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Hunger warrior: ‘Man Who Tried to Feed the World’ focuses on Nobel Peace Prize recipient

Norman Borlaug in a Mexican wheat field in 1970, holding bunches of the “miracle” wheat he developed by crossing a native Mexican strain with a Japanese dwarf variety. (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Arthur Rickerby)

Norman Borlaug transformed the world with his efforts in fighting global hunger.

He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for those efforts.

Borlaug is also the subject of the documentary “The Man Who Tried to Feed the World,” which premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, on New Mexico PBS.

Filmmaker Rob Rapley is at the helm of the project for the “American Experience” documentary.

“(Norman) Borlaug was a genuine person with the best of intentions,” Rapley says. “He took a chance and really solved some problems.”

Rapley says the documentary seems timely, with both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world.

By increasing the world’s food supply, Borlaug made it possible for the planet to support far more people than had been thought possible, saving countless lives. But in doing so, he unleashed a series of unintended consequences that tarnished his reputation and forever changed the environmental and economic balance of the world.

Borlaug was born in 1914 and grew up on an isolated Iowa farm. But farm life was revolutionized in the mid-1920s when Henry Ford’s tractor became widely available, drastically reducing the amount of labor needed to plant and harvest crops. The new technology made it possible for Borlaug to leave the family farm and attend college.

In 1944, Borlaug – now armed with a Ph.D. in plant pathology – was recruited for a Rockefeller Foundation program designed to provide stability and prosperity to rural farmers in Mexico.

The goal was to defeat stem rust, a disease that had plagued humankind for thousands of years and was decimating Mexico’s wheat crop year after year.

Once in Mexico, Borlaug encountered the horror of real malnutrition for the first time, and he soon recast his mission. Rather than help peasant farmers in their struggles with nature, he decided to fight hunger directly by developing a radically new kind of wheat: disease-resistant, adaptable and incredibly productive.

In 1963, Borlaug accepted an invitation from M.S. Swaminathan, an Indian agricultural scientist wrestling with food supply problems in his own country. India’s chronic food shortages and an exploding population seemed to foreshadow a bleak future for the rest of the world.

Filmmaker Rob Rapley (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Arthur Rickerby)

“There was a serendipity to his virtue and focus and work ethic,” Rapley says. “He wanted to create sustainability for the world’s food problems.

When he was working on the documentary for more than a year, Rapley says, the biggest challenge was getting the research done.

“This story is one that really takes place all over the world,” he says. “Finding the archival material, that was a huge challenge. We’re used to working with American archives. We had to delve into archives in Mexico and India. We wanted to tell a complete story and needed to be patient. I’m pleased with how it came out.”

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