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Norman Borlaug and Genetically Modified Food

The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives

After World War II, many developing nations struggled to feed their people.  In places like Mexico and India, crops often failed.  Beginning in the 1950s, American scientist Norman Borlaug began to successfully innovate new, disease-resistant, high-yield crops using genetic modification.  Borlaug and his team were able to save many third-world nations from starvation and create reliable food sources for billions of people. In this eLesson, students explore issues surrounding genetically modified food, the contributions of Dr. Norman Borlaug, and consider questions related to population growth and the proper role of government in science and food production.



  1. As homework the night before, have students read the short article, “Genetically Modified Foods” by the University of Utah. They should answer the following questions and submit them as homework the following day.
    1. What is a genetically modified food?
    2. How are plants genetically modified?
    3. If most genetic modification has relied upon selective breeding, what is the form of modification that generates the most concern? What are these concerns?
    4. What are some advantages of genetically modified foods?
    5. What percentage of foods in the U.S. contains genetically modified foods?
  2. Also as homework, have students read “About Dr. Norman Borlaug,” from the World Food Prize. They should only read through the subsection entitled “The Nobel Prize.”  Students should respond to the following reading comprehension questions.
    1. What was the primary problem with Mexico’s wheat production that Dr. Borlaug worked to resolve?
    2. How long did it take Borlaug to develop a solution for this problem?
    3. While the wheat now had high yields, what problems did this cause and how did he fix these?
    4. What was the result of Borlaug’s work in India, Pakistan, and the Philippines?
    5. How was Borlaug recognized for his accomplishments in 1970?
  3. In class, assign students the article “Norman Borlaug: A Billion Lives Saved.” Lead a discussion based on the following questions.
    1. In the 1960s and 1970s, Paul Ehrlich wrote about a coming “population bomb.” What was this population bomb and how would it affect developing nations like India?
    2. How did Borlaug help India overcome the constant threat of famine?
    3. Were Ehrlich’s predictions of widespread starvation proven correct?
  4. In class, assign students the short article “The Health Effects of GMO Foods.”
    1. According to the clinician dietitian interviewed in the article, what are the primary health concerns related to genetically modified foods?
    2. What are the environmental concerns?
  5. Lead a class discussion about the contributions of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the controversial nature of genetically modified organisms, and the role of the government in regulating crop modification.
    1. Should the government have a role to play in securing sources of food? What provisions of the Constitution would support such a role?
    2. Should the government fund scientific research? Are there alternative sources of funding?  What provisions of the Constitution would support such a government role in scientific research?
    3. Based upon what you have learned, do you believe genetically modified foods pose significant health hazards?
    4. Should the government require restaurants and food providers to label genetically modified foods?
    5. There are two primary camps in the debate over the future of sustainable human growth. The first camp believes the growth of the population will outstrip the ability of the planet to feed the population.  The other camp believes that the earth has nearly inexhaustible resources, and humans always find new ways of finding the resources necessary to sustain population growth.  Which side is more persuasive and why?  Does the work of Dr. Borlaug support either camp of opinion?