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Tribute to Dr. Norman Borlaug

By President Jimmy Carter

This speech was presented by President Carter during Sasakawa Africa Association's 2010 Borlaug Symposium, "Taking it to the Farmer." The Symposium was held in honor of the life and achievements of Carter Center Agriculture Program Senior Consultant Dr. Norman Borlaug and discussed the current realities and challenges facing African agriculture, particularly those affecting small-scale farmers and agricultural extensionists.

Norman Borlaug was one of the few people in the world who was able to move easily from meeting with a head of state to an hour later being in the middle of a field with a farmer. Of the two, Norm preferred to be in the field, but he knew what he was talking about in both places.

What we're here today to commemorate, however, is how much Norm mattered to so many millions of people around the world. He saved untold millions of lives because he could see vast potential in a tiny plant and a small plot of land, to benefit multiple farmers and their hungry children. He never let any of us – or leaders in the United States and abroad – forget the moral imperative we have to feed the hungry. Better yet, he taught them to feed themselves.

Norm was a product of the soil from birth, growing up on a farm in Iowa. He loved the feel of dirt under his feet and in his hands, and always smiled when he came across a flourishing crop. On one of our trips to Africa, I noticed that he didn't seem well, but he continued to work. I thought perhaps he had a cold, but learned after our work was finished that it was pneumonia. He didn't stop.

Norm rarely shirked a responsibility, and all of us knew it was nearly impossible to get him to rest, to take a break, until he was sure he had done all he could to help a farmer or a community. Then he'd find some other problem to resolve.

Early in his career while working in Mexico, Norm saw farmers struggling unsuccessfully to feed themselves. So he started a crash program to develop improved wheat varieties. When a wheat field had matured, he would stop and listen to the sound of the beards of wheat rubbing together in the wind. He called it "sweet, whispering music." Norm was not only one of the greatest farmers the world has ever seen, he also had the soul of a poet.

He was also a pragmatist. In the early days of his work in Mexico, the administration complained that he was not publishing enough. His response was, "Do you want paper or bread?" He continued his research and ignored the complaints.

He spent most of his life working and living in developing countries, enduring physical hardship and long separations from his family, knowing that the people he helped could look their children in the eye and tell them there would be enough food to eat. I think that's really what made him push himself so hard – helping people reach their potential by sharing with them his time and knowledge.

What he accomplished was staggering. In 1970, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the Green Revolution, which he fathered by introducing to India and Pakistan the variety of wheat he had helped develop in Mexico that was resistant to stem rust and had high yield potential. In his Nobel lecture, Dr. Borlaug warned that the success in India and Pakistan effectively bought us 30 years to stave off unchecked population growth before the threat of severe famine would reassert itself. He knew a growing, hungry population was a combustible equation.

He also defied conventional wisdom. He and I sometimes stood alone within the international agricultural development arena for our views on the need to help Africa improve its ability to produce food and the use of GMOs. Norm understood that the African continent's population growth had exceeded agricultural productivity by 1-2 percent annually since 1960, and that Africa faced a food security crisis. He also understood that African soils – and farmers – had the potential to be productive.

Norm had no compunction about encouraging the use of chemical fertilizers despite the fact that many donor organizations opposed it, under pressure from environmental advocates. Small-farm holders in sub-Saharan Africa either use no fertilizer or far less than farmers in Europe, Asia, and the US, despite facing much more severe agricultural challenges. He knew that the application of chemicals would improve crop yields without damage to land. But it wasn't until three years ago that the international development community finally agreed that chemical fertilizer was essential to agricultural development in Africa.

For more than two decades, SG 2000 has carefully trained millions of farmers to use the right seed, proper cultural practices, and appropriate fertilizers and herbicides, increasing yields and enhancing land quality. We've never forgotten that farming must be profitable, and there must be a market for surplus production.

Recent studies suggest that improvements in national incomes tied to agricultural growth have been underestimated. History has shown that few countries have achieved increased prosperity without equivalent growth in agriculture. Everyone in this room has seen the true potential of agricultural productivity in Africa, but in international development policy, agriculture has been a low priority for far too long.

Norman Borlaug's moral fortitude, his strength, his dedication to the world's poorest people, and his scientific brilliance were just a few of the reasons why he has been a hero of mine. I knew of his work while I was President, and I formed a task force with George McGovern and Bob Dole to see what the US could do to help Africa meet its food production challenges. But it was not until the mid-eighties that we were brought together by Ryoichi Sasakawa.

In 1984, famine ravaged 20 African countries. Mr. Sasakawa felt that it was important to find ways to address the underlying causes of the crisis and with hopes that he could fund a similar "Green Revolution" in Africa he turned to Norm.

Norm responded that he was 71 years old and "too old to start again." Ryoichi replied, "I'm 13 years older than you are. We should have started sooner and didn't, so let's start tomorrow!"

The three of us met in Geneva, and we decided that Norm would develop best practices for farmers, I would work personally with African leaders in each chosen nation, and Sasakawa would provide the funding. The project came to be called SG 2000, with the goal of improving agricultural development among small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. We made sure the political leaders and farmers could take local ownership and receive credit and recognition for their achievements, rather than credit being given to foreign philanthropy.

From the beginning, Norm and I tried to visit Africa together. Instead of several years of research and planning, Norm said, "Let's just start growing." And that's what we did.

The SG 2000 program was remarkably popular. We had a wheat project in Sudan and, after the first year of demonstrations, we scheduled a half-day workshop for adjacent farmers, expecting perhaps a hundred to attend. Norm and I were amazed when more than 2000 showed up, all dressed in their finest clothes. Some of them had walked more than forty miles. There were many speeches of gratitude by leaders, and they insisted on much longer training sessions. In five years, wheat production was increased from 160,000 tons to more than a million.

One of the most emotional experiences I ever had with Norm was in Ghana. We had been working in the country for two or three years and Norm and I were having a discussion in my hotel room. He said that they had developed Quality Protein Maize a few years earlier that was a complete food – almost as good as mother's milk. It was introduced in a few places, including Ghana, but they hadn't been able to find a nation that would adopt it as a major project.

So I said, "Norm, we'll be having supper tonight with President Jerry Rawlings. Why don't I bring it up with him and see if he would be willing to take on the responsibility of adopting QPM as a top priority in Ghana?"

So we sat down across the table from the president that night, and when I made the presentation, the president said, "I will be glad to take it on, all over the nation. I'll even set up a new government agency to do it."

I looked at Norm and he had tears running down his cheeks. This was the first major production of Quality Protein Maize, and it has now spread all over Africa and into South America and Asia. It's important to remember that the expansion of QPM is just another of his significant contributions to food security.

Norm had faith that if he could connect the findings of agricultural researchers with small-scale farmers, the intelligence and hard work of both parties could be harnessed effectively in Africa. Norm and his colleagues, some of whom are here today, transferred agricultural knowledge to small-scale farmers directly and through local extension agents. The result was a doubling or tripling of crop yields.

Despite the difficulties we faced, Norm's achievement record was remarkable. Communities that had struggled for thousands of years to increase harvests suddenly couldn't believe their good fortune.

I know this was true for my friend, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. At his invitation, we began work in Ethiopia in 1993, with just a few farmers. Rosalynn and I invited Prime Minister Meles to join us one morning in visiting some remote farms producing wheat on vertisol land.

This is thick clay that changes from sticky gumbo mud to cracked dry surfaces with practically no percolation of moisture, so the average yield of wheat had been only half a ton per hectare. Farmers using the SG2000 model were producing three to four tons, using a modest application of fertilizer and planting on an elevated seedbed about three feet wide between deep furrows that allowed the water to drain out of this rich fertile soil.

This was the most dramatic result I had seen in Africa, and Prime Minister Meles was overwhelmed. The farmers themselves were either delighted or disbelieving. Some of them didn't want to believe it was true and would say, "We'll have to wait to count the bags."

On the several hours ride home together, Prime Minister Meles was eager to expand Ethiopia's program. I told him we planned to go from 1,600 to 16,000 farmers the next year, and he asked me, "How about 400,000?" After much discussion and careful planning, Ethiopia dramatically expanded the program during the next two years and they were able to export grain for the first time in modern history. But as we all know, Ethiopia also needs an adequate transportation system to transfer surplus grain to market or to another needy region.

Norm also realized that until African farmers were allowed to compete fairly in international markets, agricultural development would be constrained. He condemned excessive farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe, pointing out that each cow in France earns about $2.50 per day in subsidies, more than many hard-working African farmers.

The Carter Center's agricultural work with the Sasakawa Africa Association was one of our first programs, and for the next quarter-century we worked together in 15 sub-Saharan African countries, training farmers to improve crop production, grain storage, processing, and marketing. Many of the 8 million small-scale farmers, living in countries at risk of famine or malnutrition, have doubled or tripled their crop yields. It was always a joy to visit those who earned enough to diversify their investments into small businesses and community projects and even to establish farmers' associations and savings and loans.

Norm wanted to keep inspiring progress for global food security, so he founded the World Food Prize to recognize individuals who have helped advance human development through agriculture. The true potential of the developing world could not be better exemplified than by Dr. Gebisa Ejeta who joins us today, a product of Ethiopia's commitment to fight hunger and the 2009 winner of the World Food Prize.

I'm sure I can speak for Dr. Ejeta, Prime Minister Meles, and many others here when I say that I will never look at a field of wheat or maize without thinking of Norman Borlaug, and imagining him standing in the middle of it, holding a handful of seeds or soil and discussing a better life with the farmer who worked it.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that although most people Norm helped may never know his name, he would be very gratified that they no longer know hunger. I cannot think of a greater legacy to leave and a more fitting tribute to a man who gave so much of himself to others. But hunger still exists in places Norm couldn't reach, and we all owe it to him to remove the threat of famine once and for all.

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