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Lab-altered Crops Called Inevitable
Nobel-winning Scientist Predicts Wide Use of Genetically Engineered Foods

Tri-valley Herald
July 14, 2003
By William Brand

After a special all-organic lunch Thursday arranged by Alice Waters, proprietor of Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse restaurant, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug made a prediction: There will come a day, he said, when genetically engineered foods will be considered organic and they may wind up on Chez Panisse menus.

Waters may demur -- but Borlaug knows agriculture.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work with high-yield wheat in India and Pakistan. His introduction of hybrids he developed in Mexico caused what is called the Green Revolution, which ended starvation in India and Pakistan in the 1960s.

China developed the same methods, high-yield hybrid wheat and rice coupled with the ferocious application of fertilizer that ended most starvation in that country.

Now Borlaug, who is spry and alert at 89, is in Africa -- trying to create a new green revolution. He's teamed up with former President Jimmy Carter and partners in a dozen African nations -- supported by a Japanese foundation.

Africa is the place where help from America and other developing countries to fight AIDS, to improve human life is badly needed, Borlaug said.

The alternative is starving people, chaos and terrorism, he said.

Waters -- long an advocate of food produced locally by nonchemical means -- hosted an international group of environmentalists enrolled in a course on sustainable environmental management at the University of California, Berkeley. Borlaug spoke last week at the university.

In an interview, Borlaug explained the logic behind genetic engineered crops. Many people in the environmental movement confuse chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Fertilizers are chosen because they can help plants grow and produce more; they supplement and improve the soil, he said.

Pesticides are poisons. They are chosen because they are deadly to pests, he said. Crops genetically engineered to resist pests make it easier to grow food without the use of pesticides, he said. Eventually they are going to become common and widely accepted because they reduce the use of killer chemicals.

An associate, Chris Dowswell, pointed out a recent National Academy of Science study of the use of BT cotton, which is genetically engineered to resist many pests, prevented the use of 21,000 tons of poisonous pesticides in a single season.

"It's the same with genetically engineered corn," Borlaug said. "Besides, antibio- tics have been made by genetic engineering for years and no one complains."

Dowswell noted that total world production of cereal grains in 1950 was 680 metric tons. By 2000, it had reached two billion tons, more than a threefold increase on less than a 10 percent increase in cultivated land.

"Had you tried to produce the 2000 harvest, using 1950 technology, you would have had to add millions of acres of land, decimating forests and wildlands, he said.

"If you listen to some in the environmental movement, you get the impression we're on the verge of being poisoned out of existence," Borlaug said. "The truth is, we have a longer better life now than our grandparents did. A girl baby born in 1900 had a life expectancy on average of 48 years, for a baby boy, it was 46.

"Today, we have a longer, better life. In 2000, on average a girl baby had a life expectancy of 74 years; for a boy baby it was slightly less," he said.

But Africa is one place the green revolution is having a rough go, the Nobel Laureate said. Unlike India, Pakistan and even North Africa, where introduction of new strains of rice, corn and wheat have been successful, the continent below the Sahara is difficult.

First, there are no railroads and few roads leading into agricultural areas, making it difficult to bring in fertilizers, which are heavy. There also are few schools in rural areas and many young people -- who learn about cities on their radios, have turned their backs on agriculture and move to cities, where they find themselves in dismal straits, he said.

Massive intervention by developed nations is needed, he believes.

And forget the multi-nationals. If a corporation was to put money in African -- stockholders would revolt, because it would be many years before a company could expect a profit, he said.

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