Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





October 14, 2000


Borlaug: Ending World Hunger: Promise of Biotechnology and


(It is fitting that on this day October 16 - THE WORLD FOOD DAY, we share
these valuable comments from Dr. Norman Borlaug..and I am indebted to him
for expressing support towards our 'Agbioworld' efforts....CSP)

Ending World Hunger.
The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry

Norman E. Borlaug
Nobel Prize Laureate for Peace, 1970

Plant Physiology, October 2000, Vol. 124, pp. 487–490,
www.plantphysiol.org Editor’s Choice

During the 20th century, conventional breeding produced a vast number of
varieties and hybrids that contributed immensely to higher grain yield,
stability of harvests, and farm income. Despite the successes of the Green
Revolution, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions
miserably poor people is far from won. Mushrooming populations, changing
demographics, and inadequate poverty intervention programs have eroded
many of the gains of the Green Revolution. This is not to say that the
Green Revolution is over. Increases in crop management productivity can be
made all along the line: in tillage, water use, fertilization, weed and
pest control, and harvesting. However, for the genetic improvement of food
crops to continue at a pace sufficient to meet the needs of the 8.3
billion people projected to be on this planet at the end of the quarter
century, both conventional technology and biotechnology are needed.

The majority of agricultural scientists, including myself, anticipate
great benefits from biotechnology in the coming decades to help meet our
future needs for food and fiber. The commercial adoption by farmers of
transgenic crops has been one of the most rapid cases of technology
diffusion in the history of agriculture. Between 1996 and 1999, the area
planted commercially with transgenic crops has increased from 1.7 to 39.9
million ha (James, 1999). In the last 20 years, biotechnology has
developed invaluable new scientific methodologies and products, which need
active financial and organizational support to bring them to fruition. So
far, biotechnology has had the greatest impact in medicine and public
health. However, there are a number of fascinating developments that are
approaching commercial applications in agriculture.

Transgenic varieties and hybrids of cotton, maize, and potatoes,
containing genes from Bacillus thuringiensis that effectively control a
number of serious insect pests, are now being successfully introduced
commercially in the United States. The use of such varieties will greatly
reduce the need for insecticides. Considerable progress also has been made
in the development of transgenic plants of cotton, maize, oilseed rape,
soybeans, sugar beet, and wheat, with tolerance to a number of herbicides.
The develop ment of these plants could lead to a reduction in overall
herbicide use through more specific interventions and dosages. Not only
will this development lower production costs; it also has important
environmental advantages.

Good progress has been made in developing cereal varieties with greater
tolerance for soil alkalinity, free aluminum, and iron toxicities. These
varieties will help to ameliorate the soil degradation problems that have
developed in many existing irrigation systems. These varieties will also
allow agriculture to succeed in acidic soil areas, thus adding more arable
land to the global production base. Greater tolerance of abiotic extremes,
such as drought, heat, and cold, will benefit irrigated areas in several
ways. We will be able to achieve more crop per drop by designing plants
with reduced water requirements and adopting between crop/water management
systems. Recombinant DNA techniques can speed up the development process.

There are also hopeful signs that we will be able to improve fertilize
ruse efficiency by genetically engineering wheat and other crops to have
high levels of Glu dehydrogenase. Transgenic wheats with high Glu
dehydrogenase, for example, yielded up to 29% more crop with the same
amount of fertilizer than did the normal crop (Smil, 1999). Transgenic
plants that can control viral and fungal diseases are not nearly as
developed. Nevertheless, there are some promising examples of specific
virus coat genes in transgenic varieties of potatoes and rice that confer
considerable protection. Other promising genes for disease resistance are
being incorporated into other crop species through transgenic

I would like to share one dream that I hope scientists will achieve in the
not too distant future. Rice is the only cereal that has immunity to the
Puccinia sp. of rust. Imagine the benefits if the genes for rust immunity
in rice could be transferred into wheat, barley, oats, maize, millet, and
sorghum. The world could finally be free of the scourge of the rusts,
which have led to so many famines over human history. The power of genetic
engineering to improve the nutritional quality of our food crop species is
also immense. Scientists have long had an interest in improving maize
protein quality. More than 70 years ago, researchers determined the
importance of certain amino acids for nutrition. More than 50 years ago,
scientists began a search for a maize kernel that had higher levels of Lys
and Trp, two essential amino acids that are normally deficient in maize.
Thirty-six years ago, scientists at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN)
discovered a floury maize grain from the South American Andean highlands
carrying the opaque-2 gene that had much higher levels of Lys and Trp. But
as is all too often the case in plant breeding, a highly desirable trait
turned out to be closely associated with several undesirable ones. The
dull, chalky, soft opaque-2 maize kernels yielded 15% to 20% less grain
weight than normal maize grain. However, scientists from the International
Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Mexico City) who were working with
opaque-2 maize observed little islands of translucent starch in some
opaque-2 endosperms. Using conventional breeding methodologies supported
by rapid chemical analysis of large numbers of samples, the scientists
were able to slowly accumulate modifier genes to convert the original soft
opaque-2 endosperm into vitreous, hard endosperm types. This conversion
took nearly 20 years. Had ge-netic engineering techniques been available
then, the genes that controlled high Lys and Trp could have been inserted
into high-yielding hard-endosperm phenotypes. Thus through the use of
genetic engineering tools, instead of a 35-year gestation period, quality
protein maize could have been available to improve human and animal
nutrition 20 years earlier. This is the power of the new science.

Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich) and the
International Rice Research Institute (Los Baños, The Philippines) have
recently succeeded in transferring genes into rice to increase the
quantities of vitamin A, iron, and other micronutrients. This work could
eventually have profound impact for millions of people with deficiencies
of vitamin A and iron, causes of blindness and anemia, respectively.
Because most of the genetic engineering research is being done by the
private sector, which patents its inventions, agricultural policy makers
must face a potentially serious problem. How will these resource-poor
farmers of the world be able to gain access to the products of
biotechnology research? How long, and under what terms, should patents be
granted for bio-engineered products? Furthermore, the high cost of
biotechnology research is leading to a rapid consolidation in the
ownership of agricultural life science companies. Is this consolidation

These is-sues are matters for serious consideration by national, regional,
and global governmental organizations. National governments need to be
prepared to work with and benefit from the new breakthroughs in
biotechnology. First and foremost, governments must establish regulatory
frameworks to guide the testing and use of genetically modified crops.
These rules and regulations should be reasonable in terms of risk aversion
and implementation costs. Science must not be hobbled by excessively
restrictive regulations. Since much of the biotechnology research is under
way in the private sector, the issue of intellectual property rights must
be addressed and accorded adequate safeguards by national governments.

The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to
feed the 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
movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of
society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop
scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of
whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist
environmental bandwagon in search of research funds.

When scientists align themselves with antiscience political movements or
lend their name to unscientific propositions, what are we to think? Is it
any wonder that science is losing its constituency? We must be on guard
against politically opportunistic, pseudo-scientists like the late Trofim
D. Lysenko, whose bizarre ideas and vicious persecution of his detractors
contributed greatly to the collapse of the former USSR.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has
taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation
to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal
of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity.
It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology
extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for
both the environment and humanity. I often ask the critics of modern
agricultural technology: What would the world have been like without the
technological advances that have occurred? For those who profess a concern
for protecting the environment, consider the positive impact resulting
from the application of science-based technology. Had 1961 average world
cereal yields (1,531 kg/ha) still prevailed, nearly 850 million ha of
additional land of the same quality would have been needed to equal the
1999 cereal harvest (2.06 billion gross metric tons). It is obvious that
such a surplus of land was not available, and certainly not in populous
Asia. More-over, even if it were available, think of the soil erosion and
the loss of forests, grasslands, and wildlife that would have resulted had
we tried to produce these larger harvests with the older, low-input
technology! Nevertheless, the antibiotechnology zealots continue to wage
their campaigns of propaganda and vandalism.

One particularly egregious example of antibiotechnology propaganda came to
my attention during a recent field tour to Africa. An article in
Independent (Walsh, 2000) newspaper from London, entitled “America Finds
Ready Market for Genetically Modified Food: the Hungry,” is accompanied by
a ghastly photograph depicting a man near death from starvation, lying
next to food sacks. The caption below reads “Sudanese man collapsing as he
waits for food from the UN World Food Program.”

The article’s author, Declan Walsh, writing from Nairobi, implies that
there is a conspiracy between the U.S. government and the World Food
Program (WFP) to dump unsafe, American, genetically modified crops into
the one remaining unquestioning market: emergency aid for the world’s
starving and displaced. I, for one, take heartfelt umbrage against this
insult to the WFP, whose workers and collaborators helped feed 86 million
people in 82 countries in 1999. The employees of the WFP are among the
world’s unsung heroes, who struggle against the clock and under
exceedingly difficult conditions to save people from famine. Their
achievements, dedication, and bravery deserve our highest respect and

In his article, Walsh quotes several critics of the use of genetically
modified food in Africa. Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss, from the South African
organization Biowatch, says “The US does not need to grow nor donate
genetically modified crops. To donate untested food and seed to Africa is
not an act of kindness but an attempt to lure Africa into further
dependence on foreign aid.” Dr. Tewolde Gebre Eg-ziabher of Ethiopia
states that “Countries in the grip of a crisis are unlikely to have
leverage to say, ‘This crop is contaminated; we’re not taking it.’ They
should not be faced with a dilemma between allowing a million people to
starve to death and allowing their genetic pool to be polluted.” Neither
of these individuals offers any credible scientific evidence to back their
false assertions concerning the safety of genetically modified foods. The
WFP only accepts food donations that fully meet the safety standards in
the donor country. In the United States, genetically modified foods are
judged to be safe by the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug
Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency and thus they are
acceptable to the WFP. That the European Union has placed a 2-year
moratorium on genetically modified imports says little per se about food
safety, but rather it says more about consumer concerns, largely the
result of unsubstantiated scare mongering done by opponents of genetic

Let’s consider the underlying thrust of Walsh’s article that genetically
modified food is unnatural and unsafe. Genetically modified organisms and
genetically modified foods are imprecise terms that refer to the use of
transgenic crops (i.e. those grown from seeds that contain the genes of
different species). The fact is that genetic modification started long
before humankind started altering crops by artificial selection. Mother
Nature did it, and often in a big way. For example, the wheat groups we
rely on for much of our food supply are the result of unusual (but
natural) crosses between different species of grasses. Today’s bread wheat
is the result of the hybridization of three different plant genomes, each
containing a set of seven chromosomes, and thus could easily be classified
as transgenic. Maize is an-other crop that is the product of transgenic
hybridization (probably of teosinte and Tripsacum). Neo-lithic humans
domesticated virtually all of our food and livestock species over a
relatively short period 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Several hundred
generations of farmer descendents were subsequently responsible for making
enormous genetic modifications in all of our major crop and animal
species. To see how far the evolutionary changes have come, one only needs
to look at the 5000-year-old fossilized corn cobs found in the caves of
Tehuacan in Mexico, which are about one-tenth the size of modern maize
varieties. Thanks to the development of science over the past 150 years,
we now have the insights into plant genetics and breeding to do
purposefully what Mother Nature did herself in the past by chance.

Genetic modification of crops is not some kind of witchcraft; rather, it
is the progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of
feeding the human race. The genetic engineering of plants at the molecular
level is just another step in humankind’s deepening scientific journey
into living genomes. Genetic engineering is not a replacement of
conventional breeding but rather a complementary research tool to identify
desirable genes from remotely related taxonomic groups and transfer these
genes more quickly and precisely into high-yield, high-quality crop
varieties. To date, there has been no credible scientific evidence to
suggest that the ingestion of transgenic products is injurious to human
health or the environment. Scientists have debated the possible benefits
of transgenic products versus the risks soci-ety is willing to take.
Certainly, zero risk is unrealistic and probably unattainable. Scientific
advances al-ways involve some risk that unintended outcomes could occur.
So far, the most prestigious national academies of science, and now even
the Vatican, have come out in support of genetic engineering to improve
the quantity, quality, and availability of food supplies. The more
important matters of concern by civil societies should be equity issues
related to genetic ownership, control, and access to trans-genic
agricultural products.

One of the great challenges facing society in the 21st century will be a
renewal and broadening of scientific education at all age levels that
keeps pace with the times. Nowhere is it more important for knowledge to
confront fear born of ignorance than in the production of food, still the
basic human activity. In particular, we need to close the biological
science knowledge gap in the affluent societies now thoroughly urban and
removed from any tangible relationship to the land. The needless
confrontation of consumers against the use of transgenic crop technology
in Europe and elsewhere might have been avoided had more people received a
better education about genetic diversity and variation. Privileged
societies have the luxury of adopting a very lowrisk position on the
genetically modified crop issue, even if this action later turns out to be
unnecessary. But the vast majority of humankind, including the hungry
victims of wars, natural disasters, and economic crises who are served by
the WFP, does not have such a luxury. I agree with Mr. Walsh when he
speculates that esoteric arguments about the genetic makeup of a bag of
grain mean little to those for whom food aid is a matter of life or death.
He should take this thought more deeply to heart. We cannot turn back the
clock on agriculture and only use methods that were developed to feed a
much smaller population. It took some 10,000 years to expand food
production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year. By 2025,
we will have to nearly double current production again. This increase
cannot be accomplished unless farmers across the world have access to
current high yielding crop production methods as well as new
biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields,
dependability, and nutritional quality of our basic food crops. We need to
bring common sense into the debate on agricultural science and technology
and the sooner the better!


Thirty years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, I
said that the Green Revolution had won a temporary success 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 ephemeral. I now say that the world
has the technology that is either available or well advanced in the
research pipeline to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more
pertinent question today is: Will farmers and ranchers will be permitted
to use this new technology? Extreme environmental elitists seem to be
doing everything they can to derail scientific progress. Small, well
financed, vociferous, and antiscience groups are threatening the
development and application of new technology, whether it is developed
from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science.

I agree fully with a petition written by Professor C.S. Prakash of
Tuskegee University, and now signed by several thousand scientists
worldwide, in support of agricultural biotechnology, which states that no
food products, whether produced with recombinant DNA techniques or more
traditional methods, are totally without risk. The risks posed by foods
are a function of the biological characteristics of those foods and the
specific genes that have been used, not of the processes employed in their

The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more
for food produced by the so called natural methods; the 1 billion
chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot. New technology
will be their salvation, freeing them from obsolete, low yielding, and
more costly production technology.

Most certainly, agricultural scientists and leaders have a moral
obligation to warn the political, educational, and religious leaders about
the magnitude and seriousness of the arable land, food, and population
problems that lie ahead, even with breakthroughs in biotechnology. If we
fail to do so, then we will be negligent in our duty and inadvertently may
be contributing to the pending chaos of incalculable millions of deaths by
starvation. But we must also speak unequivocally and convincingly to
policy makers that global food insecurity will not disappear without new
technology; to ignore this reality will make future solutions all the more
difficult to achieve.

James C (1999) Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 1999.
International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotechnology
Applications Briefs No.12 Preview. International Service for the
Acquisition of Agribiotechnology Applications, Ithaca, NY Smil V (1999)
LongRange Perspectives on Inorganic Fertilizers in Global Agriculture.
Travis P. Hignett Memorial Lecture, International Fertilizer Development
Center, Muscle Shoals, AL Walsh D (2000) America finds ready market for
genetically modified food: the hungry. In The Independent. London, March
30, 2000

Norman E. Borlaug
c/o Chris Dowswell
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Apartado Postal
6–641Colonia Juarez, Mexico D.F. 06000