrating that this simple change has yet to occur.

“Additionally, if we could get roads built to give rural farmers access to markets and post harvest storage solutions, things would also improve significantly. This goes back to what I said about policy. You not only need the best technology and innovation but you need good governance and public policies to move these countries forward which is why the Green Revolution is India was so successful.”

She continued by saying, “I think the goal is obtainable but will take a considerable amount of work to move some of these cultures and governments forward but the good news is that it is happening. The Minister of Ag in Rwanda is a female, and she is leading the charge and making significant changes that have improved ag for women and the whole of Rwanda.”

Cultivating researchers

Investments in the next generation will bring solutions to future challenges. Opportunities for developing skills in researchers have been limited as universities cut back on programs due to funding limitations. For Norman’s 95th birthday, the Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars program was established. According to Julie, it exemplifies Norman’s commitment to education and agricultural research to improve wheat production as well as a productive public/private partnership.

Since 2009, the program has been providing fellowships for Ph.D. scholars in rice and wheat plant breeding. The program is a partnership between Monsanto Company and Texas AgriLife, an agency of the Texas A&M University System. These scholars are pursuing their Ph.D.s at prominent universities with strong wheat and rice programs and collaborating with leading scientists/professors at world-renowned institutions. The scholars are then required to return to their home countries to implement programs to improve agricultural practices.

Carrying the message forward

Sharing her grandfather’s legacy is the most exiting part of Julie’s work.

Julie said, “His work wasn’t just him. He worked with a group known as ‘hunger fighters.’ It was because of their support, hard work and dedication that so much was accomplished. My grandfather challenged them to always do more. Along with that, it takes good policy and good infrastructure to accomplish those goals.”

Working with many from academia, he emphasized, even on his deathbed, to take his work to the farmers. Norman Borlaug said that’s the only way that you will know you’re making a difference.

“In honor of my grandfather’s 100th birthday, I hope that we carry the momentum forward,” Julie said. “Our farmers have gotten us to this point and will move us forward through innovative approaches, partnerships and alliances to develop sustainable and reproducible strategies to face these concerns.”