Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - March 26, 2004:
* Leave Farmers Alone, Mr Bracks
* A New Weasel Word
* Rick Roush Responds to Prof. Traavik - Show Us the Data!
* Greenpeace Activists Occupy GM Crop Field
* CIMMYT Sows First Transgenic Wheat Trials In Mexico
* Testing Methods For GM Food
* Former Minnesota Governor Elmer L. Andersen on Borlaug
* The Man Who Defused the "Bomb"
* Happy Birthday Norman, and Thanks!
* More Birthday Wishes to NEB from AgBioView Readers...
* Hoover-Wallace Dinner In Honor of Borlaug's 90th Birthday
* Misconceptions About Use of Mineral Fertilisers
* Increased Cotton Yields In India Due to GM Hybrids
* Rice Cultivation: Feast or Famine?
Australia: Leave Farmers Alone, Mr Bracks
- Paul Weller, The Age (Australia), March 27, 2004
'Our Government is saying industries can't be trusted to manage their own issues. The GM decision is a cave-in to sectional interests. We will all suffer as a result, writes Paul Weller.'
This week's announcement by the Bracks Government of a four-year moratorium on the commercial release of genetically modified crops is a disgrace. It clearly illustrates the Government's inability to provide leadership on contentious issues. What happened to Victoria being the biotech state, Mr Bracks?
No company is going to want to invest money in research where there is no opportunity for commercial return. Is this a precedent Victorians really want their Government to set? Do Victorians really want minority groups calling the shots? This does not bode well for the future opportunities for the agricultural industry or in fact any industries in Victoria.
There is some fantastic research being done and GM canola was simply a first step. In denying Victorians access to this technology, it seems the Government simply doesn't understand the long-reaching implications this will have. Victoria was already the most highly regulated state, and now our Government is saying industries can't be trusted to manage their own issues.
As is the case in many other debates, unrepresentative single-interest groups have hijacked the GM debate. This would not be of such concern if those groups actually had to be accountable for the long-term impact of their single-minded and, in most cases, scientifically unsupported stances. These groups claim not to be against technology, but they make no effort to provide factual information and often rely on hysteria to promote their scare campaigns.
Burying your head in the sand never makes an issue go away. Moratoriums do not solve problems. A moratorium does not answer the remaining questions farmers, consumers or even overseas markets have about GM crops and their introduction to the food supply chain.
Imagine the damage this decision is doing to our reputation internationally. Our Government has publicly announced it does not have confidence in the grains industry's ability to segregate grains or manage market requirements.
Victorians may think this is only a grains industry issue, but there are wide-reaching implications. From an investment point of view, the GM moratorium will be detrimental not only to the large companies that have invested millions of dollars in Victoria, but to all smaller Australian companies as well.
This decision will destroy any chance for small Australian companies, who are at present investing in biotechnology, to make a commercial return any time in the near future - and therefore make it difficult for them to continue to exist.
By implementing a moratorium, the Government is clearly displaying a lack of support for any company considering investing in any industry in Victoria. From now on, whenever a minority group decides it can't support a particular product being used or produced by a company, the Bracks Government will most likely cave in and legislate it out of business. Any companies investing in contentious processes or technologies will most likely have no choice but to move interstate.
Whether or not you agree with GM, this will have an economic impact on all of us. If your son or daughter is studying any of the biological sciences, I would encourage you to move to Queensland - the only state where companies that wish to invest in bioscience are encouraged to exist.
The Premier had the nerve to claim that if the Victorian Farmers Federation had conducted a survey, we would find the majority of our farmer members would agree with the Government. I believe I would know the views of my members substantially better than does the Premier.
Victorian farmers are practical and professional business managers. They want the opportunity to make decisions based on factual information, with a view to growing what best suits their farming business. The two GM canola varieties in question here were approved by the national regulator as being safe for human health and the environment. Yet despite more than five years of regulatory scrutiny, access to these varieties has now been denied.
This interference with our right to run our businesses shows a lack of respect for Victoria's farmers.
Paul Weller is president of the Victorian Farmers Federation.
A New Weasel Word
- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=1531
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same might be said of "contamination," the latest buzzword among the enemies of biotechnology. It's in the eye of the beholder, too--but the people who claim to see it clearly need to have their eyes examined.
"Contamination" isn't merely a buzzword--it's also a weasel word. In the past, I've said that the biggest weasel words in the English language are "maybe," "possibly," and "perhaps." The extremists who despise biotechnology have used them to terrible effect, especially in Europe, where they've convinced many people that "maybe" the scientists are wrong and "possibly" biotech-enhanced foods are bad for you and "perhaps" we should ban them entirely.
That's some pretty slippery rhetoric, and it's matched by the anti-biotech crowd's new favorite word. Everywhere you look, they're jawboning about how biotech enhanced crops threaten non-biotech crops with "contamination."
This is silly. First of all, it demonstrates a fundamental lack of appreciation for how agriculture has developed over thousands of years. Today, we don't plant any crops that occurred naturally in the wild. Think about it: Not a single item on sale in the produce section at your local grocery store existed before the advent of man's effort in agriculture.
The notion that some plants are more pristine or more pure than others is simply a fantasy. All of the crops we enjoy eating have evolved, either through survival of the fittest, or thanks to careful crossbreeding by farmers going back many years. They've all been genetically enhanced, and we've all benefited as a result. Farmers have turned tiny red berries into big ripe tomatoes and poisonous gooseberries into delicious kiwi fruits. These are not sinister cases of "contamination"--they're obvious improvements!
The difference today is that modern science allows us to work much more quickly. Instead of waiting for plants to transform as they slowly pass on new genetic characteristics from one generation to the next, we can speed up the process and eliminate "hit and miss" efforts to discover crops that allow us to produce higher yields, reduce weeds in our fields, and help the environment--and do it in record time.
To call this "contamination" is like saying tractors "contaminate" our fields because they're not "natural" --and that we should all return to the days of backbreaking manual labor. I've been farming for more than five decades and I've seen a lot of technological progress. I know how far we've come. Believe me, we don't want to go back to the "good ole' days".
Instead, we want to look forward. We live in an era of biotechnology. There's no point in denying it or shaking our fists at it. Farmers have harnessed this powerful tool to grow more and enrich our world, both materially and environmentally. What we're facing now is the difference between embracing progress and fearing it.
We're much better off embracing it. The potential benefits are astounding. In fact, the anti-biotech radicals are precisely wrong when it comes to this matter of "genetic contamination." Biotechnology surely doesn't cause "contamination"--but it may help cure actual contamination.
Scientists already use plants to clean up industrial contaminants that have seeped into soil and groundwater. This process is called phytoremediation and the Environmental Protection Agency currently employs a form of it at ten Superfund cleanup sites. Genetic enhancement soon may help us do an even better job of using phytoremediation to fight pollution.
Recently, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described how researchers have identified genes that help certain plants thrive in soil full of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, and another that helps bacteria reduce high levels of zinc. "They would like to augment and transfer both traits to large, fast-growing plants and trees, enabling them to store various heavy-metal pollutants absorbed from the ground," wrote Rachel Melcer in her report. "The plants could be harvested and incinerated, leaving a relatively small amount of ash for proper disposal."
When the enemies of biotechnology learn about this, what on earth are they going to say? That contamination is a beautiful thing? I wouldn't put it past them. By now we know there's almost nothing they aren't willing to assert.
Maybe they'll stick to their Orwellian ways and call it "contamination." I prefer a different word--"decontamination"--and I'm excited that biotechnology is on the threshold of helping us turn brownfields green with life.
Response to Prof. Traavik's Claims on Bt Corn Allergy in Philippines
- Rick Roush , Director, Statewide IPM Program, University of California
> Prof. Traavik of Norway on Criticism of his 'Bt-Corn Pollen Allergy
> Claims' in Philippines Have a nice day! From: Terje Traavik
> Full article at
Dear Professor Traavik: Thank you for your recent email. It appears that your document is a general response to what was probably a range of public comments, rather than to our specific request for public access to your detailed experimental methods and data, not just summaries. In light of this, I would like to respond separately to (1) the bioethical issues related to peer review and preemption of progress based upon the Precautionary Principle, and (2) important scientific issues related to your methods and literature review.
Your claim that your preliminary research was presented in the great tradition of sharing results among peers is somewhat disingenuous or even insincere. While presentation of even preliminary results at a scientific or public meeting is not at issue, it is obvious that you and your supporters intended for your findings to be offered directly to the press. You chose this route in spite of the fact that you characterize your own results as "preliminary research" and you have stated that the antibody "tests could not establish any cause-effect relationships…."(middle of page 4). Your defense for doing so is a ruse, disguised as a legitimate attempt to alert the public to a pressing health issue (when even you admit in your reply that the case is not clear), and will not fool your scientific peers.
In fact, the medical and scientific journals have mechanisms in place for the rapid peer review and dissemination of information of immediate importance to public health. You chose to disregard these mechanisms and to evade proper peer review in favor of taking your case directly to the press, with the effect if not the intent of causing fear. This is irresponsible in the highest degree- a complete abdication of the responsibilities that a scientist has to the scientific community, to medicine, and to the public health.
Secondly, you suggest that others are attempting to "define (y)our peer group." The scientific peer community must always consist of all trained individuals who can bring useful scientific knowledge and experience to bear upon the issue at hand. Peer review becomes meaningless if an investigator can pick as reviewers only those who agree with their own conclusions. In fact, all of us must be subjected to the review of all of our peers. You must be free to comment on my work, and I upon yours.
In point of fact, you still have not presented your work in sufficient detail to allow for peer review, restricting the opportunity for other scientists to review your work, attempt to repeat it, and look for similar examples elsewhere. You wrote that the Precautionary Principle "involves transparent and inclusive decision making processes" and that "implementation of the PP must have an impact on the research agenda."
Our open letter took up your challenge; we are asking for transparency in presentation of your evidence, and also to be included in the decision-making process. You can with a single act extend the Precautionary Principle to the research agenda; just provide the data and methods so that they can be used to refocus the research of others. You rejected "the process of secrecy". Fine with us; show us your methods and data.
In short, while you choose to characterize yourself as unfairly treated, what we ask of you in regards to peer review is no less- and no more- than we would expect of any reputable scientist.
In regard to your comments on the Precautionary Principle, it is now clear that Bt corn offers significant advantages to human health (lowered fumonisin exposure), crop yields, and the environment (lower pesticide use without compromising yields) (e.g., Shelton et al.2002). A broader view is that a holistic application of the Precautionary Principle and medical ethics requires us to deploy Bt maize because current conventional varieties will almost certainly result in continued high consumption of fumonisins (with subsequent risks of cancer and liver damage) by livestock and humans. There is a real hazard lurking in our failure to deploy a technology that is already at hand.
Not wishing to legitimize your inappropriate behavior as a scientist, I nonetheless feel a need also to address certain of the scientific issues raised in your reply.
On the specific subject of your antibody tests, we note that you explicitly do not claim to have found IgE antibodies to Cry 1Ab- only IgG, IgM and IgA. Did you test for IgE antibodies to Cry 1Ab, and if not, why not?
IgA antibodies are a typical mucosal immune response and are regarded as providing a barrier to antigens in the gut and other mucosal surfaces. They are neither an indication of allergenicity nor of recent exposure.
IgM antibodies are the first to be formed after systemic exposure and, for some antigens including infectious agents and suggest recent exposure. To have IgM, IgG and IgA would suggest exposure over some considerable period to the antigen or cross-reacting material. Thus, without data from control populations not exposed to GM maize, it is not really possible to make any inferences at all regarding the significance of your findings.
Given that IgG, IgM and IgA provide the more ambiguous results, a cynical person might wonder if failure to release information on IgE was a deliberate attempt to raise doubt- without proof of harm- regarding the safety of transgenic plants.
Did you test anyone from neighboring areas but without exposure to Bt maize? This is not a trivial consideration. Bacillus thuringiensis is common in the environment, often found in grain dust but also soil and on the surfaces of plants, even infections in humans (Debora Mackenzie, May 1999 Issue of The New Scientist). Of particular interest for the Philippines is that an unusual type of resistance to Bt was described in the diamondback moth (Plodia interpunctella), which was resistant to Cry1Ab but not to Cry1Ac (Tabashnik et al. 1997a, 1997b). Claims that Bt sprays had not been used in the area suggest that the source of selection could have been naturally occurring Bt. Whatever the source of Bt, the fact remains that selective pressure had to be both substantial and prolonged to result in a shift in population gene frequency, and that
Cry1Ab- the very protein you are testing for- was involved. Thus, it seems plausible, even likely, that there are common sources of Cry 1Ab in the Philippines other than Bt maize.
With respect to your literature review and the question of how much antigen is necessary to induce an allergic reaction, it is worth noting that Bernstein et al (1999) found responses to their preparation of the pro-delta endotoxin in just 2 of the 123 workers having evidence of antibodies to Bt sprays. In the mouse research, the Cry1A was administered intraperitoneally or intragastrically in amounts (10-100 ug) that are huge relative to the exposure from corn pollen, where the concentration is less than about 80-90 ng/g total protein. Given this, one would have to inhale roughly a kilogram of pollen to achieve the same absolute dose (not relative dose) used in mice.
Further, the mouse trials were designed to elicit a vigorous immune response by artificially stabilizing the Cry 1 Ac protein by neutralizing stomach acid with Maalox. All proteins have the ability to be immunogenic but very few immunogenic proteins are allergens. Two hallmark characteristics of allergenic proteins are stability and abundance. The mouse work you cited deliberately and artificially provided both abundance and stability.
Rather than debating the literature, it is time for us all to see what data you really have to offer. On behalf of many scientific colleagues who have asked for the same, let us see your detailed methods and data.
If this problem is as serious as you have proposed, prompt action requires nothing less.
Sincerely, Rick Roush
- Shelton, A., Zhao, J., Roush, R. 2002. Economic, ecological, food safety, and social consequences of the deployment of Bt transgenic plants. Annual Rev. Entomology 47: 845-881.
- Tabashnik, Bruce E., Yong-Biao Liu, Naomi Finson, Luke Masson, and David G. Heckel. 1997a. One gene in diamondback moth confers resistance to four Bacillus thuringiensis toxins. PNAS 1997 94: 1640-1644.
- Tabashnik, Bruce E., Yong-Biao Liu, Thomas Malvar, David G. Heckel,Luke Masson, Victoria Ballester, Francisco Granero, José L. Ménsua, and Juan Ferré. 1997. Global variation in the genetic and biochemical basis of diamondback moth resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 94, pp. 12780-12785.
Switzerland: Greenpeace Activists Occupy GM Crop Field
- Swissinfo, March 26, 2004 http://www.swissinfo.org/sen/Swissinfo.html?siteSect=111&sid=4822518
Around 40 Greenpeace activists have occupied a field in northern Switzerland – site of the country’s first outdoor trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat. The protesters are calling for the experiment in Lindau near Zurich to be scrapped, claiming it poses a risk to the environment.
Greenpeace activists ringed the field with white sheets and chained themselves to fencing. They hung banners proclaiming, "Stop genetically modified wheat". They also called on the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which is conducting the field trial, to destroy the seedlings. "We are not going to abandon the fight just because the seeds are already in the ground," said Greenpeace spokesman Bruno Heinzer.
The trial finally went ahead last week following an intense legal battle which was in and out of the courts for more than a year. Opposition groups, which include farmers, consumer organisations and Greenpeace, branded the government’s decision to give the go-ahead "irresponsible".
Opponents have the option of appealing to the Federal Court, Switzerland’s highest legal authority, but Greenpeace says this would be futile since the trial has already started. They claim the GM wheat could have harmful effects on the soil and might cross-pollinate with other crops.
But the Federal Institute of Technology said the plants had been covered to avoid cross-pollination and that steps were being taken to keep birds and other animals away from the test field. Rolf Probala, a spokesman for the institute, said on Friday that he regretted the fact that Greenpeace had given up the legal process. Police are monitoring the situation but have not been asked to remove the protesters.
In September, environmental groups, consumers and farmers collected enough signatures to force a nationwide vote on the use of genetically modified crops. The initiative calls for a five-year ban on GM plants for agricultural and commercial use. Parliament rejected imposing a moratorium last June, mostly because of fears that this would jeopardise Switzerland’s standing in the field of agricultural research. Those backing the moratorium argue it would not stifle research. It would allow crop trials in open fields, provided there were strict controls.
CIMMYT Sows First Transgenic Wheat Field Trials In Mexico
- From Crop Biotech Update, , www.isaaa.org
On 12 March 2004, a small trial plot was sown to genetically modified
(transgenic) drought tolerant wheat in a screenhouse at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre's (CIMMYT) headquarters in Texcoco, Mexico. This is the first time that transgenic wheat has been planted under field-like conditions in Mexico, and rigorous biosafety procedures are being followed, according to a press release from Centro.
Developing drought-tolerant wheat and maize varieties that perform well under diverse conditions is a top priority for the center, where innovative research—conventional as well as transgenic—is pursued to meet this complex and difficult challenge.
CIMMYT researchers are hopeful that the wheat they are testing will withstand serious droughts. This wheat carries the DREB1A gene from the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The gene has been shown to confer tolerance to drought, low temperatures,and salinity in Arabidopsis, a plant species related to wild mustard (see Nature Biotechnology 17:287-291).
This trial is the first time that a food crop carrying the DREB gene has advanced to this level of testing. Approval for the trials was granted in December 2003 by Mexican authorities under strict biosafety provisions to ensure that the plants do not inadvertently cross with conventional wheat plants; Access to the enclosed screenhouse trial is tightly restricted; No wheat plants are grown within 10 meters of the screenhouse trial; The spikes (flowers) of the plants are covered and isolated from the environment by glassine bags; Plant materials are destroyed in an autoclave at the end of the trial; The trial is monitored by Mexican authorities and the CIMMYT Biosafety Officer.
But the greatest biosafety measures are provided by the wheat plant itself. Wheat is a “perfectly self-pollinated crop,” with 99% of fertilization occurring within the sheathed spike of the plant, where male and female plant components share the same floret. Even in conventional breeding, researchers have to resort to a series of carefully executed, laborious procedures to cross one wheat plant with another. This makes wheat very different from maize, which freely pollinates and thus exchanges genes with other maize plants. Cross-pollination is further limited because wheat pollen is heavy and does not travel far, and because the pollen remains viable for only 20-30 minutes.
For the full pressrelease, visit http://www.cimmyt.org/english/webp/support/news/dreb.htm.
Testing Methods For GM Food
-- From Crop Biotech Update, , www.isaaa.org
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology recently posted the proceedings of the roundtable discussion held last February 2003 in collaboration with the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. This roundtable discussion entitled "Testing Methodologies in Tracing, Segregating, and Labeling Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology" examined the role testing methodologies play in the application of biotechnology to agriculture.
The major highlights of the proceedings are as follows:
* There are two types of tests currently being used to detect genetically modified organisms (GMOs), both of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. One tests for the presence of proteins produced as a result of the genetic modification (protein testing); the other seeks out the specific DNA sequence associated with a particular GM variety (DNA testing).
* Neither protein testing nor DNA testing are sufficient to reach conclusions about the amount of GMOs present in food products. Assessing quantity requires that the tests be accompanied by carefully designed sampling procedures or methodologies.
* Those on the front lines of product segregation are keenly aware of the shortcomings of GMO testing. But market demands leave them no choice but to reach for whatever tools are available, however flawed they may be. Thus, there is a need for the establishment of international standards that can resolve the confusion surrounding the marketing of “GMO-free” commodities and processed goods.
Read more about the proceedings at http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0225
Birthday message from Former Minnesota Governor Elmer L. Andersen
Dear Dr. Borlaug, Happy Birthday and may I join so many others in expressing pride and gratitude for your great work. It has had substantial practical effect but in addition it is an inspiration to everyone as to what one life can contribute. I look forward to your May 9 Commencement appearance in Minnesota. Sincerely,
- Elmer L. Andersen (Former Governor of Minnesota)
Dear Dr. Borlaug, I enclose a link to an article Elmer wrote about you. Along with Elmer Andersen you are a hero of mine and I am proud to be part of honoring you on your birthday. I loved your appearance on the Showtime show with Penn and Teller. Many happy returns of the day!
- Ani Sorenson, Personal Assistant to Gov. Andersen in an email to AgBioWorld
Minnesota Nobel Laureate: Happy Birthday, Norman Borlaug
- Elmer L. Andersen, Pioneer Press, Minnesota
As I can attest, a 90th birthday is a fine occasion for examining and appreciating a long career. One such opportunity will come today, as Minnesota's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Norman E. Borlaug, turns 90.
His is a story worth noting, for it is a wonderful example of the influence of education in releasing individual potential. It illustrates the role of professors in inspiring dedication to good causes. And it is a fine example of the impact one dedicated person can have in solving national and international problems. Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa, and grew up on a modest family farm. In high school, he was proficient in several sports, and particularly liked wrestling. When a coach from a state college in Iowa was recruiting him, a friend urged Norman to go to the University of Minnesota. He applied, and flunked the entrance examination. Friends intervened with President Fred Hovde, and Borlaug entered General College.
He gravitated to the forestry program at the St. Paul "farm" campus, where he heard a lecture by plant pathologist E.C. Stakman that changed his life. Stakman talked about breeding plants to resist rust spores. The idea so intrigued Borlaug that he changed his major, and went on to get a master's degree and a doctorate in plant pathology.
While working for the Dupont Foundation in 1944, Borlaug received a call from the Rockefeller Foundation inviting him to join a project in Mexico, studying improvements in agricultural efficiency. Stakman was one of the directors of the operation; it was probably he who told the Rockefeller Foundation about his young protégé. Borlaug undertook field studies in the Toluca area, about 300 miles north and west of Mexico City. Working in the fields with peasant farmers through summer heat and drought made him sometimes wonder about his choice, but doubts were offset by a growing commitment to do something about the world's shortage of food.
The wheat grown in that area was a tall-stemmed variety that, because of the worn-out soil, tended to crumple as it matured. Crops were lost in the harvesting process. He determined to find a short-stemmed alternative. He found the plant he wanted in Japan, one that had the physical characteristics needed, was responsive to heavy fertilization, and had inbred drought and pestilence resistance. The annual wheat breeding cycle made progress slow, but the results were outstanding. Soon farmers were producing two, three and even five times their previous yields. Two years ahead of forecast, Mexico was providing enough wheat for its own needs as well as some for export as experimental seed.
Word spread, and as rapidly as young scientists could be recruited and trained, other countries embarked on programs of improvement in wheat, maize and rice.
Borlaug then turned his attention to Pakistan and India, where he brought together plant breeding, investment in fertilizer, pesticides and water for irrigation, to speed results. Those countries' yield increases came in half the time they took in Mexico.
By 1970, Borlaug's work was being called the Green Revolution, and he was singled out for a Nobel Peace Prize. He said as he accepted the award that the work of conquering hunger was only beginning — and he never stopped. From Pakistan and India he went to the Philippines, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa, with comparable results. Meanwhile, the operation at Mexico City became a world center with the UNESCO food and agriculture organization taking interest. Soon help was arriving from many sources, including the World Bank. Today the Mexico center has established 16 units in different parts of the world, recruiting and training scientists to meet the world's need for food.
The Green Revolution became a social revolution, changing the lives of people in far more ways than eliminating hunger. As Third World nations moved beyond mere subsistence agriculture, their birth rates dropped and their economies began to diversify. Borlaug says that the real heroes of the Green Revolution have been the peasant farmers who were willing to risk change in the farming methods that had been handed down to them for generations.
As he turns 90, he deserves the recognition and thanks of a proud adopted state.
Andersen, former governor and former chairman of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, will turn 95 this June.
The Man Who Defused the "Bomb"
- Steven Martinovich, TCS http://www.techcentralstation.com/032504G.html
In the long history of the global popularity contest known as the Nobel Prizes it's beyond debate that more than a few of them were undeserved. What should also be beyond debate, however, was the merit in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Norman Borlaug in 1970. Despite the fact that Borlaug -- who celebrates his 90th birthday on March 25 -- isn't a household name, he is owed a debt by the world that is simply beyond calculation.
Borlaug's contribution to the world is what we know today as high-yield farming. During the Depression Borlaug, who had already made a name for himself researching the rust fungus, noted that areas that employed high-yield farming saw less soil lost to wind than those that employed traditional practices. Borlaug decided that his life's mission would be to spread the word about the benefits of high-yield farming.
Borlaug took that mission to Mexico in the 1940s when he became director of a wheat program. There he developed crops that were able to grow in a wide variety of climates and more quickly. Combined with fertilizer and irrigation, Borlaug's new wheat was the answer to a problem that not many people were thinking about in the years after the Second World War. The world's population was growing quickly and many third world nations faced the prospect of perpetual famine.
In 1965, India and Pakistan were two of those nations. The famines were so extreme that the institutional resistance to Borlaug's technology disappeared. The results spoke for themselves. Just three years later Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat product. Despite a prediction by Paul Ehrlich in 1968's "The Population Bomb" that it was a "fantasy" that India would ever do the same, it managed the feat for all cereals by 1974. In 1967, the average Indian consumed 1,875 calories a day. That same average Indian consumed 2,466 calories a day in 1998 even while the population of India doubled during that period.
What Borlaug was able to do, as Gregg Easterbrook illustrated in a 1997 Atlantic Monthly essay, was grow more grain, for more people on only marginally more land. Not only had he managed to save the lives of more than one billion people, he also saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed.
"In 1950 the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people; by 1992 production was 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people -- 2.8 times the grain for 2.2 times the population. Global grain yields rose from 0.45 tons per acre to 1.1 tons; yields of corn, rice, and other foodstuffs improved similarly. ... The world's 1950 grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres -- a 170 percent increase from one percent more land," wrote Easterbrook.
The Green Revolution, however, was nearly stopped before it could reach many parts of Africa. By the 1980s the environmentalist movement began to attack Borlaug and the methods he advocated. Under pressure by environmentalists, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, who for decades had underwritten Borlaug's research, decided against spreading high-yield agriculture to Africa. Thanks largely to support by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and a foundation created by the late Japanese businessman Ryoichi Sasakawa are fertilizer driven crops being promoted in the continent that needs increased food production the most.
At an age when most are contemplating the end of their lives, Borlaug continues with his messianic quest. He continues to work with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, teaches agriculture at Texas A&M University and promotes new agricultural technologies in sub-Saharan Africa. Simply put, he continues to add to his legacy as the man, as Easterbrook wrote, who "has already saved more lives than any other person who ever lived." Although his birthday passed with little fanfare, hopefully it reminded some people that the greatest gift received was the one that Borlaug gave to the world.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
Happy Birthday Norman, and Thanks!
- The Ottawa Citizen, March 25, 2004
One might think that a man who does nothing less than save human civilization would be known and revered by all. Unfortunately and inexplicably, that's not true of Norman Borlaug.
Mr. Borlaug, who turns 90 today, is neither soldier nor statesman, but rather a scientist whose life has been devoted to the unglamorous field of agriculture. During the 1940s, Mr. Borlaug bred new wheat varieties in Mexico that more than doubled the country's yields. He later worked all over the Third World, developing new crop varieties and farming techniques. Food yields soared so spectacularly it was dubbed the "Green Revolution."
As a direct result, vast tracts of wilderness in Third World countries that would have been plowed under were preserved. And, by one calculation, the lives of more than one billion people were saved.
As astonishing as these facts may be, they actually understate Mr. Borlaug's achievement. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely believed that the exploding human population would soon outstrip the food supply. Massive famines would break out, popular unrest would topple governments, whole peoples would migrate and wars would erupt. In the worst imaginable scenario, civilization itself would be imperilled.
Norman Borlaug saved us from this Malthusian nightmare. Mr. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, an honour no one has deserved more.
Today, the population explosion is finally slowing. Growth may even cease in a matter of decades. Humanity is close to mastering what is arguably the greatest challenge it has faced in the last millennium. It would be a triumph for the ages -- an eternal demonstration of the wisdom of scientific inquiry and technological advance.
The name of the man who did more than any other to make it happen should be known and revered by all.
More Birthday Wishes to NEB from AgBioView Readers...
Dear Prof. Borlaug, please receive our best and sincerest wishes for your 90th birthday.
We thank you for all the work you did for the benefit of many, particularly those who are hungry, and for your tireless defense of science and reason, especially at a time when they don't look so appealing or necessary for our western societies.
I want to recall what the Gospel tell us about feeding the hungry:
the blessed of my Father,
inherit the reign that hath been prepared for you
from the foundation of the world;
for I did hunger, and ye gave me to eat; (Mt 25,34-35) "
So my best wishes for today are as simple as this:
be blessed, because you've done exactly
what is described in the Gospel and you will deserve the right reward.
Ad multos annos! For many years to come!
- From Piero Morandini, University of Milan, Italy
Dr. Borlaug: Just like hundreds and thousands of students India in the late sixties and early seventies, I too heard about your contributions to India's green revolution. It was not until late eighties that I had the privilege of meeting you on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, but had always been following your leadership of world agriculture. I have heard ever so many legends about your dedication to your field work and the rigorous discipline you have demonstrated to instill values and virtues of hard work among ever so many agricultural scientists. It really not necessary to recant all you have accomplished in your lifetime, and certainly don't want to appear too patronizing.
But, one thing I would like to congratulate you for at a time like this is your great appreciation for modern plant molecular biology and genetic engineering, and their proven potential to solve ever so many agricultural problems. Your unswerving support for biotechnology intervention in developing country agriculture of which you know so well should really open the and minds of opponents who are really standing in the way of progress and doing a great disservice to the poor of the world.
I hope anti-biotech lobby really sees your life time of accomplishments and understand why you support agricultural biotechnology so much, and see the light of the day.
A happy 90the birthday Prof. Borlaug, and May you live long to inspire many more generations of dedicated scientists.
- Shanthu Shantharam, Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD
Dr. Borlaug: I heard and read a lot about you and your remarkable work , I cannot imagine one day when I traveled from my home country Saudi Arabia to attend International Biotech information conference which held in Des Moines, IA. 2003 and sit in front of you listen to your important lecture to us on 14 Oct , 2003 . every word you said still ringing in my mind .
Dr. Borlaug you are great man!
- Dr. Abdullah Al-Baiz, Plant Scientist- Biotechnologist, Saudi Arabia
Dr. Borlaug: In the tough world of overcommunications, it is people like you what makes the difference.
Although you already gained your place in history..., please keep on stating your thoughts, as your voice resounds loud and clear.
Dr. Jaime Costa.
Hello sir, It's been a joy for all of us who are living in this hi-tech era. This was definitely possible due to the "green revolution" being made possible by Dr. N. Borlaug. For a young student like me and also for others definitely be a role model. His commitment to remove hunger in this world through breeding the plants is simply exemplary. I am really a great fan of Dr. Norman Borlaug. Sir, please send my greets to him without any miss.
- Gurumurthy II M.Sc.(Plant Breeding & Genetics), Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. India
Hoover-Wallace Dinner In Honor of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug's 90th Birthday
Under the sponsorship of honorary co-chairs Governor Tom Vilsack, Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, and Former Governors Robert Ray and Terry Branstad, this once-in-a-lifetime event will offer a unique moment for Iowans to both honor Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the man who has saved more lives than anyone else in all human history, and to be present at the creation of an Iowa tradition - the Hoover Wallace Dinner. Each year, this occasion will recall those individuals who have established a great humanitarian legacy for our state.
Tickets for this event are $100 per person. All proceeds will support the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship Program. Founded by Dr. Borlaug, this program sends Iowa high school students on summer internships at major food and agricultural research centers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For more information, contact Jennifer Howard at 1. 800.283.6592 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Misconceptions About Use of Mineral Fertilisers
- S.Govindarajan, IFFCO, Chennai, India
I am very happy to note that my Birthday greetings to Dr N.Borlaug has been forwarded to him. Even in India some of the NGO & even the Scientific community is against the use of mineral fertilisers. The Bureacrats have also started towing this line. They are equating Mineral fertilisers to deadly chemicals used to control pests/diseases. Because of the misconceptions & publicity by strong NGOs, the farmers are getting confused.
I have been engaged in clarifying the misconceptions about mineral fertiliser use on human health and the environment. I have got the material from the articles of Dr. N. Borlaug, Dr Antony Trewaavas & Dr Vaclav Smil. I also got lot of material from your mails on the myths of organic farming. Therefore, I request you to file latest articles on mineral fertilisers & myths about organic farming in addition to GM crops.
......Growing more per acre spares more acres for nature ........
Survey Shows Increased Cotton Yields In India Due To GMO Hybrids
- Yahoo News, Mar. 26, 2004, http://www.cropdecisions.com/show_story.php?id=24256
Genetically modified (GMO) cotton hybrids in India improved yields by 29 percent over traditional varieties last year, according to a survey commissioned by a Monsanto joint venture.
The nationwide study by ACNielsen ORG-MARG, a unit of Dutch publishing and information group VNU, said GMO cotton produced 768 kg per acre, compared with 596 kg from conventional crops. Advocates of GMO crops say developing countries, with smaller-scale farms and relatively poorer farmers, will benefit most from transgenic crops. But environmental organizations say they are bad for the environment and should be banned.
India, which has the world's largest area under cotton but ranks third in output behind China and the United States, opened the door to GMO technology in 2002 after years of trials. It allowed Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co., in which Monsanto Co. owns a 26 percent stake, to sell three hybrids of GMO cotton. Net profit of those farmers who grew GMO cotton was 78 percent more than people with non-GMO varieties, said the study, commissioned by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) -- a joint venture between Mahyco and Monsanto.
In 2003, the country grew transgenic cotton hybrids on about 215,000 acres of land, mainly in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in southern India, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the western part of the country and the central Madhya Pradesh state. The area under GMO cotton is expected to rise to more than 700,000 acres this year, industry officials said. India's total area under cotton is about 22 million acres. India produces about 2.7 million tonnes of cotton annually.
Rice Cultivation: Feast or Famine?
- Nature 428, 360 - 361 (25 March 2004);
'Proponents call it a miracle. Detractors call it smoke and mirrors. Will the System of Rice Intensification feed the hungry third world or needlessly divert farmers from tried and true techniques? Christopher Surridge investigates.'
Wonder rice? The System of Rice Intensification involves more sparsely planted, drier fields than is normal. Its supporters believe it gives more than double the yields of conventional farming.
Rice feeds more than half the people in the world; but not well and not for much longer. As the population rises, so does the demand for rice, yet yields of the crop are levelling out. Already, more than 400 million people endure chronic hunger in rice-producing areas of Asia, Africa and South America. And demand is expected to rise by a further 38% within 30 years, according to the United Nations. To call attention to the problem, the UN has declared 2004 the International Year of Rice. "Rice is on the front line in the fight against world hunger and poverty," says Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
But no amount of fanfare can alter the disheartening conclusion drawn by a growing number of agronomists -- rice yields are approaching their limit. Despite efforts on a variety of fronts, including genetic engineering of rice strains for improved nutrition and growth1, no solution has been found.
In some ways, the debate resembles that currently raging over organic agriculture. For advocates, SRI is a grassroots movement to resist the influence of global agribusiness by reducing dependence on chemical inputs. Detractors call it a waste of time that is diverting resources from more promising approaches such as genetic engineering.
One thing both sides agree on is that meeting the UN's goal of halving hunger and poverty by 2015 will require radical changes in agriculture. Whether this will come from the uplands of Madagascar or the modern agronomy laboratory remains an open question.
Full article at http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/Dynapage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v428/n6981/full/428360a_fs.html