Today in AgBioView: December 5, 2002:
* Call for farmers to engage in FAO forum
* Genetically Modified Crops Defended by Scientists and Ethicists
* Bovine romaine with Ranch dressing
* The Law and GM - FAO paper
* EU to charge firms for gene food labelling test
* US RELEASES FACT SHEETS ON GM CROPS IN FOOD AID
* BT CORN AS HEALTHY FOR COWS AS NON-GM
* EUROPE TO LABEL TRANSGENIC ANIMAL FEED AND FOODS
* US ENVOY TO EU CALLS FOR ACTION ON BIOTECH ISSUE
* biotechnology will not be the solution
* Africa Could Feed Itself - But Many Ask: Should It?
Call for farmers to engage in FAO forum
The FAO e-mail conference on "What should be the role and focus of
biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing
countries?" began on 13 November and continues until 11 December 2002.
So far, 75 messages have been posted, from 43 different participants in 22
countries, with over half of the messages coming from developing
countries. Of the different agricultural sectors and biotechnologies,
discussions so far have focused on the crop sector and genetic
Farmers and their organisations are being encouraged to take part in the
on-line conference. The forum has so far been seen by opponents of the
technology as a good way of influencing the FAO negatively. Many of the
opposing messages regurgitate tired old arguments.
The messages are available at http://www.fao.org/biotech/logs/c8logs.htm
or can be accessed by e-mail after registering for the conference.
For more information, contact email@example.com.
Genetically Modified Crops Defended by Scientists and Ethicists
Can Help Environment as Well as Fight Hunger, Says Italian Official
ROME, DEC. 4, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Are genetically modified organisms a
threat to health and the ecosystem, or a solution to combat hunger in the
world and to protect the environment?
Scientists and experts in bioethics addressed that question in a debate
organized last week by the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in
collaboration with the Italian Ministry of the Environment.
Given the question "GMO: Frankenstein's food or defeat of hunger?,"
Corrado Clini, director general of the Italian Ministry of the
Environment, answered that the "new vegetable technologies represent a
great opportunity for the protection of the environment and the growth of
Biotechnologies are a key tool to combat the lack of food in many
developing countries, Clini said. Moreover, "in the cultivation of
transgenic maize, soybean and cotton the need for pesticides is
drastically reduced, while productivity increases in marginal soils."
In his address, Clini mentioned the prospect of the production of edible
vaccines that could be used to combat widespread diseases in developing
"Despite this," he said, "there is widespread concern in Europe over the
consumption of transgenic foods. In particular, among consumers the
equation 'GMO equals risk' has been widely disseminated."
Clini continued: "However, in 2001, research carried out by the European
Commission, which involved over 400 public bodies for 15 years, came to
the conclusion that there are no evident effects on health from biotech
products, while negative effects can be found deriving from the use of
pesticides and incorrect agricultural practices in traditional
Now, the European Union has a marginal role in research and
experimentation of new vegetable biotechnologies. In 2001, the production
of biotech plants in Europe represented 0.03% of the world production. The
same year, 44 experimentations in the field were authorized in Europe, as
compared to 256 in 1997.
The point at which biotechnological research has arrived was the focus of
an address by Milan University professor Francesco Sala. "With the
integration of one or a few genes," Sala said, "resistance can be
conferred to the principal parasites of cultivated plants, just as it is
possible to offer resistance to drought, salinity and cold."
It is also possible "to produce plants with high nutritive value -- more
vitamins, proteins, antioxidants -- plants that synthesize vaccines
against infectious diseases and tumors -- cholera, hepatitis, AIDS,
melanoma -- new fuels and new plastics," the professor added.
The applications are innumerable in the protection of the environment. It
is possible to develop "plants that purify the soils of industrial
contamination -- lead, mercury and chrome, for example," Sala added.
Nor can one forget "the considerable increase of productivity foreseen
with the use of the new plants," something that, according to Sala, will
make it possible "to reduce the need to cut down forests in poor countries
to produce more food and materials for human use. Rich countries will also
be able to restore to nature -- and, therefore, to biodiversity -- part of
the land currently devoted to agriculture."
Given the opposition to biotechnology in Europe, Sala recalled the
research carried out by the European Community on the safety of
genetically modified plants.
"The official conclusion states: 'The risks for man and for the
environment derived from the use of these plants are not greater than
those we have always accepted in traditional agricultural products. What
is more, given that they are controlled, products derived from genetically
modified plants often present fewer risks and greater benefits,'" Sala
For her part, Nathalie Louise Moll, responsible for Assobiotech's
institutional relations, referred to a demonstration by 1,000 African
farmers who called for "freedom of choice" in this field, during the
summit on development last August in Johannesburg.
The African farmers were claiming the dignity of being protagonists of
their own future, she said.
"I spoke with one of these farmers, who told me: 'I would like to come
home in the afternoons and say to my wife: Look, this is the fruit of my
work,'" Moll recalled. "African farmers want GMOs."
Bovine romaine with Ranch dressing
By Ronald Bailey
December 05, 2002
'We oppose the introduction of animal genes into plant foods," declares a
pledge adopted at the 33rd World Vegetarian Congress. "When animal genes
are inserted in bio-engineered foods, these plant foods are no longer
truly vegetarian," argues an article in the Vegetarian Advocate.
It is easy to see how committed vegetarians, concerned as they are with
animal welfare, might be worried about the effects of genetic engineering
on the health and well-being of animals. But it is far from clear why
vegetarians would object to inserting animal genes into plants. Ethical
vegetarians want to prevent animal suffering. But genes have no feelings,
no capacity to suffer, no desires of any kind. Genes are just sequences of
the chemical bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine that provide
recipes for combining amino acids to produce various proteins. Worrying
about eating animal genes is akin to worrying about the ethical
implications of eating a page out of a steak cookbook.
Consider the case of the "flounder tomato," often cited by vegetarian
worrywarts. Flounder produce a kind of natural antifreeze that allows them
to thrive in Arctic waters. In the early 1990s, the biotech company DNA
Plant Technology inserted the gene responsible for this ability into
tomato plants. The idea was to produce a tomato that could be frozen and
thawed without becoming mushy. Unfortunately, the experiment didn't pan
out. Consequently, despite the impression left by various activist Web
sites, 11 years later no such tomatoes are being sold anywhere.
But what if the flounder tomato had been a success? Would eating one make
the consumer a carnivore? Hardly. A report from the New Zealand
government's Institute of Crop and Food Research calculates that the one
million or so plant cells in a mouthful of a fruit or vegetable to which
an animal gene had been added would contain less animal DNA than a single
Vegetarians (although not strict vegans, who eschew all animal products,
including milk and eggs) already have a precedent to guide them on the
issue of animal genes in food. Until 1990, the vast majority of cheese was
produced using a curdling agent called rennet, the sole source of which
was the linings of the fourth stomachs of slaughtered calves. Twelve years
ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a biotech version
called chymosin, which is produced by yeast and bacteria into which the
calf gene for the enzyme has been spliced. Now nearly 80% of all hard
cheeses made in the United States are produced with the biotech enzyme.
Many vegetarian groups have embraced cheeses made with chymosin as
"vegetarian cheese." They recognize that an animal gene spliced into a
fungus is saving millions of calves from being slaughtered for their
rennet. Surely this is an animal-friendly result.
Incidentally, another advantage is that biotech chymosin makes cheeses
kosher and halal. Observant Jews and Muslims no longer have to worry
whether the enzyme used for curdling comes from calves slaughtered
according to religious requirements.
If some vegetarians are concerned about animal genes in plants, perhaps we
should all be worried about cannibalism. After all, researchers have
spliced human genes into plants and animals. Again, so what? These human
genes are not to be confused with actual human beings; they are recipes
for useful proteins that might be used as medicines, not fingers or toes
that might serve as macabre hors d'oeuvres.
Besides, people eat human genes all the time. Breast-fed babies, for
example, typically consume more than 200,000 human cells from their
mothers per millilitre of milk. And as the New Zealand report notes, "the
simple act of a passionate kiss or oral sex may result in the consumption
of considerably more animal DNA, from another individual, than [would]
eating a mouthful of a transgenic plant containing an animal gene."
In any case, as Canada's National Institute of Nutrition points out,
"There really is no such thing as an 'animal gene' or a 'plant gene.' In
fact, humans have many genes in common with other animals, plants and even
bacteria." Mexican plant geneticist Luis Herrera-Estrella likewise notes
that "about 60% of the plant genes have very similar copies in animals."
This is not surprising, since all living things share the same genetic
Not all vegetarians are confused on this issue. Microbiologist Emanuel
Goldman of the New Jersey Medical School, for example, tried to persuade
the World Vegetarian Congress that animal genes inserted into bacteria,
yeast or plants offer "the most realistic opportunity yet" to free
humanity from having to kill or exploit animals. Thoughtful vegetarians
should resist being co-opted by the anti-biotech movement.
Ronald Bailey is science correspondent for Los Angeles-based Reason
The Law and GM - FAO paper
The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture of the FAO has
published a paper entitled "The role of law in realising the potential and
avoiding the risks of modern biotechnology - selected issues of relevance
to food and agriculture" by Lyle Glowka of Biodiversity Strategies
This very detailed report is a first attempt at a detailed assessment of
the status of regulations around the globe concerning the application of
biotechnology and GMOs.
This paper will be followed by a more comprehensive study and the FAO's
Legal Office intends to publish a revised version in its FAO Legislative
Download FAO paper - (1.6 MB PDF file) at:
EU to charge firms for gene food labelling test
04 Dec 2002
GEEL, Belgium, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Firms producing genetically modified (GM)
food for sale in the European Union will have to pay for testing their
produce, a top EU scientist said on Wednesday.
The European Union has not authorised any new GM products since 1998
because of consumer fears about such foods, but the likely introduction of
tough new standards may reopen the market, with firms racing to have their
"Of course the companies involved would be charged a fee," said Barry
McSweeney, director general of the Commission's Joint Research Centre.
Rules agreed by EU ministers last week, but yet to be approved by the
European Parliament, set labelling rules for GM foods. Food containing
more than 0.9 percent of GM material would need to be labelled to inform
Guy Van Den Eede, head of the Commission's GM food and environment unit,
said producers were keen to cooperate in order to get their products on to
the market quickly.
"We are establishing a very good relationship with the biotech companies,"
"We need to have information from the biotech companies on how exactly
they have made the GMOs. Without that, it's like looking for an invisible
needle in a haystack."
Developing each test currently takes about three months and costs about
125,000 euros. Carrying out a test on each sample of food is likely to
cost between 200 and 2000 euros, EU scientists at the Commission's
research facility at Geel said.
GM producers have not been charged for the 15 products so far authorised.
Another 18 products have been in the pipeline for about five years.
But with 405 GM products so far cleared by U.S. authorities, Commission
officials admit they may face a rush at the end of the EU moratorium,
something Washington is keen to see.
"There's a pending threat from the U.S. authorities that should this
moratorium not be lifted, they might resort to filing a complaint with the
World Trade Organisation," an EU official said.
US RELEASES FACT SHEETS ON GM CROPS IN FOOD AID
The US State Department has released three fact sheets "designed to
provide information to address concerns about the presence of
bio-engineered crops in US food aid". They explain that food produced with
modern biotechnology has been rapidly adopted by US farmers since their
introduction in 1996. Systems to segregate non-bio-engineered crops are
costly and have been implemented on a very limited scale in the US. Thus,
commodity shipments for domestic use, export as well as food aid, may
contain mixed bio-engineered and non-bio-engineered products.
Regarding environmental considerations, one fact sheet states that "there
is no indication that bio-engineered maize varieties currently planted in
the United States would become a weed". Whole kernel maize provided as
food aid is not intended for planting. Even if it is planted, it will only
out-cross with other maize varieties or closely related plants, which are
"geographically restricted to the Americas". Tests on non-target organisms
(such as honey bee, parasitic wasps, green lacewing, lady beetles,
northern bobwhite quail, earthworm, spring tails, channel catfish and
water fleas) and subsequent field studies have not shown adverse effects.
Independent scientific committees have also conducted reviews.
The Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration
is confident that foods derived from bio-engineered crops for which food
safety reviews have been completed are as safe as their conventional
counterparts. The bio-engineered crops, including maize and soybeans, have
been "rigorously reviewed for environmental and food safety by all
relevant U.S. regulatory agencies". Outside the US, bio-engineered maize
and soybeans have been approved for use in human food in many countries.
The food safety reviews of bio-engineered crops are generally focused on
the safety of the newly introduced trait, and on the safety of the whole
food. The food safety issues considered in the regulatory review include
toxicity, allergenicity, nutritional content, and antibiotic resistance.
As for trade issues, food aid grain is intended for immediate consumption
and not for planting. Even if the grain is stored for planting in the next
season, it will probably be consumed as food. The frequency of GM maize
cross-pollinating with other species in Africa will probably be low.
Furthermore, GM maize adapted for the US environment will probably not
grow well in Africa. From a legal standpoint, patents for GM varieties do
not extend to recipient countries. The potential mixing of bio-engineered
maize with non-bio-engineered maize is unlikely to impact trade with the
European Union because few African countries export maize to Europe. There
are no limitations on the export of livestock that have been fed
bio-engineered feed to Europe or other countries and the European Union
has approved the import of many bio-engineered maize varieties.
Links are available for environmental considerations
(http://www.state.gov/e/eb/rls/fs/15605pf.htm), agricultural development
and trade issues (http://www.state.gov/e/eb/rls/fs/15607pf.htm) and food
BT CORN AS HEALTHY FOR COWS AS NON-GM
Iowa State University researchers report that new corn hybrids containing
the Cry1F Bt gene are as wholesome and nutritious for high producing dairy
cows as are genetic counterpart hybrids that do not contain the novel Bt
Marjorie A. Faust, Associate Professor and Extension Dairy Specialist,
Iowa State University, Ames evaluated a new Bt maize variety containing a
unique Bt gene (Cry1F) that was developed jointly by Pioneer Hi-Bred
International and Dow AgroSciences.
"In our study, there were no appreciable differences in the nutrient
composition of Cry1F Bt and non-biotechnology derived genetic counterpart
hybrids," said Faust. When dairy cows consumed silage and grain from these
hybrids, there were no differences in their average milk, fat, and protein
yields. Daily milk yields for the groups exceeded 85 lb. per cow during
the two month-long feeding periods. "Also, we detected no differences in
dry matter intakes, efficiency of milk production, milk somatic cell
counts, and physical and blood indicators of health for cows in these
feeding groups," she says.
Faust will present this study at the American Dairy Science Association
conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in June 2003. For more information, email
Faust at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
EUROPE TO LABEL TRANSGENIC ANIMAL FEED AND FOODS
Food and agriculture ministers within the European Commission (EC) have
agreed on a proposal for a regulation on food and feed containing
genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
They set 0.9 percent as the level which food products containing GM
elements require labeling. Food containing more than 0.9 percent would
have to bear labels stating they are GM foods. The new proposal expands
Europe's current labeling law which requires labels for all foods produced
from biotechnology irrespective of biotech DNA or protein presence in the
final product. The accepted level of adventitious or technically
unavoidable presence of biotech material was reduced to 0.5 percent for
the next three years.
A final adoption of the GMO proposals requires a co-decision between the
Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The Council will now
send its Common Position for new consideration by the European Parliament.
For related information, visit
US ENVOY TO EU CALLS FOR ACTION ON BIOTECH ISSUE
US Ambassador to the European Union Rockwell Schnabel urged the EU to act
on the issue of biotechnology. "The lack of EU progress on restarting
biotech approvals and the Commission's GMO labeling proposals have failed
to counter the scare-mongering on biotech that has gripped the developing
world", said Schnabel in a talk at the EU Policy Centre in Brussels.
The US envoy lamented the rejection of Zambia to US food aid in the face
of a starving population by disregarding the scientific evidence about the
safety of GM-derived foods for human consumption. "We must find ways to
deal with the humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa - together - in spite
of our differences on biotechnology. It is no longer a matter of consumer
preference; human lives are at stake", said Schnabel.
On the issue of labeling, Schnabel said that "the Commission's labeling
proposals are unworkable, costly and subject to fraud". He adds that the
proposals "will seriously impair trade in agricultural biotech products
and make it harder for developing countries to reap the benefits of a
promising new technology to address hunger and malnutrition and reduce
environmental stress on cropland".
Full text of Ambassador Schnabel's remarks can be viewed at
Date: Wed, 4 Dec 2002 23:39:17 -0800 (PST)
From: "hewan degu"
Subject: using biotechnology will not be the solution
As it is mentioned several times biotechnology is bringing a break through
in understanding and manuplating the genetic make up of organisms for many
I am hearing every time that for Africa the solution for the sever
insecurity of food is biotechnology. I think for Africa the solution is
to encourage their people and see things in different perspective. what
Africans left is with the mind of colonalization. giving value for what
they have is disappeared and in many people mind only the good side of
their western colonalizers.
so if the world wants to change the situation in Africa let them do,plan
and research by them selves. I am sure for that Africa has all the man
power who has been used by the developed country. when Exodus to Africa
starts it will bring all the solution.
Dear readers, I want to empahasize that The solution to africa is not
biotechnology. rather using the continents diversity by the Africans might
be the solution.
Africa Could Feed Itself - But Many Ask: Should It?
Issue Sets Affluent Donor Countries Against Man Who Sowed Green in Asia
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
BY SCOTT KILMAN and ROGER THUROW
December 3, 2002
Farmers who use only their hands and machetes to squeeze food from the
stingy soil around the village of Fufuo, Ghana, still recall the crop of
1989 with disbelief.
A team working with Norman E. Borlaug, engineer of the "green revolution"
that saved millions of Asians from starvation in the late 1960s, had
arrived bearing seeds of a new breed of corn, a few bags of fertilizer and
several bottles of weed killer. Villagers bought these curious items with
small, low-interest loans from the group Dr. Borlaug runs and then
followed his directions. For the first time, they planted in straight
rows, with a uniform distance between seeds. They spread the fertilizer on
a regular schedule. They sprayed the herbicide in carefully measured
Then they harvested a miracle. "The crops were so big, and there were ears
on each stalk," says Emmanuel Boateng. "We were used to having many stalks
with no ears." Farmers accustomed to gathering only five 220-pound bags of
corn per acre reaped 15 bags. Never before had the people of Fufuo
produced enough to feed themselves and still had something left to sell to
others beyond their collection of mud brick homes. They paid off their
loans and began planning investments in schools and roads.
But in the years since Dr. Borlaug moved on to spread his methods to other
villages, Fufuo has been sliding back toward mere subsistence. Western
governments and the development agencies they fund no longer countenance
his methods or provide aid on a large scale to support them, as they once
did. Instead, they say, the free market should determine how Africa feeds
itself. The Ghanaian government, pressured by its Western creditors to
keep its fiscal house in order, doesn't provide fertilizer subsidies,
crop-price supports or other equivalent to the cheap financing Dr. Borlaug
started the farmers on. Local banks charge 30% interest on loans.
So the villagers of Fufuo are skimping on fertilizer, and their plots are
yielding a third less. Without a well-functioning market for their crops,
they struggle to sell even these diminishing yields before they rot. The
temptation grows to switch to cash crops such as cocoa and ginger to sell
to the West, though with more than two million of its people
undernourished, according to the United Nations, Ghana needs more of a
food staple such as corn.
"We have shown we can produce more, but sometimes we wonder, 'What's the
use?' " says Kwaku Owusu, a Fufuo corn farmer.
The answer is rooted in a profound shift in the international politics of
economic development in the decades since Dr. Borlaug was lauded as a
savior of the world's hungry poor. In 1970, he won the Nobel Peace Prize
for having helped stave off mass starvation in India and Pakistan by
introducing high-yielding wheat plants to farmers there. The success of
this green revolution depended on Western support, financial and
political, as well as local government intervention. The U.S. was
unequivocal: In 1965, President Johnson threatened to withhold food aid
from India unless New Delhi adopted farmer-friendly policies. It complied,
replacing price limits on grain with price supports. By the mid-1970s,
India was growing enough grain to begin building vast reserves.
Now, sub-Saharan Africa is staggering toward its worst food crisis in
decades, with as many as 38 million people threatened with starvation in
the coming months, according to the U.N. To Dr. Borlaug, the solution is
simple: sow the seeds of a second green revolution. With backing of about
$9 million a year from a foundation of the late Japanese speedboat-racing
magnate Ryoichi Sasakawa, he has been working with President Carter's
Atlanta-based Carter Center to develop several million demonstration plots
in 10 African countries, including Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique, as
well as Ghana.
"I've done my job. We could double or triple grain production in Africa in
three years," says the 88-year-old scientist, bringing his fist down hard
on his desk in his office at Texas A&M University. "Something has to
Something has changed but not in Dr. Borlaug's favor. To the World Bank
and the industrialized governments that control it, giving free rein to
free markets is more appropriate for Africa -- even though the U.S., for
one, is expanding the subsidies it pays to its own farmers. The theory, as
it applies to policy toward Africa, is that an unfettered private sector
will jump in to serve efficiently where governments once served
inefficiently, and people and resources will be channeled to their best
Indeed, given Africa's disadvantages -- thin soil, fickle climates, few
paved roads and weak governments -- some development experts now argue
that helping farmers produce bigger food harvests may only prolong
Africa's penury. In the view of the World Bank and other development
organizations, Africa needs to develop businesses that can earn the money
to import the food it needs.
In a report issued in July, the World Bank suggested, among other things,
that rural Africans grow cash crops for export and cater to tourists to
earn income. While the report does acknowledge that bigger food crops
would help some farmers, it suggests that many are so isolated that they
should grow only what they need for themselves as cheaply as possible.
"No one wants to fight with Dr. Borlaug, he is one of the greats," says
Kevin Cleaver, the World Bank's director of agriculture and rural
development. "But he doesn't bring appropriate technology to Africa."
Dr. Borlaug and his backers say that the poorest countries don't have
enough of a private sector to take the place of foreign aid and government
support, or to find economic alternatives for the poorest farmers. That,
they say, is why in Fufuo and other places where Dr. Borlaug has helped
farmers expand their harvests, decline has usually followed initial
They also point out that wealthy nations have practical motives for their
faith in free markets as the key to economic development, even if they
don't practice that faith as purely at home. For one thing, it's cheaper.
Development assistance to agriculture from rich nations and international
lenders dropped by half in the 1990s, to less than $5 billion a year.
While the World Bank has recently increased its loans for agricultural
projects in sub-Saharan Africa, the total, at $416 million this year, is
less than half the 1990 level.
Incentives to Overproduce
At the same time, the industrialized nations continue to pay their own
farmers the subsidies that stymie development in poor nations -- a total
of $311 billion last year alone. The subsidies not only protect American
and European growers from low world-market prices; they also depress
global prices by encouraging overproduction.
"If you want to do an agriculture experiment in Africa, experiment with
taking away subsidies in the West for one year," says Kwame Amezah, the
assistant director of extension services in Ghana's Ministry of Food and
The World Bank estimates in a recent study that if rich nations eliminated
their farm subsidies and agricultural import restrictions, rural income in
low- and middle-income nations would jump by $60 billion. As it is, world
grain prices have fallen more than 50% over the past two decades, helping
sap whatever incentive African farmers may have to push their own green
"I'm a biologist, not an economist, but even I can see [Western and
African] policies aren't working," Dr. Borlaug says. "It's time to face up
Dr. Borlaug is himself the son of a farmer. Born and raised in Iowa, he
studied forestry and plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, where
he compiled a wrestling record that helped get him into the National
Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 1944, he was working at DuPont Co. testing
condoms and other World War II military supplies for their susceptibility
to the elements when he learned of a job at the International Maize and
Wheat Improvement Center, a research institute near Mexico City supported
by public and private foundations.
The young Dr. Borlaug arrived at the center as a plant disease was
devastating Mexico's wheat fields, making the nation dependent on foreign
grain. He was assigned to create a resistant variety, a process that then
typically took a decade. He greatly shortened the time with a trick he
called shuttle breeding: After his prototypes produced seeds in a plot in
northern Mexico, he rushed them to southern Mexico, squeezing two growing
seasons out of one year. His disease-resistant strains were in the hands
of Mexican farmers within five years.
By the 1950s, Mexico's wheat fields were so abundant with grain that the
plants had to be retooled so they wouldn't topple over. Dr. Borlaug solved
the problem by using a dwarf Japanese variety to develop a shorter,
sturdier plant. Soon, Mexico was growing all the wheat it needed.
Shuttle breeding also had the unintended effect of creating wheat strains
much more tolerant of variations in climate and light conditions than
typical wheat. So when the exploding populations of India and Pakistan
overwhelmed those countries' antiquated farming sector in the 1960s, Dr.
Borlaug had an antidote ready.
Farmers clamored for his seeds after seeing chemically fertilized plots
produce five times as much grain as the same amount of land using
traditional seeds and old methods. Dr. Borlaug warned political leaders of
a public backlash if they didn't encourage construction of fertilizer
plants and guarantee profitable prices for growers. In short order, Indian
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ripped up a flower bed in front of her
residence and planted Dr. Borlaug's wheat. Farmer-friendly subsidies were
Meanwhile, researchers in the Philippines began developing rice plants
that would also be used throughout Asia. The Rockefeller Foundation, the
Ford Foundation, the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International
Development were among the institutions backing Dr. Borlaug's efforts.
By the mid-1970s, India was self-sufficient in grain, depriving U.S.
farmers of a client for their wheat. Pakistan's trajectory wasn't as
smooth, but it now produces roughly as much wheat as Canada.
At the 1970 ceremony where he received the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Borlaug
predicted that the new crops sweeping Asia would give the world three
decades of "breathing space" from famine. He retired from the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center nine years later, with
plans to teach at Texas A&M.
He didn't anticipate the food crisis that then swept Africa. In the 1960s
and '70s, the newly independent nations of Africa, though using primitive
farming methods, managed to grow enough to feed themselves when Asia
couldn't. But then Africa's population began growing so quickly that
subsistence farming couldn't keep up. In 1984, a famine centered in Sudan
and Ethiopia killed about one million people.
Mr. Sasakawa, the Japanese philanthropist, called Dr. Borlaug at Texas A&M
amid the 1984 famine and offered to finance him if he would help farmers
in Africa. "I told him I was too old to start over and hung up," says Dr.
Borlaug. "The next day, he called back and said 'Young man, I'm 15 years
older than you.' "
Dr. Borlaug agreed to five years. They organized the Sasakawa Africa
Association, which started work in Ghana in 1986. "I had no idea what I
was getting into," he says.
Many of Africa's farmers are poorer than Asia's were before the green
revolution. Tractors and irrigation systems are rarer. Livestock for
pulling plows are scarcer in many places, killed off by parasites
transmitted by the tsetse fly.
Corn, the most important food crop in several African countries, is so
naturally promiscuous that its descendants tend to quickly dilute any
traits bred into it by scientists. As a result, farmers who want to raise
high-yielding corn must regularly buy seed, an enormous expense for a
subsistence producer. In Asia, farmers don't face so much expense. They
set aside some of their wheat and rice harvests to use as seed the
following season. These self-pollinating plants change little between
The ranks of the world's hungry are swelling the fastest in Africa.
One-third of the 590 million people living south of the Sahara desert are
chronically undernourished. Foreign food aid puts only a dent in the
problem: The food deficit -- the amount the region lacks for meeting its
population's nutritional needs -- is five times the amount donated.
Flirting With Disaster
Sub-Saharan Africa's vulnerability to famine is only growing as its farm
economy falls further behind its swelling population. The amount of food
the region produces for each person has been dropping for two decades. Its
farmers now reap just half as much grain from an acre of land as do poor
farmers in Asia.
But even on a continent degraded by years of famine and war, Dr. Borlaug
has been able to deliver flourishes of farming success. In the highlands
of Ethiopia, where the government has backed the work of Dr. Borlaug by
lending him personnel, legions of subsistence farmers doubled and tripled
their corn harvests in the mid-1990s, some even obtaining the per-acre
yield of the average American corn farmer. By 1997, the perennially hungry
country was able to export some grain to Kenya. Now, drought once again
threatens millions in the country with starvation. To lock in his
advances, Dr. Borlaug wants the Ethiopian government to do far more to
make fertilizer and credit available to farmers.
His successes have made the white-haired Iowan a household name in parts
of Africa. "He's our hero," says Mr. Boateng, the secretary of the Fufuo
Growers Association, who fondly recalls Dr. Borlaug sitting with the
villagers and husking corn. "Every time we pray, we pray for Dr. Borlaug:
'Lord, we know he's elderly. Please extend his life.' "
With a small staff of its own, the Sasakawa Africa Association has
concentrated on training a network of government farm advisers throughout
the Ghanaian countryside. It provided a fleet of motor scooters so agents
could reach areas where roads are too rough for cars.
The organization also has intervened where the free market has failed.
When the Ghanaian government, under pressure from international lending
agencies, stopped supporting the money-losing state seed-production
company in the late 1980s, the business collapsed. At the time, the
government, desperate for development funding, adhered strictly to
lenders' requirements that the state withdraw from costly and inefficient
Ten former employees of the defunct state seed business banded together in
the village of Asuoyeboah, not far from Fufuo, to begin growing seed on
their own. But they lacked money and technology. Then one of the
Sasakawa-trained extension agents came by. He instructed them in Borlaug
growing techniques, and production boomed. He also brought a herbicide
from Monsanto Co. that greatly reduced the time farmers spent hoeing
weeds, allowing them to expand their fields.
Soon, the corn cribs were overflowing. Sasakawa arranged a loan of about
$1,500 for the farmers to build 18 more storage bins. Within three years,
the farmers had paid off the loan.
The agents also brought a new seed strain that Dr. Borlaug had rescued
from the reject pile. The variety, discovered by Purdue University
researchers in the 1960s, didn't produce yields big enough to win over
U.S. seed companies. But the seed is unusually high in protein, which Dr.
Borlaug figured would be attractive to Africans short of meat and milk.
The seed, locally called Obatanpa, or "good nursing mother," now produces
one-fifth of Ghana's corn. This corn is a vital ingredient in the mix used
by mothers weaning babies from breast feeding and is one reason the number
of undernourished people in Ghana has been halved over the past decade.
Today, the Asuoyeboah cooperative is standing on its own but precariously.
The 17 members of the group net about $250 a year each, which still leaves
them below the rural poverty standard of one dollar a day. Their shelling
machine is a 1957 model. They, like the farmers of Fufuo, have begun
skimping on fertilizer. And their inventory of harvested seed continues to
mount -- and sometimes rot -- for lack of a private or government
marketing agent that can purchase the seed and store it until the market
"We have increased our yields, but what do we do with it?" asks William
Barnes, the group's chairman.
He points to piles of seed corn covered with plastic and canvas tarps.
Farmers won't be buying until planting season begins in March. Mr. Barnes
pleads for some kind of inventory credit or other form of intervention
from a marketing middleman.
"All of our money is tied up in the seed," he says. "So what are we
supposed to do for the next four months, go hungry?"
These questions find echoes in Fufuo.
"Our capital base is so small, where can we get loans from?" says Fufuo
farmer Daniel Yaw Banahene. "We know how to use the techniques, but where
do we get the money to apply it?"
Sasakawa provides small loans over a couple of years to get farmers in one
village started, and then it leaves those farmers on their own and moves
to another village. The Fufuo farmers got about $12 for each acre to buy
the necessary fertilizer. A pittance in the West, it is a big sum for
subsistence farmers who had never profited from their crops before.
"We paid it back 100%," Mr. Boateng says, swelling with pride.
For the first couple of years, the farmers could fund their purchases
through sales of their surplus production. But then their fragile
economics shattered. The cost of imported fertilizer and herbicide soared
from about $12 per acre to nearly $30 per acre over the past decade. At
the same time, income from their corn fell as local bumper crops and
international gluts depressed the market price.
Some farmers have turned to the rural bank in the bigger village up the
road, where interest rates can top 30%. Others have started to cut corners
on fertilizer and herbicide use. A few have even stopped using fertilizer
and returned to carving new fields out of the bush. That negates an
environmental benefit of the Borlaug method, which emphasizes intensive
farming on existing fields to reduce the pressure on farmers to constantly
slash and burn new land.
The Ghanaian government elected two years ago is trying to tilt the focus
back to rural development, but it has neither the financing nor the
foreign support to pump huge volumes of state money into agriculture.
"With the mere mention by us of subsidies, our development partners start
howling, and want to catch us and chew us up," says Franklin Domkoh, a top
official in Ghana's Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
So the farmers of Fufuo are once again looking to Dr. Borlaug and his
organization for help, not to prepare their growing fields, but to compete
better with U.S. and European farmers. Sasakawa's Ghana office, with an
annual budget of $250,000, can't offer much more than advice on how the
farmers can organize to negotiate lower prices for fertilizer, market
their corn and lobby for a better deal. "If the farmers are strengthened,
they can walk up to the development agencies and state their case," says
Benedicta Appiah-Asante, who heads the Sasakawa program in Ghana.
That will take time -- something that she fears Dr. Borlaug may not have.
She recalls a conversation with her mentor three years ago in Accra,
Ghana's capital. "Dr. Borlaug was pouring me a cup of tea, and he said,
'Look at me, I'm old. I won't live to see the breakthrough in Ghana's
agriculture. But you will. I'm counting on you."'
Now, as Ms. Appiah-Asante bounces along the rutted road to Fufuo, she
says, "Dr. Borlaug should have seen the breakthrough. It should have come