We need to do a better job in the U.S. recognizing truly great achievements

Our society sadly has become one where pop culture rules, and to achieve the status of greatness, or at least most popular, one has to do very little save record a handful of hit songs or have the ability to procreate in multiples.

So it isn't all that unusual in this day and time when more than a month of mass media coverage is devoted exclusively to the death of a pop star, while the death of a truly great person such as Norman Borlaug receives only passing notice. It isn't unusual, but it certainly is a sad commentary on our times. Makes one wonder if the likes of Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein died today, would they be relegated to the back pages or a mere mention on the evening news?

Norman Borlaug certainly ranks among the great scientists of our time. He was known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” before “green” became an insignificant political buzzword.

Borlaug, who died on Sept. 13, at the age of 95, devoted his professional life to ground-breaking research that changed the face of agriculture worldwide. And his efforts certainly didn't go unnoticed, having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.

His most recognized research involved innovative breeding to develop disease-resistant wheat. This work is rightfully credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions by alleviating hunger.

As noted by the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), Borlaug's contributions went far beyond his scientific accomplishments, as he used his international recognition as a platform to encourage investment in agricultural research and in the people needed to find solutions for the agricultural challenges that plague the world.

“He supported many causes that provided a forum for the enrichment of scientists in developing countries and gained support of governments and industry for policies and programs to advance agriculture to continue an abundant supply of food, feed, fiber and fuel for a growing population with fewer resources,” states the ASTA.

We can all agree, judging from the current indiscriminate slashing of Extension and agricultural research budgets, that there's an urgent need of such a voice both in the United States and internationally.

As noted by ASTA Chairman Jerry Monk, Borlaug not only drove the Green Revolution, but he laid down the gauntlet to today's plant breeders, challenging them to rise to a new level that would benefit growers throughout the world.

Not only was Borlaug's scientific achievements noteworthy, but his humble beginnings also served as an inspiration to millions. He was born outside of Cresco, Iowa, grew up on a farm, and attended a one-room school house through the eighth grade. He never strayed far from his modest upbringings, eagerly sharing his story to aspiring students, researchers and policy makers about the tremendous impact that innovation can have on agricultural production.

Borlaug attended the University of Minnesota where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1937 in forestry, later returning for his master's degree in 1940 and a doctorate in 1942 in plant genetics. In October 1944, he began his formidable work in Mexico at the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center in wheat. Borlaug crossed strains of wheat, coming up with a sturdy, short-stalked, high-yield grain. The yield gains by the new variety were tremendous and improved not only the lives of Mexicans, but also had great success in Central Asia as well, namely India and Pakistan.

“In the death of Norman Borlaug, the world has lost not only an eminent agriculture scientist but a man dedicated to the cause of humanity. Father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug is credited with what he himself described as a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation,” said Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar of India. “As India moves towards the second Green Revolution, his enduring vision will be a source of inspiration and sustenance for all of us.”

Borlaug's contributions will continue to live for generations to come, but it's probably safe to assume that his name would be unfamiliar to most Americans, and that's a commentary on the sorry state of our culture today.

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