When most people talk about plants in the context of innovation, they tend to focus on factories—like Henry Ford’s River Rouge complex or Intel’s vast chip fabrication operations. But old-school plants—the type that grow in the dirt—have also been vital to human progress. In fact, farm fields are among the most important, um, fields, in which fundamental research can be translated into extraordinary real-world results. The careers of two twentieth century giants who sprung from the fertile soil of the Midwest—Norman Borlaug and George Washington Carver—demonstrate just how innovation in food production can promote self-sufficiency and create immense economic value.
Carver was an agricultural and industrial pioneer—in more ways than one. Born into slavery in Missouri in 1864, and then raised as a free man by the family that had owned his parents, Carver was largely home-schooled. As a botany-obsessed child, he was known in the area as the “Plant Doctor,” for his abilities to grow plants that seemed destined for failure. Unable to enroll at Highland College in Kansas—the admissions offer was rescinded after the school learned he was African-American—Carver began experimenting on his own land. In his twenties, he began to study art and music in Simpson College, and gained notice for his drawings of botanical experiments. After earning two degrees in botany from Iowa State Agricultural College, where he was the first African-American student, Carver joined Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1896.
It was there in Tuskegee that Carver would fuse the disciplines of agricultural research, self-reliance, and community empowerment. The lot of southern farmers at the turn of the 20th century was a difficult one, especially for former slaves and their descendants. Farming cotton, the region’s biggest cash crop, depleted the soil. And cotton crops would often fail when pests like the boll weevil tore through the fields.
So Washington began to evangelize for crop rotation. Alternating between planting cotton and other staples, like peanuts or sweet potatoes, would help improve the soil and provide economic diversification. To make tradition-bound farmers realize the larger economic benefits of such crops, Carver began to look for other uses.
Now, Carver didn’t invent peanut butter. But his research and invention proved that the sugars, oils, fats, and other chemical components of the legumes could have broader uses. Instead of making cotton oil, farmers could make peanut oil. Or they could feed nuts to livestock, or use them to make everything from chili sauce to shaving cream, from insecticides to plastics. He received patents for paints and cosmetics derived from peanuts, and formed companies that would market peanut-based medicines and rubbing oil.
As his reputation grew, Carver emerged as a public barnstormer for better practices. He built a mobile classroom, sang the praises of peanuts in his syndicated newspaper column— “Professor Carver’s Advice”—and issued dozens of research bulletins. A famous 1916 publication proclaimed: “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption.”
In a period when African-Americans simply didn’t participate in many areas of public life, Carver became an important figure. He visited the White House and advised Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. In 1920, he was invited to speak at meeting of the Peanut Growers Association, where he presented attendees with 145 different uses for the peanut. The following year, he testified before Congress about the U.S. peanut industry. Thanks in part to his efforts, peanuts became a vital crop, and a thriving industry. Even after his death in 1943 at the age of 78, Carver continued to break barriers. The man whom Time dubbed a “Black Leonardo,” became the first African-American to have a national monument dedicated to him.
The world Carver left was still a hungry one—if substantially less so. And when he died, another agricultural pioneer was just starting to bring research to bear on food production.
Norman Borlaug’s name may not be as well-known as Carver’s. But the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s breakthroughs in research and practice helped lead to a similar reimagination of the power of agriculture to uplift people and promote economic self-sufficiency. Borlaug is remembered as the father of the “Green Revolution,” the collection of advances in crop science that helped banish famine in the 20th century.
Like Carver, Borlaug grew up in a tiny farm town in the Midwest—in Cresco, Iowa. Born in 1914, and educated at a one-room school, Borlaug rode his wrestling prowess to the University of Minnesota, where, like Carver, he would become a plant doctor. Borlaug studied forestry, and then obtained a Ph.D. in plant pathology.
In 1944, at the behest of the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug trekked south to an area where wheat farmers were having a very difficult time scratching out a living from the soil: Mexico. Borlaug and his associates set out to develop strains of wheat that could resist diseases and pests, and thus improve yields. Shuttling back and forth between southern and northern Mexico—the better to take advantage of two annual growing seasons—Borlaug ultimately developed a hearty wheat variety that could produce big heads of grain on small stalks. That enabled the same plot of land—and the same amount of water—to produce a much larger crop. As farmers adopted his techniques, Mexico’s wheat production boomed. By the early 1960s, Mexico was growing six times more wheat than it did when Borlaug first arrived.
Like Carver, Borlaug then sought to institutionalize his breakthroughs. He helped set up an institute in Mexico aimed at improving wheat and corn production. Next, he took his efforts to the desperately poor, hungry regions of India and Pakistan. After plane loads of wheat seeds were sent to India in the 1960s, farmers there were able to boost production by a factor of four. The effort was repeated in North Africa. Next, Borlaug helped develop more productive and drought-resistant strains of rice that became adapted widely in Asia. In 1970, these efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize, with the committee describing Borlaug as the person “who more than any other single man of our age, has provided bread for the hungry world.”
Borlaug was indefatigable. He learned of his Nobel award while in a field in Mexico. From his base at Texas A & M University, he continued to promote the development of more efficient wheat, rice, and corn crops in South America, Asia and Africa well into his 80s. Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95, having done more than perhaps any other individual to promote human welfare in the 20th century. As the writer Gregg Easterbrook put it in The Atlantic: “The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.”