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Is there enough food?
Biotechnology can feed eight billion people if farmers are permitted
to use it, says noted agronomist and Nobel Laureate DR. NORMAN
Nearly 30 years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace
Prize, I said that the green revolution was a temporary victory 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
Agricultural science has so far been able to meet food production
demands as projected.
But the population monster continues to run amok. During the 1990's
alone, world population grew by nearly a billion people and will grow
again by another billion during the first decade of the 21st century.
It is projected to reach 8.3 million by 2025 before stabilizing
(hopefully) at about 10 billion towards the end of next century.
Clearly, the most fundamental challenge ahead is to produce and
equitably distribute an adequate food supply for this heavily burdened
I believe that we have the agricultural technology- either already
available or well advanced in the research pipeline- to feed those 8.3
billion people anticipated in the next quarter of a century. The more
pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be
permitted to use that technology.
Extremists in the environmental movements from the rich nations seem
to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its
tracks. Small but vociferous, highly effective and well funded
Luddites are predicting doom and provoking fear, slowing the
application of new technology, whether it be transgenics,
biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science.
Witness the campaign against genetically modified crops called
"Frankenstein Food" by activists in Great Britain and elsewhere in
I am particularly alarmed by those elitists who seek to deny
small-scale farmers in the third world, especially in sub-Saharan
Africa, access to conventionally improved seeds, fertilizers and crop
protection chemicals that have allowed affluent nations the luxury of
plentiful, and inexpensive, foodstuff which, in turn, has accelerated
their economic development.
While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food
produced by so-called "organic" methods, the one billion chronically
undernourished people of the low income, food deficit nations cannot.
(There is not enough " organic fertilizer" to produce the food for
today's population of six billion. If we attempt to produce the
equivalent of the 80 million tones of nutrient nitrogen from manure
needed for such a task, world cattle production would have to increase
to five or six billion head).
Of course we must be environmentally responsible. I have always
subscribed to what, in the old days, we called "integrated crop-
management" and is today called "sustainability" - utilizing the land
for the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the
longest period of time.
But today's extremist thinking is dangerously misguided. Most
worrisome, it preys upon a "knowledge gap" about the complexities of
biology among the general public in the affluent societies - now
thoroughly urban and removed from any relationship to the land - that
grows ever greater with the rapid advances in genetics and plant
No doubt, one of the other great challenges of the coming century is a
renewal and broadening of scientific education - particularly in
primary, secondary and early college levels - that keeps pace with the
times. Nowhere is it more important for knowledge to confront fear
born of ignorance than in this basic activity of mankind - the
production of food.
The needless confrontation of consumers against the use of transgenic
crop technology, now so widespread in Europe and growing in the United
States and Asia, could have been avoided with sound education about
genetic diversity and variation.
The fact is we cannot turn back the clock on agriculture and only use
methods that were developed to feed a much smaller number of people.
It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current
level of about 5 billion tones per year. By 2025 we will have to
nearly double that amount, and that cannot be done unless farmers
across the world have access to current high yield crop - production
methods and to continuing bio-technology break-throughs.
Nature's Own GM Foods
"Genetically Modified organism" (GMO) and "Genetically Modified Food"
(GMF) are ambiguous, and imprecise, terms that have contributed
greatly to the fuss over the use of transgenic crops- crops grown
from seeds that contain the genes of different species.
But long before mankind started breeding plants, Mother Nature did.
The wheat groups we currently rely on for much of our food supply are
the result of natural crosses between different species of grasses.
Today's bread wheat is made up of three different plant genomes, each
containing a set of seven chromosomes each. The most primitive wheat
types are called "diploids", which still grow wild in their zone of
origin in the near East. Before agriculture was born, diploid wheat
crossed with another wild grass and became the first major wheat crop
of commerce, which we know as "tetraploids", the durum of pasta
wheat.. This wheat dates back to the Sumerians from 3500 B.C and
remained the most important wheat of commerce until well into the
Roman period. Then somewhere - no one knows where - the tetraploids
crossed with another species of wild grass to produce the bread
wheat's from which we make livened bread today.
What probably happened is that a light frost killed the pollen in the
male stamen at a temperature just below freezing, but leaving the
female receptive. The female stigma exerted itself on the outside of
the plant on the feathery end of the stock, where the pollen from
another plant landed. Thus, a new cross species was born. Nature's own
' GM food'.
Thus, the bread wheat varieties that account for 98% of the tonnage of
wheat produced today are 'transgenic'.
Thanks to the development of science in the past couple of centuries,
we now have the insights into plant genetics and breeding to do
purposefully what Mother Nature herself did in the past by chance or
design. Genetic modification of crops is not some kind of witchcraft;
like cultivation, it harnesses the forces of nature to the benefit of
feeding the human race.
The Promise of Biotechnology
Over the past 7 decades, conventional plant breeding has produced vast
numbers of improved varieties and hybrids that have contributed
immensely to higher grain on yield, stability of harvests and farm
income. But there has been no major increase in the maximum genetic
yield potential of wheat and rice since the dwarf varieties that gave
rise to the green revolution of the 1960's and the 1970's.
To meet the rapidly growing food needs of the population, we must find
new and appropriate technologies to raise cereal crop yields. Recent
developments in animal bio-technology have produced Bovine somata
tropin ( BST), now widely used to increase milk production. Currently,
vast commercial areas are planted with transgenic varieties and
hybrids of cotton, maize and potatoes that contain genes from Bacillus
thuringiensis, which effectively control a number of serious insect
pests. The use of such varieties will protect crops while greatly
reducing the need for insecticide sprays and dusts. Great progress has
also been made in development of transgenic plants of cotton, maize,
oilseed rape, soybean, sugar beets and wheat with tolerance to a
number of herbicides. This can lead to a reduction in herbicide use
by much more specific dosages and timing of applications.
There are also promising developments of transgenic plants for the
control of viral and fungal diseases, especially by employing 'virus
coat protein' genes in transgenetic varieties of rice and potatoes.
Obviously the reduction of damage to crops by pestilence and disease
Finally, preliminary experiments have shown that inserted genes from
some species can help crops with stand, drought conditions.
Raising yield levels on existing agricultural lands, new frontiers
Total global food production now stands at around 5 billion metric
tones annually. (Had the world's food supply been distributed evenly
in 1994, it would have provided an adequate diet of 2,350 calories per
day for a year for 6.4 billion people - about 800 million more than
the actual population).
To meet projected food demands, however, the average yield of all
cereals must be increased by 80 percent between now and 2025. Using
currently available technologies, yield can still be doubled in much
of the Indian continent, Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern
Europe and by 100-200 percent in sub - Saharan Africa - provided that
political stability is maintained, entrepreneurial initiative is let
loose, and production inputs are made available at farm level.
Yield gains in Industrial North America and Western Europe will be
much harder to achieve since they already have such high levels.
Still, with genetic engineering break - throughs, yield in these areas
could increase as much as 20 percent over the next 35 years.
The most frightening prospect of food insecurity is found in sub -
Saharan Africa where the number of chronically under nourished people
could actually rise to several hundred million people if current
trends of declining per capita production are not reversed.
Increasing population pressures, extreme poverty, disease and lack of
health care, poor education, poor soil, uncertain rainfall, changing
ownership patterns for land and cattle and poorly developed
infrastructure combine to make agricultural development very
Despite these challenges, many of the elements that worked in Asia and
Latin America during the 1960's and 1970's can also work to bring a
green revolution to sub - Saharan Africa. An effective system to
deliver modern inputs - seeds, fertilizers, crop protection chemicals
- and market output must be established. If this is done, subsistence
farmers, who constitute more than 70 per cent of the population in
most countries there, can have a chance to feed their people.
What about new lands for growing food? The vast asset soils area found
in the Brazilian cerrado or Savannah and Llanos of Columbia and
Venezuela, Central and South Africa and Indonesia are among the last
major land frontiers available for agriculture. As with the Brazilian
cerrado, these lands have historically never been cultivated because
their soils were leached of nutrients long before humankind appeared
on the planet. These soils are strongly acidic and have toxic levels
of soluble aluminum.
Improved crop management systems built in recent years around liming,
fertilizing to restore nutrients, crop rotation and minimum tillage
have made these lands productive. Newly developed varieties of
tolerant-tolerant soybeans, maize, rice and wheat sorghum are now also
being cultivated in these areas.
By 1990, 20 million tones of rain-fed crops were grown on 10 million
hectares (out of 100 million potentially arable hectares). By 2010,
food production in the cerrado is expected to increase to 98 million
tonnes, a four-fold increase over 1990.
The Moral Obligation
At the end of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, more than
400 scientists presented and appealed to heads of state and
government. That appeal has now been signed by thousands of scientists
including myself. Let me quote the last paragraph:
"The greatest evils which stalk our earth are ignorance and
oppression, and not science, technology and industry, whose
instruments, when adequately managed are indispensable tools, in
overcoming overpopulation, starvation and worldwide diseases".
Agricultural scientists and policy makers have a moral obligation to
warn our political, educational and religious leaders about the
magnitude and seriousness of the arable land, food and population
problems that lie ahead. They must also recognize the indirect effect
the huge human population pressures exert on the habitats of many wild
species of flora and fauna, pushing them towards extinction.
If we fail to do so in a forthright manner, we will be contributing to
the pending chaos of incalculable millions of deaths by starvation.
The problem will not vanish by itself: to continue to ignore it will
make a future solution more difficult to achieve.
@Nobel 2000, Distributed by Asia Features
Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, 84-year old microbiologist and agronomist is
hailed as "the father of the Green Revolution". He was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing high yield wheat
and other grain crops in India and throughout the Third World. He is
currently President of the Sasakawa Africa Association, a rural
development project in Africa, and has been chief consultant to the
international maize and wheat improvement center in Mexico City for
the last four decades. He is also professor of International
Agriculture at Texas, A and M. University.