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The Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard of

By Rob Moll

Not many Nobel Peace Prize winners remain unknown in their home country. What is more surprising is that an estimated one-sixth of the world’s population is alive because of a man virtually invisible in the U.S. “Though barely known in the country of his birth,” wrote Gregg Easterbrook in his Atlantic profile from a decade ago, “elsewhere in the world Norman Borlaug is widely considered to be among the leading Americans of our age.” Mr. Borlaug died last week at the age of 95.

Borlaug is credited with spurring the Green Revolution, the agricultural advances that increased yields around the globe. Essentially, his work allowed the increase in food production to exceed the increase in population, allowing a billion more people to survive than would otherwise have.

Despite, his successes, there is still a great need for continuing the work of helping people produce enough food for themselves. That is true particularly in Africa, the one continent on which Borlaug’s work has not taken root. With new agricultural techniques, seeds, and fertilizers, the continent’s farmers could be tilling the world’s next “breadbasket,” producing not only food but also economic growth outside the agricultural economy. As the World Bank says, “Estimates show that overall GDP growth originating in agriculture is, on average, at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest half of a country’s population as growth generated in nonagricultural sectors.”

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Borlaug asked who was willing to take up the cause of his life.

“Where are those leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular?”

Opportunity’s agricultural advisor, John Magnay, is one of those leaders. He is working on new ways to bring advances in farming techniques to Africa. John, an agriculturalist who has spent his entire career living in Africa, believes that what has hindered Borlaug’s success on the continent is the lack of developed markets for farmers’ produce. At a breakfast meeting in 2004, John was able to explain to Borlaug his analysis of how to achieve a “green revolution” in Africa. John says:

“The technique of introducing improved varieties and fertilizer had achieved higher yields, but ironically the weakness of the output markets in Africa had meant that in good production years the surpluses produced had depressed the local market prices to a point of financial ruin for farmers.”

John’s and Opportunity’s response is to do more than increase yields, but to finance and develop markets where farmers can sell their crop. This is a vision that Norman Borlaug personally encouraged John to pursue.

The two met on four other occasions, each of which was an honor for John, who says, “Norman Borlaug was my hero when I was at university in the mid 70′s. He had just won the Nobel Peace prize, and his work on developing high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice and basically saving Asia from starvation was inspirational.”

His work is still inspiring. While, we have a long way to go before seeing the successes that the green revolution achieved in Asia, we’re working hard at it.

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