Norman Borlaug: Solving World Hunger Through Genetics

by | Nov 21, 2002

Not to take anything away from Jimmy Carter, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner and a far better ex-president than president, but, when it comes to saving lives, no one can compete with Norman Borlaug. Norman who? Borlaug is one of the great humanitarians of the 20th Century – and winner of the Nobel Peace […]

Not to take anything away from Jimmy Carter, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner and a far better ex-president than president, but, when it comes to saving lives, no one can compete with Norman Borlaug.

Norman who?

Borlaug is one of the great humanitarians of the 20th Century – and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for a lifetime of work feeding a hungry world. The breeds of wheat he developed – with strong disease resistance, high yield potential and the ability to withstand poor growing conditions – led the “Green Revolution” that saved literally hundreds of millions of lives in developing nations that were prone to terrible famines.

That was 32 years ago, and Borlaug, at age 88, is still alive and kicking. Among other things, he’s kicking the hysterics who are trying these days to thwart the development of genetically modified (GM) foods, which can feed the poor, improve the health of practically everyone, boost the economies of developing nations and diminish environmental damage caused by many current agricultural techniques.

As he said in a recent speech, “Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. Small but vociferous and highly effective and well-funded anti-science and technology groups, are slowing the application of new technology.” As a result, these zealots are, quite literally, killing people.

Since the Nobel folks don’t give an award for agriculture, Borlaug decided to launch one himself. In 1987, he founded the World Food Prize, an award of $250,000 that each year goes to a person who has made significant contributions to reducing hunger and malnutrition.

Prizes in the past have gone to scientists like Evangelina Villegas of Mexico and Surinder Vasal of India, who developed corn with twice the usable protein as normal maize, and to Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland of the United States, who developed the sterile insect technique to control parasites that harm the world’s food supply.

This year’s prize was presented Thursday evening at Iowa State University here in Des Moines to Pedro Sanchez, who left Cuba for the United States in 1958. He earned his PhD at Cornell and was recently named by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to chair a special task force on hunger. He now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.

Sanchez’s scientific work guided Peru to self-sufficiency in rice production in just three years. While leading a research center in Kenya, his program of encouraging the planting of trees adjacent to crops gave 150,000 farmers in Africa the means to enrich soils inexpensively and productively, increasing crop yields in some cases by 200 percent to 400 percent. He also headed an effort to improve the notoriously poor soil in the Cerrado, an area of Brazil that is about the size of Western Europe. His group discovered the formula that would make the region blossom. Average yields increased by 60 percent, and the Brazilian grain harvest tripled.

In announcing the award, Borlaug said, “Dr. Sanchez’s achievement gives hope that the Green Revolution can finally be extended to Africa.”

The award comes at a critical time. In Europe, especially, resistance to genetically modified plants has reached hysterical levels.

Antagonism stems from radical ideology, lack of understanding of sound science and as a desire on the part of European farmers and politicians to block imported agricultural goods from developing nations.

In a speech in Des Moines Tuesday, Sanchez pointed out that nature also modifies genes. “Good research and a lot of emphasis on safety and consequences are important, but that doesn’t mean we should be afraid,” he said. In August, Zambia, a southern African country in the grip of famine, banned corn donated by the U.S. because some of it was genetically modified (GM) – despite the fact that Americans have been eating GM corn without adverse effects since the mid-1990s. GM crops represent half of all corn acreage and 70 percent of all soybean acreage in the United States.

In the speech, Sanchez also expressed skepticism about direct food aid – as opposed to helping farmers. “Food aid can create dependencies,” he said, “very bad dependencies.”

In addition, according to an article in the Des Moines Register, Sanchez said that he “can’t get excited about the difference between organic farming and non-organic farming.” Pesticide residue is a problem, but when it comes to fertilizer, “the plant doesn’t give a damn” whether nitrogen and phosphorous come from manure or from a bag of commercial fertilizer, he said.

Sanchez’s speech was preceded a week earlier by the Inaugural Lecture in the Norman Borlaug Lecture Series in Ames, Iowa. The first annual lecturer was Borlaug himself, who spoke on “Feeding a World of 10 Billion People: Our 21st Century Challenge.”

Borlaug first gave a brilliant tour of the history of agricultural processes and technology. Then he said, “The potential for further expansion of the global arable land area is limited for most regions of the world.” As a result, “more than 85 percent of future growth in cereal production must come from increasing yields on lands already in production.”

How will that happen? Through the development of “varieties with higher genetic yield potential and greater tolerance of drought, insects and diseases. To achieve these genetic gains, advances in both conventional and biotechnology research will be needed.”

Genetically modified organisms are a necessity, but the antagonists are powerful. “Although there have always been those in society who resist change,” he said, “the intensity of attacks against GMOs by certain groups is unprecedented and, in certain cases, even surprising, given the potential environmental benefits that such technology can bring in reducing the use of crop-protection chemicals. It appears that many of the most rabid crop biotech opponents are driven more by a hate of capitalism and globalization than by the actual safety of transgenic plants.”

Still, he said, “despite the formidable opposition in certain circles to transgenic crops, commercial adoption by farmers of the new varieties has been one of the most rapid cases of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture. Between 1996 and 2001, the area planted commercially to transgenic crops has increased from 1.7 million to 52.4 million hectares.”

What can GM plants do? He noted that “bread wheat has superior dough for making leavened bread and other bakery products due to the presence of two proteins – gliadin and glutenem.” No other grains have this combination, but, imagine, he said, “if the genes for those proteins could be identified and transferred to other cereals, especially rice and maize [corn], so that they, too, could make good-quality leavened bread. This would help many countries, especially the developing countries in the tropics, where bread wheat flour is often the single largest food import.”

Another example is the bacillus thuringiensis gene (Bt), which environmentalist Rachel Carson extolled in her 1962 book, “The Silent Spring,” as a “natural” insecticide to control caterpillars. Today, anti-biotech activists are fighting the incorporation of the Bt gene into the seed of different crops – “even though,” as Borlaug says, “this can reduce the use of insecticides and is harmless to other animals, including humans.”

Certainly, safety is important, and in the U.S. at least three federal agencies ride herd effectively over the use of GMOs. “But,” said Borlaug in his speech, “we must also understand that there is no such thing as ‘zero biological risk.’ It simply doesn’t exist, which make, in my opinion, the enshrinement of the ‘precautionary principle’ just another ruse by anti-biotech zealots to stop the advance of science and technology.”

Borlaug was clear: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food.” Of the developing countries with lowest undernourishment, only 8 percent were mired in conflict, he said. But in countries where more than half the population is underfed, 56 percent “were experiencing civil conflict.”

He concluded by saying that, indeed, “the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed a population of 10 billion people.” But the question today “is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks.”

Yes, but projects like the World Food Prize represent a way to fight back. It’s time the world paid attention to the work of people like Borlaug and Sanchez, rather than to the anti-biotech fanatics whose resistance postpones the day when the world is free from hunger.

Ambassador Glassman has had a long career in media. He was host of three weekly public-affairs programs, editor-in-chief and co-owner of Roll Call, the congressional newspaper, and publisher of the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic. For 11 years, he was both an investment and op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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