Cresco, Iowa native Dr. Norman Borlaug received the nation’s highest civilian honor today. "I can’t find words to express myself," Borlaug told the crowd of dignitaries gathered in the U.S. Capitol.
Borlaug is often called the father of the so-called "Green Revolution" for his work in plant genetics, work that helped to significantly increase crop yields and reduce world hunger.
The Congressional Gold Medal was presented by the leadership of Congress and President Bush. "Sometimes it takes a ceremony like this to remind us what a special place America is. Ours is a land of hope and promise and compassion and we see that compassion and promise in the man we honor today," Bush said. "A farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse who left the golden fields of Iowa to become known as the man who fed the world."
Bush said Borlaug brought hope to troubled corners of the globe. "Norman Borlaug has lived his life with urgency. He has long understood that one of the threats to human progress is the torment of human hunger," Bush said.
Bush asked the crowd to pick up Borlaug’s cause of eradicating hunger. "I thank you for leading a life of great purpose and achievement. I thank you for proving to Americans that what we learned as children is still true, that one human being can change the world," Bush concluded.
George Washington was the first to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Borlaug, who is 93, began his remarks by thanking members of congress for their support of his work, starting in the 1960s. Borlaug also spoke fondly of former world leaders, like India’s Indira Ghandi, who embraced his science.
"I’ve worked with all kinds of political (and) ideological leaders because I’ve been working and so have my whole team of hunger fighters, been working for the well-being of the human people," Borlaug said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Borlaug retired in 1979, but was lured back to work elsewhere, especially on the African continent where famines have raged. "So I’ve been entangled in this work in Africa," Borlaug said.
The priest who offered the prayer to open today’s ceremony asked that those in the crowd remember Borlaug when they say grace at their tables of bounty. "Today every grateful table of this nation needs to thank you, Lord, for this seed of human wisdom, belabored science and generous vitality which grew upon Iowa soil in these United States to become a gracious gift to a starving world," the priest said.
Iowa’s two U.S. Senators offered their praise of Borlaug.
Senator Charles Grassley called Borlaug a great humanitarian. "We from Iowa are proud of this son of the soil," Grassley said. "He spared more people from the sharp hunger pains that strike an empty stomach than any one of us farmers could ever dream of doing. He saved more lives than any other person in history."
Senator Tom Harkin said Iowans are a humble people, but they’re very proud of leaders like Norman Borlaug who have worked to feed the world. "When I think of Dr. Borlaug’s achievements, I’m reminded of those famous words in the Book of Proverbs: ‘Where there is no vision, people perish,’" Harkin said. "More than half a century ago, Dr. Borlaug surveyed a world where starvation and malnutrition were rampant and he had a vision, a vision of a Green Revolution."
Some credit Borlaug with saving as many as one billion lives with his actions. Borlaug did groundbreaking work to introduce disease-resistant wheat to Mexico, then Pakistan and India and Africa. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work.
Borlaug, who again is 93 years old, is only home a few weeks out of the year, working abroad to continue his research. President Bush noted Borlaug’s extensive travels. "To this day Norman leads an active life. Listen to a friend, he said: ‘Norman spends half his year in Texas, half his year in Mexico and the other half wherever he is needed," Bush said, to laughter from the crowd. "Interesting math."