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{Published in The Barefoot Bioengineer, 2009-09-16}

“Woe unto my soul! A great man has died. Would that my eyes were a pool of tears that I could weep for him.”

I hadn’t thought about the rabbi’s words at my grandfather’s funeral for 25 years. Then I picked up Monday’s paper. Norman Borlaug’s death at the age of 95 brought them back with crystalline clarity.

Most of you haven’t heard of Norm, as he insisted everyone call him. That’s because he doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas of greatness. A great man must be famous, powerful, wealthy, and otherworldly, or at least some combination thereof. Norm was none of these. He did manage to save the lives of a billion people, give or take a million. So that ought to count for something.

Borlaug was a scientist, not the first profession that comes to mind when you think of a “great man.” Sure, Einstein was a great scientist, but would he make your Top 10 list of great men?

Trying to understand how the world works is among the noblest and most inspiring tasks humanity can undertake. Unfortunately, it just isn’t part of how our culture defines greatness.

Unlike Einstein, Borlaug was not a physicist. He was an agricultural scientist, which means he learned about the plants people ate so he could figure out how to improve them. In other words, he tampered with nature. Big time.

Borlaug’s “shuttle breeding” enabled him to genetically improve wheat twice as fast as conventional techniques. Thanks to him, Mexico changed from a massive wheat importer to complete self-sufficiency. He later brought similar successes to India, Pakistan, China and the Philippines. How many of us can say we enabled an entire country to feed its people?

So why isn’t Borlaug’s name a household word? Why will you never see a poster of him on a classroom wall? Because he doesn’t fit the agenda of those who define greatness by the amount of power they have, their sanctimonious pronouncements on the rest of humanity, and how desperately they want to save the planet. You know the type. They’ve all got appointments in the present administration.