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Feeding the World in the 21st Century:
The Role of Agricultural Science and Technology

(Speech given at Tuskegee University -- April, 2001)

By Norman E. Borlaug
1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate


It is a great pleasure to visit Tuskegee University, an institution with an illustrious history and great traditions. I would also like to acknowledge and thank the Dupont Company for recently establishing the Norman Borlaug/Dupont Scholarship program here, with a grant of $100,000, to support undergraduate and graduate students in the biosciences.

I have long been fascinated by the career of George Washington Carver, and the role that my native state, Iowa, played in his early life. Permit me to quote a few passages about him from a book published by WCCO Radio, Minneapolis, in 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial.

"After the Civil War, the South was a slave to one crop, cotton. The man who helped free the South from cotton was himself a black man, the son of a slave, George Washington Carver. He taught farmers in the South about the peanut and the sweet potato, about soil erosion, crop rotation, and compost."

"There is a small town in central Iowa called Winterset. On September 8, 1890, a young black man walked 30 miles from here on a dirt road. His destination: Simpson College at Indianola, a white college with white students and white teachers in a white state. He had been refused elsewhere. Simpson College, to its everlasting credit, accepted him, for $12 tuition."

"Later at Iowa State in Ames, Carver was forced at first to eat with the kitchen help rather than in the dining hall. Gradually he was accepted. He was a janitor, waiter, a caretaker of the greenhouse and laboratory. He studied mycology (fungus growth) and had some 20,000 specimens. In the dining hall with white students he started a table game that survived decades after him. Chemistry students must ask for an item at the table by its scientific name; pass the Triticum vulgare (the bread); pass the Solanum tuberosum, please (the potatoes)."

Upon completion of his M.Sc in 1896, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington, for the Agriculture Chair at the Normal and Industrial Institute at Tuskegee, Alabama. He spent the rest of life there, dying in 1943.

During his career, Carver created over 300 products from peanuts and over 100 products from sweet potatoes, just to mention some of his scientific achievements. In a message to Tuskegee Institute following his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, "The world of science has lost one of his most eminent figures. The versatility of his genius and his achievements in diverse branches of the arts and sciences were truly amazing. All mankind are beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere."

Permit me one more anecdote about Carver. While at Iowa State, Carver took a fancy to young Henry A. Wallace, a "boy who loved plants" and the 16-year old son of Harry Wallace, a professor at the college. Carver was a frequent guest in the Wallace home, and as Henry Wallace recalled later, "Carver often took me with him on his botanizing expeditions. I remember him claiming to my father that I had greatly surprised him by recognizing the pistil and stamens of redtop, a kind of grass-Agrotis alba, to be precise. I also remember rather questioning his accuracy in believing that I had recognized these parts, but anyhow he boasted about me, and the mere fact of his boasting, I think, incited me to learn more than if I had really done what he said I had done."

Henry Wallace went on to become a preeminent scientist and hybrid corn breeder who founded Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company, the largest seed company in the world, held two cabinet posts, including Secretary of Agriculture, and was the wartime Vice President of the United States.

I am now in my 57th year of continuous involvement in agricultural research and production in the low-income, food-deficit developing countries. I have worked with many colleagues, political leaders, and farmers to transform food production systems. As a result of these efforts, food production has more than kept pace with global population growth. On average, world food supplies were 24 percent higher per person in 1998 than they were in 1961 and real prices are 40 percent lower (Pinstrup-Anderson et al, 1999).

Despite the successes of the Green Revolution, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won. Mushrooming populations, changing demographics and inadequate poverty intervention programs have eaten up many of the food production gains. This is not to say that the Green Revolution is over. Improvements in crop management productivity can be made all along the line-in tillage, water use, fertilization, weed and pest control, and harvesting. In addition, for the genetic improvement of food crops to continue at a pace sufficient to meet the needs of the 8.3 billion people projected in 2025, both conventional breeding and biotechnology methodologies will be needed.

Dawn of Modern Agriculture

Science-based agriculture is really a 20th Century invention. Until the 19th century, crop improvement was in the hands of farmers, and food production increased largely by area expansions. As sons and daughters of farm families married and formed new families, they opened new land to cultivation. Improvements in farm machinery expanded the area that could be cultivated by one family. Machinery made possible better seedbed preparation, moisture utilization, and improved planting practices and weed control, resulting in modest increases in yield per hectare.

By the mid-1800s, German scientist Justus von Leibig and French scientist Jean-Baptiste Boussingault had laid down important theoretical foundations in soil chemistry and crop agronomy. Sir John Bennett Lawes, produced super phosphate in England in 1842, and shipments of Chilean nitrates (nitrogen) began arriving in quantities to European and North American ports in the 1840s. However, the use of organic fertilizers (animal manure, crop residues, green manure crops) remained dominant into the early 1900s.

The groundwork for more sophisticated genetic crop improvement was laid by Charles Darwin in his writings on the variation of life species (published in 1859) and by Gregor Mendel through his discovery of the laws of genetic inheritance (reported in 1865). Darwin's book immediately generated a great deal of interest, discussion and controversy. Mendel's work was largely ignored for 35 years. The rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900 provoked tremendous scientific interest and research in plant genetics.

The first decade of the 20th Century brought a fundamental scientific breakthrough, that was followed by the rapid commercialization of the breakthrough. In 1909, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1918), Fritz Haber, demonstrated the synthesis of ammonia from its elements. Thanks to the innovative solutions of Carl Bosch-the company BASF began operation of the world's first ammonia plant in 1913. Development of the fertilizer industry was first delayed by WWI (ammonia was used to produce nitrate for explosives), then by the great economic depression of the 1930s, and then by the demand for explosives during WWII. However, after the war, rapidly increasing amounts of nitrogen became available and contributed greatly to boosting crop yields and production.

It is only since WWII that fertilizer use, and especially the application of low-cost nitrogen derived from synthetic ammonia, has become an indispensable component of modern agricultural production (nearly 80 million nutrient tonnes consumed annually). Distinguished University of Manitoba Professor Vaclav Smil has estimated that 40% of today's 6 billion people are alive, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia (Smil, 1999).

By the 1930s, much of the scientific knowledge needed for high-yield agricultural production was available in the United States. However, widespread adoption was delayed by the great economic depression of the 1930s, which paralyzed the world agricultural economy. It was not until WWII brought a much greater demand for food to support the Allied war effort that the new research findings began to be applied widely, first in the United States and later in many other countries.

Maize cultivation led the modernization process. In 1940, US farmers produced 56 million tons of maize on roughly 31 million hectares, with an average yield of 1.8 t/ha. In 1999, US farmers produced 240 million tons of maize on roughly 29 million hectares, with an average yield of 8.4 t/ha. This more than four-fold yield increase is the impact of modern hybrid seed-fertilizer-weed control technology!

Following WWII, various bilateral and multilateral agencies, led by the United States and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, initiated technical agricultural assistance programs in a number of countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In the beginning, there was considerable naiveté especially about the transferability of modern production technology from the industrialized temperate zones to the tropics and subtropics. Most varieties from the United States, for example, were not well suited in the environments in which they were introduced.

There was another model of technical assistance that preceded these public sector foreign technical assistance programs, which ultimately proved to be superior. This was the Cooperative Mexican Government-Rockefeller Foundation agricultural program, which began in 1943, and which I joined in 1944. This foreign assistance program initiated research programs to improve maize, wheat, beans, and potato technology. It also invested significantly in human resource development, training scores of Mexican scientists and helping to establish the national agricultural research system.

Green Revolution

The phrase, 'Green Revolution', was coined by the late William Daud, Director of USAID, to describe the breakthrough in wheat and rice production in Asia that began during the mid-1960s (Table 1). This process of applying agricultural science to develop Third World agriculture actually began in Mexico with the "quiet" wheat revolution in the mid-1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s in India, Pakistan, and the Philippines received world attention for their agricultural progress. Since 1980, China has been the greatest success story. Home to one-fifth of the world's people, China today is the world's biggest food producer. With each successive year, its cereal crop yields approach that of the United States.

Table 1. Cereal Production in Asia, 1961-99
Milled Rice
All Cereals
                            (Million tonnes)
China 1961
India 1961
Dev'ing Asia 1961
Source: FAO AGROSTAT, April 2000

Over the past four decades, there have been sweeping changes in the factors of production used by farmers in developing Asia. High-yielding semi-dwarf varieties are now used on 84 and 74 percent of the cultivated wheat and rice area, respectively. Irrigation has more than doubled-to 176 million hectares. Fertilizer consumption has increased more than 30-fold, and now stands at about 70 million tonnes of nutrients. Tractor use has increased from 200,000 to 4.6 million units (Table 2).

Table 2. Changes in Factors of Production in Developing Asia
Modern varieties
Fertilizer Nutrient
M ha / % Area
Million ha
Million tonnes
0 / 0%
0 / 0%
14 / 20%
15 / 20%
39 / 49%
55 / 43%
60 / 70%
85 / 65%
70 / 84%
100 / 74%
Source: FAO AGROSTAT, April 2000

Poverty Still Haunts Asia

Despite the successes of smallholder Asian farmers in applying Green Revolution technologies to triple cereal production since 1961, the battle to ensure food security for millions of miserably poor people is far from won, especially in South Asia.

A comparison of China and India-the world's two most populous countries, both of which have achieved remarkable progress in food production-is illustrative of the point that increased food production, while necessary, is not sufficient alone to achieve food security (Table 3). Huge stocks of grain have accumulated in India, while tens of millions need more food to eat but do not have the purchasing power to buy it.

China has been more successful in achieving broad-based economic growth and poverty reduction than India. Nobel Laureate in Economics, Professor Amartya Sen, attributes this success to the high priority the Chinese have given to investments in rural education and health care services. With a healthier and better-educated rural population, China's economy has been able to grow about twice as fast as the Indian economy over the past two decades and today China has a per capita income nearly twice that of India.

Table 3. Social Development Indicators in China and India
1961 population, millions
2000 population, millions
Population growth, 1985-95, %/year
GDP per capita, US$'s, 1995
Percent in agriculture, 1990
Poverty, % pop below $1/day, 1995
Child malnutrition, % underweight, 1989-95
% Illiterate population (over 15), 1995
Sources: 1997 World Bank Atlas; FAOSTAT 2000

Africa is a Great Worry

Perhaps more than any other region of the world, food production south of the Sahara remains in crisis. High rates of population growth and little application of improved production technology resulted during the last two decades in declining per capita food production, escalating food deficits, and deteriorating nutritional levels, especially among the rural poor. While there are some signs during the 1990s that smallholder food production is beginning to turn around, this recovery is still very fragile.

Sub-Saharan Africa's inadequate infrastructure, extreme poverty, poor soils, uncertain rainfall, population pressures, disease problems especially AIDS, changing ownership patterns for land and cattle, political and social turmoil, and weaknesses in research and technology transfer organizations all make the task of agricultural development more difficult. But we should also realize that to a considerable extent, the current food crisis is the result of the long-time neglect of agriculture by political leaders.

Many of the lowland tropical environments-especially the forest and transition areas-are fragile ecological systems, where deeply weathered, acidic soils lose fertility rapidly under repeated cultivation. Traditionally, slash and burn shifting cultivation and complex cropping patterns permitted low yielding, but relatively stable, food production systems. Expanding populations and food requirements have pushed farmers onto more marginal lands and also have led to a shortening in the bush/fallow periods previously used to restore soil fertility. With more continuous cropping on the rise, organic material and nitrogen are being rapidly depleted while phosphorus and other nutrient reserves are being depleted slowly but steadily. This is having disastrous environmental consequences, such as serious erosion and weed invasions leading to impoverished fire-climax vegetations.

In 1986 I became involved in food crop production technology transfer projects in sub-Saharan Africa, sponsored by the Sasakawa Foundation and its Chairman, the late Ryoichi Sasakawa, and enthusiastically supported by former US President Jimmy Carter. Our joint program is known as Sasakawa-Global 2000, and currently operates in 11 sub-Saharan African countries. Working with national extension services during the past 14 years, SG 2000 has helped small-scale farmers to grow more than one million production test plots (PTPs), ranging in size from 0.1 to 0.5 ha, which demonstrate improved technology for maize, sorghum, wheat, cassava, rice, and legumes.

Virtually without exception, PTP yields are two to three times higher than national averages. Hundreds of field days, attended by tens of thousands of farmers, have been organized to demonstrate and explain the components of the production package. Farmers' enthusiasm is high and some political leaders are giving increased support to agricultural intensification.

Despite the formidable challenges in Africa, the elements that worked in Latin America and Asia will also work there. If effective seed and fertilizer supply and marketing systems are developed the nations of sub-Saharan Africa can make great strides in improving the nutritional and economic well being of their populations. The biggest bottleneck is lack of infrastructure, especially roads, but also potable water and electricity. Improved transport systems would greatly accelerate agricultural production, break down tribal animosities, and help establish rural schools and clinics in areas where teachers and health practitioners are heretofore unwilling to venture.

Projected World Food Demand

A medium projection is for world population to reach about 8.3 billion by 2025, before hopefully stabilizing at about 10-11 billion toward the end of the 21st Century. At least in the foreseeable future, plants-and especially the cereals-will continue to supply much of our increased food demand, both for direct human consumption and as livestock feed to satisfy the rapidly growing demand for meat, milk and eggs in the newly industrializing countries. It is likely that an additional 1 billion tonnes of grain will be needed annually by 2025. Most of this increase must be supplied from lands already in production, through yield improvements. Using these estimates, I have come up with following projections on future cereal demand and the requisite yields needed by the year 2025 (Table 4).

Table 4. Current and Projected World Cereal Production and Demand
(Million tonnes) and Yield Requirements (t/ha)
Yield t/ha
Rice, Paddy
All Cereals
Source: FAO Production Yearbook and author's estimates

Water Resources

Water covers about 70 percent of the Earth's surface. Of this total, only about 2.5 percent is fresh water, and most of this is frozen in the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland, in soil moisture, or in deep aquifers not readily accessible for human use. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the world's freshwater-that found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and underground aquifers shallow enough to be tapped economically-is readily available for direct human use (World Meteorological Organization, 1997).

The rapid expansion in world irrigation and in urban and industrial water uses has led to growing shortages. The UN's 1997 Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World estimates that, "about one third of the world's population lives in countries that are now experiencing moderate-to-high water stress, resulting from increasing demands from a growing population and human activity. By the year 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world's population could be under stress conditions."

In many of the irrigation schemes, especially in developing Asia, proper investments were not made originally in drainage systems to prevent water tables from rising too high and to flush salts that rise to the surface back down through the soil profile. We all know the consequences-serious salinization of many irrigated soils, especially in drier areas, and waterlogging of irrigated soils in the more humid area. The result is that most of the funds going into irrigation end up being used for stopgap maintenance expenditures for poorly designed systems, rather than for new irrigation projects.

In future irrigation schemes, water drainage and removal systems should be budgeted from the start of the project. Unfortunately, adding such costs to the original project often will result in a poor return on investment. Society then will have to decide how much it is willing to subsidize new irrigation development.

There are many technologies for improving the efficiency of water use. Wastewater can be treated and used for irrigation. This could be an especially important source of water for peri-urban agriculture, which is growing rapidly around many of the world's mega-cities. Water can be delivered much more efficiently to the plants and in ways to avoid soil waterlogging and salinization. Changing to crops requiring less water (and/or new improved varieties), together with more efficient crop sequencing and timely planting and irrigation, can also achieve significant water savings.

Proven technologies, such as drip irrigation, which saves water and reduces soil salinity, are suitable for much larger areas than currently used. Various new precision irrigation systems are also on the horizon, which will supply water to plants only when they need it. There is also a range of improved small-scale and supplemental irrigation systems to increase the productivity of rainfed areas, which offer much promise for smallholder farmers.

Clearly, we need to rethink our attitudes about water, and move away from thinking of it as nearly a free good, and a God-given right. Pricing water delivery closer to its real costs is a necessary step to improving use efficiency. Farmers and irrigation officials (and urban consumers) will need incentives to save water. Moreover, management of water distribution networks, except for the primary canals, should be decentralized and turned over to the farmers.

In order to expand food production for a growing world population within the parameters of likely water availability, the inevitable conclusion is that humankind in the 21st Century will need to bring about a "Blue Revolution" to complement the so "Green Revolution" of the 20th Century. In the new Blue Revolution, water-use productivity must be wedded to land-use productivity. New science and technology must lead the way.

Crop Research Challenges

Agricultural researchers and farmers worldwide face the challenge during the next 25 years of developing and applying technology that can increase the global cereal yields by 50-75 percent, and to do so in ways that are economically and environmentally sustainable. Much of the yield gains will come from applying technology "already on the shelf" but yet to be fully utilized. But there will also be new research breakthrough, especially in plant breeding to improve yield stability and, hopefully, maximum genetic yield potential. While biotechnology research tools offer much promise, it is also important to recognize that conventional plant breeding methods are continuing to make significant contributions to improved food production and enhanced nutrition.

Genetic Improvement- During the 20th Century, conventional breeding has produced-and continues to produce-a vast number of varieties and hybrids that have contributed immensely to much higher grain yields, stability of harvests and farm incomes, while also sparing vast tracts of land for nature (wildlife habitats, forests, outdoor recreation). There also have been important improvements in resistance to diseases and insects, and in tolerance to a range of abiotic stresses, especially soil toxicities, but we also must persist in efforts to raise maximum genetic potential, if we are to meet with the projected food demand challenges before us, without serious negative impacts on the environment.

In many parts of the world, genetic potential of varieties, per se, is not the constraint limiting crop yields. Rather, one or more agronomic constraints-soil fertility, moisture availability, planting dates, plant population, and weeds-maintain yields far below the genetic potential of the variety. Even, so, continued genetic improvement of food crops-using both conventional as well as biotechnology research tools¾is needed to shift the yield frontier higher and to increase stability of yield.

There is growing evidence that genetic variation exists within most cereal crops to develop genotypes that are more efficient in the use of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other plant nutrients than currently available in the best varieties and hybrids. In addition, there is good evidence that further heat and drought tolerance can be built into high-yielding germplasm.

Crop Management-Crop productivity depends both on the yield potential of the varieties and the crop management employed to enhance input and output efficiency. Productivity gains can be made all along the line-in tillage, water use, fertilization, weed and pest control, and harvesting.

Good progress has been made during the past 15-20 years-using traditional breeding methods-to develop cereal varieties with greatly increased yield potential and greater tolerance for soil alkalinity, free soluble aluminum, and iron toxicities. These varieties help to ameliorate the soil degradation problems that have developed in many existing irrigation systems. They also have allowed agriculture to succeed in tens of millions of hectares with highly-leached acid soils that had never been cultivated, such as the Cerrados in Brazil, (and later will also benefit similar soils in central and southern Africa) thus adding more arable land to the global production base.

An outstanding example of new Green/Blue Revolution technology in irrigated wheat production is the "bed planting system," which has multiple advantages over conventional planting systems. Plant height and lodging are reduced, leading to 5-10 percent increases in yields and better grain quality. Water use is reduced 20-25 percent, a spectacular savings, and input efficiency (fertilizers and herbicides) is improved by 30 percent.

Already adopted in Mexico and growing in acceptance in other countries, Shandong Province and other parts of China are now preparing to extend this technology rapidly (personal communications, Prof. Xu Huisan), President, Shandong Academy of Agricultural Science, July 1999). Similar methods are now moving into commercial use in irrigated agriculture in India and Pakistan.

Conservation tillage (no-tillage, minimum tillage) is spreading rapidly in the agricultural world. It is estimated that there are 95 million ha using conservation tillage in 2000. Conservation tillage offers many benefits-in reduced production costs and soil and water conservation. It does, however, require modification in crop rotations to avoid the build up of diseases and insects that find a favorable environment in the crop residues for survival and multiplication.

What Can We Expect from Biotechnology?

In the last 20 years, biotechnology, based upon recombinant DNA, has developed invaluable new scientific methodologies and products, as well as the financial and organizational means to bring them to fruition. The majority of agricultural scientists including myself anticipate great benefits from biotechnology in the coming decades to help meet our future needs for food and fiber.

Despite the formidable opposition to recombinant DNA transgenic crops-popularly known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs-the commercial adoption by farmers of new genotypes of several food and fiber crops has been one of the most rapid cases of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture. Between 1996 and 1999, the area planted commercially to transgenic crops has increased from 1.7 to 39.9 million hectares (James, 1999). Preliminary estimates for 2001 are that the area planted to transgenic plants could increase by to 43-44 million hectares.

While there has always been resistance to change, the intensity of the attacks by certain groups against GMOs is unprecedented, and somewhat surprising. There are essentially two major aspects of the debate. One deals with safety of GMOs and the other with access and ownership issues.

First there is the debate about whether introducing "foreign DNA" into our food crop species is "natural" and a threat to health. DNA is the common code to all life. All living things-including food plants, animals, and microbes-contain DNA, which is an ingredient in virtually all foods. Thus, how can so-called "foreign" DNA be unnatural? Defining what constitutes a "foreign gene" is also problematic, since many genes are common across many organisms. Further, almost all of our traditional foods are products of natural mutations and genetic recombinations that occur daily. Neolithic woman accelerated genetic modifications in plants 8,000-10,000 years ago in process of domesticating our food crop species.

In the United States, at least three Federal agencies provide regulatory scrutiny over the safety of recombinant GMOs-the US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for seeing that the plant variety is safe to grow; the Environmental Protection Agency, which has special review responsibilities for plants that contain genes that confer resistance to pesticides; and the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for food safety. These agencies are charged with ensuring that GMOs, within reasonable risk levels, are safe to grow by farmers and be utilized by consumers.

A second controversial aspect of GMOs is concerned with ownership and access to the new products and processes. Since most of GMO research is being carried out by the private sector, which patents its inventions, agricultural policy makers must face up to potentially serious problems. How long, and under what terms, should patents be granted for bio-engineered products? Moreover, patents are traditional granted for "inventions" rather than the mere 'discovery' of a function or characteristic. Under what conditions should patents be applied to life forms, and for what period of time?

How will resource-poor farmers of the world, for example, be able to gain access to the products of biotechnology research? Developing country governments must establish a regulatory framework to guide the testing and use of genetically modified crops. These rules and regulations should be reasonable in terms of risk aversion and cost effective to implement. Let's not tie science's hands through excessively restrictive regulations. Since much of the biotechnology research is underway in the private sector, the issue of intellectual property rights must be addressed, and accorded adequate safeguards by national governments.

The high cost of biotechnology research is leading to a rapid consolidation in the ownership of agricultural life science companies. Is this desirable? I don't think so. To help safeguard against undue concentration of ownership of plant and animal genetic resources, I believe that it is also important for governments to fund significant public sector programs of biotechnology research as well. Such publicly funded research is not only important as a complement and balance to private sector proprietary research, but it is also needed to ensure the proper training of new generations of scientists, both for private and public sector research institutions.

Agriculture and the Environment

It is, of course, true that agricultural intensification over the past 40-50 years also has had adverse effects associated with it. Increasing water scarcity and soil degradation affect large tracts of agricultural land, especially in Africa and Central America. Irrigated agriculture-which accounts for 17 percent of the cultivated area but contributes 40 percent of our food supply-has contributed to waterlogging, salinization, and depletion and chemical contamination of surface and groundwater supplies. Intensive livestock production has created problems of manure disposal and water pollution. Fisheries have been overexploited. All of these problems are solvable-and often through civil engineering solutions rather than agricultural technology solutions, per se.

To be certain, we all owe a debt of gratitude to environmental movement in the industrialized nations, which has led to legislation over the past 35 years to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity.

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, which reported that poisons were everywhere, struck a very sensitive nerve. Of course, this perception was not totally unfounded. By the mid 20th century air and water quality had been seriously damaged through wasteful industrial production systems that pushed effluents often literally into "our own backyards."

However, I agree also with environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook, who argues in his book, A Moment on the Earth, that "In the Western world the Age of Pollution is nearly over…Aside from weapons, technology is not growing more dangerous and wasteful but cleaner and more resource-efficient. Clean technology will be the successor to high technology."

However, Easterbrook goes on to warn that, "As positive as trends are in the First World, they are negative in the Third World. One reason why the affluent nations must shake off their doomsday thinking is so that resources can be diverted to ecological protection in the developing world."

Notwithstanding the problems of intensive agriculture, I often ask the critics of modern agriculture what the world would have been like without the technological advances that have occurred, largely during the past 40 years? In particular, we must also realize that world population has grown from 2.8 to 6 billion people over the past 50 years.

For those whose main concern is protecting the "environment," let's look at the positive impact that the application of science-based technology has had on land use. By increasing yields on the lands best suited to agriculture, world farmers have been able to leave untouched vast areas of land for other purposes. For example, had the global cereal yields of 1950 still prevailed in 1999, instead of the 600 million hectares that were used for production, we would have needed nearly 1.8 billion ha of land of the same quality to produce the current global harvest (Figure 1). Obviously, such a surplus of land was not available, and certainly not in populous Asia, where the population has increased from 1.2 to 3.8 billion over this time period. Moreover, had more environmentally fragile land been brought into agricultural production, the impact on soil erosion, loss of forests and grasslands, biodiversity and extinction of wildlife species would have been enormous.

Indeed, the alarming rate of deforestation in much of the tropics is the result of the failure to introduce high-yield agriculture, rather than caused by it. Faced with nutrient-mining on inherently low-fertility croplands, many farmers in tropical areas must abandon a plot after two or three seasons of cultivation, and bring new lands into production-often through slashing and burning forest lands.

Beyond the loss of biodiversity and the soil erosion, soil scientist Dr. Pedro Sanchez, Director General of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), estimates that the burning of tropical forests releases about 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon-one of the most damaging greenhouse gases contributing to climate change-into the atmosphere each year.

Healthy, vigorously growing, plants-trees and scrubs, food crops, and grasses-trap large quantities of carbon in the process of photosynthesis. Thus, better management of croplands-and forests-can counteract effects of climate change. Sanchez contends that if 10 percent of the world farmers were to adopt conservation tillage on existing croplands, improve management of animal grazing areas, use reduced-impact forest harvesting techniques, and adopt agroforestry, 700 million tonnes of additional carbon would be trapped each year, which is about 10 percent of all the carbon that enters the atmosphere each year.

The current backlash against agricultural science and technology evident in some industrialized countries is hard for me to comprehend. How quickly humankind becomes detached from the soil and agricultural production! Less than 4 percent of the population in the industrialized countries-and less than 2 percent in the USA-is directly engaged in agriculture.

With low-cost food supplies and urban bias, is it any wonder that affluent consumers don't understand the complexities of reproducing the world food supply each year in its entirely, and expanding it further for the nearly 80 million additional mouths that are born into this world each year? It is imperative that this serious "educational gap" in industrialized nations be addressed. One way to do so, I believe, is to make it compulsory in secondary schools and universities for students to take courses on biology and food and agricultural technology.

While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions toward new advances in agricultural science and technology, and pay more for food produced by the so-called "organic" methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.

Professor Robert Paarlberg, who teaches at Wellesley College and Harvard University, has sounded the alarm about the deadlock between agriculturalists and environmentalists over what constitutes "sustainable agriculture" in the Third World. This debate has confused-if not paralyzed-many in the international donor community who, afraid of antagonizing powerful environmental lobbying groups, have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernization still needed in much of smallholder Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

This deadlock must be broken. We cannot lose sight of the enormous job before us to feed future generations, 90 percent of whom will begin life in a developing country, and probably in poverty. Only with dynamic agricultural development will there be any hope to alleviate poverty, improve human health and productivity, and avoid political and social chaos. Moreover, higher incomes will permit small-scale farmers to invest more in protecting their soil and water resources. As Kenyan archeologist Richard Leakey likes to reminds us, "you have to be well-fed to be a conservationist!" We need to bring common sense back into the debate on agricultural science and technology and the sooner the better!

It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion gross tonnes per year. By 2025, we will have to nearly double this amount again. This cannot be done unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yielding crop-production methods as well as new biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields, dependability, and nutritional quality of our basic food crops.

Closing Comments

Thirty-one years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, I said that the Green Revolution had won a temporary success in man's war against hunger, which if fully implemented, could provide sufficient food for humankind through the end of the 20th century. But I warned that unless the frightening power of human reproduction was curbed, the success of the Green Revolution would only be ephemeral. I now think that the world has the technology-either available or well advanced in the research pipeline-to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use it?

However, I must also say that agricultural scientists have a moral obligation to warn political, educational, and religious leaders about the magnitude and seriousness of the population, arable land, food production, and environmental problems that lie ahead. These problems will not vanish by themselves; unless they are addressed if a forthright manner now, sustainable agricultural systems in the future will be ever more difficult to achieve.


Easterbrook, Gregg. 1996. A Moment on the Earth. Penguin Books, London.

James, Clive. 1999. Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Brief No.12 Preview. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.

Pinstrup-Anderson, R, R. Pandya-Lorch and M. Rosegrant. 1999. "World Food Prospects: Critical Issues for the Early 21st Century." 2020 Food Policy Report. Washington, D.C.: IFPRI

Smil, Vaclav. 1999.Long-Range Perspectives on Inorganic Fertilizers in Global Agriculture.

Travis P. Hignett Memorial Lecture, IFDC, Muscle Shoals, Alabama World Meteorological Organization. 1997. Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World.

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