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A legacy of feeding the world

100 years after the birth of its greatest alum, the U of M continues Norman Borlaug's quest to end hunger through agricultural science.

March 25, 2014

Tessa Ries was in the ninth grade when her high school teacher announced to the class, “Today we’re going to watch a video about a really important man who passed away this weekend.” It was 2009, and Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and a man who by most accounts saved more lives than anyone else in history, had died.

Norman Borlaug, who received all three of his degrees at the University of Minnesota, would have been 100 on March 25. The U of M honored Borlaug with a weeklong series of events and with the dedication of a statue in his honor, to be placed on the U's St. Paul campus.

Meanwhile, the U continues his legacy of fighting hunger and securing the world’s food supply through innovative research—and through the determination and brilliance of students like Margaret Krause and Tessa Ries.

An early start

Ries recalls walking away from viewing that video not only as inspired, but as though serendipitously and instantaneously directed.

“I knew immediately. And I knew exactly that I wanted to study plant science, and that I wanted to go to the University of Minnesota like Dr. Borlaug,” recalls Ries. In 10th grade, she applied and was accepted. At age 16—leaving high school two years early—she started as a student in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Now 18 and nearly through her third year of coursework, Ries is still following the path of her hero.

She wants to help farmers in the developing world, and in fact is already doing so.

“We have the potential not only to do amazing research right now, but to follow Borlaug’s legacy to bring that research to the farmers who need it,“ says Ries.

In 2011 Ries was one of more than 100 exceptional high school students worldwide selected to participate in the Global Youth Institute hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation—established by Borlaug after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 as a way to support young people in the agricultural sciences.

Ries has since interned at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Ankara, Turkey, where she gained experience working as a wheat pathologist—the field where Borlaug made his mark.

She says of Borlaug, “I realized—this is a man who really made an impact through science—and it gave me passion for increasing food security as an avenue … as a career that can make a real impact.”

Ries grew up on a farm in Red Wing, Minnesota, which she credits with giving her an understanding of what it’s like to farm.

“I was always around plants, and I had a garden,” she says. “I was out there with my dad when we had aphid problems, or our corn was coming up late, and I understood all of the challenges my dad and my family faced as farmers. I have a lot of compassion for farmers in the developing world, who face those same issues, but don’t have the access to technology or [educational resources] that we do in the United States.”

New inspiration

Senior Margaret Krause grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and didn’t know a thing about agriculture, she says, before coming to the U. Now, she’s just returned from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative in Mexico, where she spent nearly a week with wheat and barley scientists from around the world in the Yaqui Valley, where Borlaug did most of his work.

Krause heard about Borlaug while working as a freshman in the wheat breeding and genetics program, and his passion continues to push her forward. She sees herself someday finding a place working with international agricultural research centers throughout the world—collaborations modeled after Borlaug’s work in Mexico.

“There are tons of cool things you can do with agriculture, and so much new technology. But I think I really want to be doing something that has a direct impact on people’s lives,” says Krause.

Krause says that Borlaug set an example of how to work together “and how to work really hard. And I think agriculture needs someone like that—especially now.”

Indeed, though plant breeding has changed since Borlaug’s time, threats to the global food supply remain.

Consider, for example, a wheat rust called UG99, says plant pathologist and professor Brian Steffenson.

It threatens 80 percent of the world’s wheat (thousands of varieties). University of Minnesota cereal grain researchers are on the forefront of efforts to contain its spread, but, as Steffenson says, “The pathogen is not static—it’s dynamic and changing—and we have to be vigilant.”

Steffenson has founded the Stakman Borlaug Center for Sustainable Plant Health at the University of Minnesota—to extend the legacy of Norman Borlaug, he says. He’s also raising funds to endow one female and one male graduate student to work on serious international food security issues.

“It’s an incredible story, really … he has to be regarded as one of the great humanitarians that’s ever lived,” says Steffenson. “We really want to inspire the future generation of hunger fighters—folks like Margaret and Tessa, who are dedicated and passionate about that mission—to make sure that people who come through this university know who Norman Borlaug is.”

Statue of Norman Borlaug

A humble man among giants

Norman Borlaug is one of just seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. The others are Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Elie Wiesel, Muhammad Yunus, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Learn more about him.

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Norman Borlaug is credited with playing the key role in staving off starvation in India and Pakistan through his work breeding higher-yield varieties of wheat.

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