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March 23, 2000


Billions Served: Interview with Borlaug


Times_New_RomanRonald Bailey of Reason
has just come out with a splendid interview with Dr. Norman Borlaug.
Read it at
.. I have reproduced some excerpts below.

Ron Bailey is also covering
the BIO 2000 Conference for

Reason magazine and will be doing daily dispatches that will be posted
on the Reason

website starting Monday, March 27. Please read it at site




EASON * April

Billions Served

"REASON Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey met with
Borlaug at Texas A&M, where he is Distinguished Professor in the Soil
and Crop Sciences Department and still teaches classes on occasion.
Despite his achievements, Borlaug is a modest man who works out of a
small windowless office in the university's agricultural

You mentioned that you are afraid that the doomsayers
could stop the progress in food production.

Borlaug: It worries me, if they gum up all of these
developments. It's elitism, and the American people are vulnerable to
this, too. I'm talking about the extremists here and in Western
Europe....In the U.S., 98 percent of consumers live in cities or urban
areas or good-size towns. Only 2 percent still live out there on the
land. In Western Europe also, a big percentage of the people live off
the farms, and they don't understand the complexities of agriculture.
So they are easily swayed by these scare stories that we are on the
verge of being poisoned out of existence by farm chemicals.

Bruce Ames, the head of biochemistry at Berkeley, has analyzed hundreds
and hundreds of foods, including all of the basic ones that we have
been eating from the beginning of agriculture up to the present time.
He has found that they contain trace amounts of many completely natural
chemical compounds that are toxic or carcinogenic, but they're present
in such small quantities that they apparently don't affect us".

Reason: Could genetically engineered crops help farmers in
developing countries?

Borlaug: Biotech has a big potential in Africa, not
immediately, but down the road. Five to eight years from now, parts of
it will play a role there. .........

Reason: What other problems do you see in Africa?

Borlaug: Supplying food to sub-Saharan African countries
is made very complex because of a lack of infrastructure. For example,
you bring fertilizer into a country like Ethiopia, and the cost of
transporting the fertilizer up the mountain a few hundred miles to
Addis Ababa doubles its cost. All through sub-Saharan Africa, the lack
of roads is one of the biggest obstacles to development--and not just
from the standpoint of moving agricultural inputs in and moving
increased grain production to the cities. .......

Reason: Environmental activists often oppose road
building. They say such roads will lead to the destruction of the rain
forests or other wildernesses. What would you say to them?

Borlaug: These extremists who are living in great
affluence...are saying that poor people shouldn't have roads. I would
like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but
be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their
children raised out there. Let's see whether they'd have the same point
of view then.............

Reason: What do you see as the future of biotechnology in

Borlaug: Biotechnology will help us do things that we
couldn't do before, and do it in a more precise and safe way.
Biotechnology will allow us to cross genetic barriers that we were
never able to cross with conventional genetics and plant breeding. In
the past, conventional plant breeders were forced to bring along many
other genes with the genes, say, for insect or disease resistance that
we wanted to incorporate in a new crop variety. These extra genes often
had negative effects, and it took years of breeding to remove them.
Conventional plant breeding is crude in comparison to the methods that
are being used with genetic engineering. However, I believe that we
have done a poor job of explaining the complexities and the importance
of biotechnology to the general public.

Reason: A lot of activists say that it's wrong to cross
genetic barriers between species. Do you agree?

Borlaug: No. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has
crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between
genera--that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of
wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long
before there was scientific man. .......

Reason: Environmentalists say agricultural biotech will
harm biodiversity.

Borlaug: I don't believe that. If we grow our food and
fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we
have and what's coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and
biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land, with all of
their plant and animal diversity........

Reason: A lot of environmental activists claim that the BT
toxin gene, which is derived from Bacillus
and which has been transferred into corn and
cotton, is going to harm beneficial insects like the monarch butterfly.
Is there any evidence of that?

Borlaug: To that I [respond], will BT harm beneficial
insects more than the insecticides that are sprayed around in big
doses? In fact, BT is more specific. There are lots of insects that it
doesn't affect at all.

Reason: So you don't think that putting the BT gene in
corn or cotton is a big problem?

Borlaug: I think that whole monarch butterfly thing was a
gross exaggeration. I think the researchers at Cornell who fed BT corn
pollen to monarch butterflies were looking for something that would
make them famous and create this big hullabaloo that's resulted. In the
first place, corn pollen is pretty heavy. It doesn't fly long
distances. Also, most monarchs are moving at different times of the
season when there's no corn pollen. Sure, some of them might get killed
by BT corn pollen, but how many get killed when they are sprayed with
insecticides? Activists also say that BT genes in crops will put stress
on the pest insects, and they'll mutate. Well, that's been going on
with conventional insecticides. It's been going on all my life working
with wheat. It's a problem that has been and can be managed.

Reason: But the Cornell researchers went ahead and
published their paper on the effects of BT corn pollen on monarch
butterflies in the laboratory.

Borlaug: Several of us tried to encourage them to run
field tests before it was published. That's how science gets
politicized. There's an element of Lysenkoism [Lysenko was Stalin's
favorite biologist] all tangled up with this pseudoscience and
environmentalism. I like to remind my friends what pseudoscience and
misinformation can do to destroy a nation.

Reason: Some activists claim that herbicide-resistant
crops end up increasing the amount of herbicide that's sprayed on
fields. Do you think that's true?

Borlaug: Look, insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizer
cost money, and the farmer doesn't have much margin. He's going to try
to use the minimum amount that he can get by with. Probably in most
cases, a farmer applies less than he should. I don't think farmers are
likely to use too much. ........

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of
people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a
debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you
have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get
them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In
addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase
cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and
cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen
nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen
organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of
cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to
sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of
nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive
value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's
absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better
nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that
nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic
matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of
view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy
it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the
world that we can feed the present population without chemical
fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.