better farming methods to alleviate world hunger.
ActionBioscience.org:What is the
Borlaug: It started in the 1940s when I
joined a new program, funded by the Rockefeller
Foundation, aimed at assisting poor farmers in
Mexico to increase their wheat production. We
spent nearly 20 years breeding high-yield dwarf
wheat that resisted a variety of plant pests and
diseases and yielded two to three times more grain
than traditional varieties.
Eventually, in the 1960s, we were able to
expand the program and teach local farmers in
Pakistan and India to cultivate the new wheat
properly. The results were wonderful:
Pakistan produced 8.4 million tons in 1970,
up from 4.6 million in 1965.
India's production was 20 million tons
in 1970, up from 12.3 million 1965.
production programs have succeeded in Mexico,
Pakistan, India, and China.
In 1968, when the administrator for the U.S.
Agency for International Development (USAID)
wrote in his annual report that there was a
big improvement in Pakistan and India, he said,
"It looks like a Green Revolution." That is
how the label 'The Green Revolution' got started.
As an aside, the "greenies" have nothing to
do with the Green Revolution, which is all about
alleviating world hunger.
In the 1980s, the success of the Green Revolution
spilled over to China, which is now the world's
biggest food producer.
now working in Africa, which has a major food
ActionBioscience.org:Is global hunger
still a threat as it was in the 1960s?
Borlaug: Yes, it is. For example, Africa
now has a food crisis in a number of countries.
That is what our African program is trying to
solve -- and former President Jimmy Carter is
involved in it. Our joint program is called Sasakawa-Global
2000. We're helping farmers in countries struggling
with food shortages to help them with the best
possible farming practices, such as choosing seed
and controlling weeds. We have the technology
to double or triple food production but there
is no viable system of transportation in these
countries -- no roads, no railroads. The cost
of moving fertilizer to these places, for example,
would be three to four times more than what American
farmers currently pay. Even if African farmers
could produce more grain, how do they get it to
Sub-Saharan countries suffer from poor soil
and uncertain rainfall, a shortage of trained
agriculturalists, and lack of technology among
other things. But our African program's test
plots for corn, sorghum, wheat, cassava, rice,
and grain legumes have two or three times higher
yields than the control test plots using conventional
is essential in developing nations.
Biotech can double
or triple crop yields.
ActionBioscience.org:What do you say
to those who oppose the use of agricultural biotechnology
in developing countries?
Borlaug: Biotechnology will help these
countries accomplish things that they could never
do with conventional plant breeding. The technology
is more precise and farming becomes less time
consuming. The public needs to be better informed
about the importance of biotechnology in food
production so it won't be so critical.
You have to recognize food habits and it's
difficult to change food habits. You have to
start with the crops that are the most basic
to the country and apply technology to it so
you can double or triple the yield. You begin
by planting in select test plots to demonstrate
to farmers the potential of the new crop. You
can bring seed to them easier than fertilizer.
In places where fertilizer is available, many
farmers don't have the money to buy it anyway.
Farmers who see success in their test plots
will be able to help change governmental policy
and public attitude towards biotechnology.
Herbicide-resistant crops are important in places
Traditional plant breeding methods remain important.
There is a big potential for biotech in Africa.
For example, Roundup Ready® crops.
The gene for herbicide tolerance is built into
the crops. These kinds of biotech crops promote
good farming methods. For example, traditional
African farms are plagued with razor-sharp grasses
and so the farmers slash and burn. Herbicide-resistant
crops can eliminate these grasses.
While biotechnology holds much promise in
food production, we cannot ignore conventional
plant breeding methods since these methods continue
to be important. In the last century, conventional
breeding produced higher yields and will continue
to do so in this century.
are allergenic risks with both natural and GM
ActionBioscience.org:Studies have shown
that some genetically modified (GM) food crops
carry toxins and allergens. Aren't these foods
a health risk to humans?
Borlaug: There is no good evidence of toxicity
in these foods but I am aware that allergenic
properties may exist. Allergies caused by natural
foods have been with us for a long time, so why
wouldn't they happen with GM crops? Researchers
are constantly monitoring crops for allergens
and should be able to modify seeds to lessen the
risks. There is a report by scientists at University
of California at Berkeley who analyzed foods,
including some that humans have eaten since the
dawn of agriculture. The report shows that there
are natural foods that contain trace amounts of
natural chemicals that are toxic or carcinogenic.
These foods don't seem to harm us.
If you're a theoretical scientist, you can
philosophize about this but I've been in the
field for a long time and I believe genetically
modified food crops will stop world hunger.
I recognize the value of crops created by traditional
plant breeding but I also see the viability
of crops that carry an herbicide-resistant gene
or whatever gene is incorporated by biotechnology.
By using less land, biotech farming has less
impact on the environment.
can destroy wildlife habitat when cropland
risks to the environment?
Borlaug: Biotechnology helps farmers produce
higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally
favorable benefit. For example, the world's grain
output in 1950 was 692 million tons. Forty years
or so later, the world's farmers used about the
same amount of acreage but they harvested 1.9
billion tons -- a 170% increase! We would have
needed an additional 1.8 billion hectares of land,
instead of the 600 million used, had the global
cereal harvest of 1950 prevailed in 1999 using
the same conventional farming methods.
If we had continued practicing conventional farming,
we would have cut down millions of acres of forest,
thereby destroying wildlife habitat, in order
to increase cropland to produce enough food for
an escalating population. And we would have to
use more herbicides in more fields, which would
damage the environment even more. Technology allows
us to have less impact on soil erosion, biodiversity,
wildlife, forests, and grasslands.
add to the cost of farming.
address patents, research, and education.
ActionBioscience.org: Can farmers in
developing nations access biotech products?
Borlaug: In spite of biotech's great potential,
access is a problem. Most of the research on crops
is conducted by private enterprise and corporations
hold patents on their inventions. Farmers in developing
nations have little resources. How can they afford
these patented products? Global governments need
to seriously address the problem.
Governments also need to address issues such as
a framework for testing genetically modified foods,
funding research in the public sector, and educating
the public better about agricultural science and
technology. Most people in the "western" world
are urbanites and they don't know what it takes
to feed the world. These people can afford to
buy expensive "organic" food and to criticize
genetically modified food. They pressure governments
to ban genetically modified foods and that could
be disastrous for developing nations.
Conclusion: Better agricultural methods for
increasing yields will be needed as global populations
ActionBioscience.org:What do you see
for the Green Revolution in this century?
Borlaug: The Green Revolution is an ongoing
continuum. Millions of people are currently undernourished
in the world. The world population for 2025, at
a medium fertility rate, is projected to be about
8.3 billion people. I calculate that we will need
an additional one billion tons of grain by then.
We have to increase yields to feed these people
-- more bushels per acre, more tons per hectare.
Higher yields are especially important now due
to spreading urbanization, which takes away agricultural
land. We will need to use both conventional breeding
and biotechnology methods to meet the challenges
of this century.
About the author: Norman
Borlaug, Ph.D., father of the "Green Revolution,"
received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his
lifetime work helping feed the world's hungry.
Dr. Borlaug currently divides his time as a
Senior Scientist at the Rockefeller Foundation
and as a Distinguished Professor of International
Agriculture, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences,
at Texas A&M University. He also serves
as ex-officio consultant on wheat research and
production problems to many governments in Latin
America, Africa, and Asia. His numerous civic
and scientific awards include the 1977 Presidential
Medal of Freedom and the 2002 Public Welfare
Medal from the National Academy of Sciences
USA. Bruce Alberts, president of the National
Academy of Sciences USA, has said of Borlaug:
"Some credit him with saving more human lives
than any other person in history." Dr. Borlaug
received his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the
University of Minnesota in 1941.