I'm not enthusiastic about being a GM food guinea pig, but the outright banning of such crops will result in eventual starvation of millions. The world carry-over supply of grains is now at the lowest level in 50 years. Grain and food prices in general are climbing rapidly.
Rachel Carson succeeded in killing 100,000,000 people by outlawing DDT. Norman Borlaug succeeded in saving over one billion people by spawning the "Green Revolution".
In the 1960s, rice yields in India were about two tons per hectare; by the mid-1990s, they had risen to six tons per hectare. In the 1970s, rice cost about $550 a ton; in 2001, it cost less than $200 a ton. India became one of the world's most successful rice producers, and is now a major rice exporter, shipping nearly 4.5 million tons in 2006.
Famine in India, once accepted as inevitable, has not returned since the introduction of Green Revolution agriculture. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution
ActionBioscience.org: What do you say to those who oppose the use of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries?
Borlaug: Biotechnology will help these countries accomplish things that they could never do with conventional plant breeding. The technology is more precise and farming becomes less time consuming. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production so it won't be so critical.
You have to recognize food habits and it's difficult to change food habits. You have to start with the crops that are the most basic to the country and apply technology to it so you can double or triple the yield. You begin by planting in select test plots to demonstrate to farmers the potential of the new crop. You can bring seed to them easier than fertilizer. In places where fertilizer is available, many farmers don't have the money to buy it anyway. Farmers who see success in their test plots will be able to help change governmental policy and public attitude towards biotechnology.
Herbicide-resistant crops are important in places like Africa.
Traditional plant breeding methods remain important.
There is a big potential for biotech in Africa. For example, Roundup Ready� crops. The gene for herbicide tolerance is built into the crops. These kinds of biotech crops promote good farming methods. For example, traditional African farms are plagued with razor-sharp grasses and so the farmers slash and burn. Herbicide-resistant crops can eliminate these grasses.
While biotechnology holds much promise in food production, we cannot ignore conventional plant breeding methods since these methods continue to be important. In the last century, conventional breeding produced higher yields and will continue to do so in this century.
There are allergenic risks with both natural and GM foods.
ActionBioscience.org: Studies have shown that some genetically modified (GM) food crops carry toxins and allergens. Aren't these foods a health risk to humans?
Borlaug: There is no good evidence of toxicity in these foods but I am aware that allergenic properties may exist. Allergies caused by natural foods have been with us for a long time, so why wouldn't they happen with GM crops? Researchers are constantly monitoring crops for allergens and should be able to modify seeds to lessen the risks. There is a report by scientists at University of California at Berkeley who analyzed foods, including some that humans have eaten since the dawn of agriculture. The report shows that there are natural foods that contain trace amounts of natural chemicals that are toxic or carcinogenic. These foods don't seem to harm us.
If you're a theoretical scientist, you can philosophize about this but I've been in the field for a long time and I believe genetically modified food crops will stop world hunger. I recognize the value of crops created by traditional plant breeding but I also see the viability of crops that carry an herbicide-resistant gene or whatever gene is incorporated by biotechnology.
By using less land, biotech farming has less impact on the environment.
Conventional farming can destroy wildlife habitat when cropland is expanded.
ActionBioscience.org: What about risks to the environment?
Borlaug: Biotechnology helps farmers produce higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally favorable benefit. For example, the world's grain output in 1950 was 692 million tons. Forty years or so later, the world's farmers used about the same amount of acreage but they harvested 1.9 billion tons -- a 170% increase! We would have needed an additional 1.8 billion hectares of land, instead of the 600 million used, had the global cereal harvest of 1950 prevailed in 1999 using the same conventional farming methods.
If we had continued practicing conventional farming, we would have cut down millions of acres of forest, thereby destroying wildlife habitat, in order to increase cropland to produce enough food for an escalating population. And we would have to use more herbicides in more fields, which would damage the environment even more. Technology allows us to have less impact on soil erosion, biodiversity, wildlife, forests, and grasslands.
Biotech patents add to the cost of farming.
Governments must address patents, research, and education.
ActionBioscience.org: Can farmers in developing nations access biotech products?
Borlaug: In spite of biotech's great potential, access is a problem. Most of the research on crops is conducted by private enterprise and corporations hold patents on their inventions. Farmers in developing nations have little resources. How can they afford these patented products? Global governments need to seriously address the problem.
Governments also need to address issues such as a framework for testing genetically modified foods, funding research in the public sector, and educating the public better about agricultural science and technology. Most people in the "western" world are urbanites and they don't know what it takes to feed the world. These people can afford to buy expensive "organic" food and to criticize genetically modified food. They pressure governments to ban genetically modified foods and that could be disastrous for developing nations.
Conclusion: Better agricultural methods for increasing yields will be needed as global populations escalate.
ActionBioscience.org: What do you see for the Green Revolution in this century?
Borlaug: The Green Revolution is an ongoing continuum. Millions of people are currently undernourished in the world. The world population for 2025, at a medium fertility rate, is projected to be about 8.3 billion people. I calculate that we will need an additional one billion tons of grain by then. We have to increase yields to feed these people -- more bushels per acre, more tons per hectare. Higher yields are especially important now due to spreading urbanization, which takes away agricultural land. We will need to use both conventional breeding and biotechnology methods to meet the challenges of this century.
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About the author: Norman Borlaug, Ph.D., father of the "Green Revolution," received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime work helping feed the world's hungry. Dr. Borlaug currently divides his time as a Senior Scientist at the Rockefeller Foundation and as a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, at Texas A&M University. He also serves as ex-officio consultant on wheat research and production problems to many governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. His numerous civic and scientific awards include the 1977 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2002 Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences USA. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences USA, has said of Borlaug: "Some credit him with saving more human lives than any other person in history." Dr. Borlaug received his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota in 1941.