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Corn+Soybean Digest

Biotechnology Will Help Fight World Hunger

It won't help farmers in underdeveloped countries for a number of years, but biotechnology will eventually become an important tool in the fight to end world hunger.

That's the view of world-renowned scientist Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing about the Green Revolution, a term used to describe humanitarian efforts to bring modern high-yield agriculture to underdeveloped countries.

At 84, he continues to consult with ag scientists and government leaders in food-deficit nations on matters that relate to food production.

He believes biotechnology offers immediate benefits, but that its biggest payback will be long-term.

"U.S. grain, cotton and oilseed producers and their domestic and international customers in food, feed and related processing industries all stand to benefit soon from such biotechnological advances as herbicide, insect and disease resistance," he says.

But biotechnology will have no meaning for some time to come in food-deficit countries due to meager education.

Farmers in those countries first must be introduced to basic practices such as soil testing, chemical weed control and the use of commercial fertilizers, and higher-yielding varieties and hybrids.

"If we can give them the benefit of herbicide or insect resistance as we develop adapted hybrids and varieties, there will be some immediate benefit," according to the scientist. "But how much good can it do if their soils are so infertile that the high-yielding insect- and disease-resistant hybrids cannot express their high yield potential?"

Without pointing fingers at any specific group, Borlaug says, "People who oppose the use of biotechnology to improve crop yields are scientifically illiterate. They don't really understand what this does to cut back on the use of chemicals in agriculture, to reduce the cost of production, to protect and sustain the environment, and to provide cheaper food for consumers."

What's more, these attitudes persist because these people have never been hungry, he believes.

"From what some of them say, you'd think we are on the verge of being poisoned out of existence by the fertilizers and pesticides we use in food production. The truth is, where modern crop and livestock production technology is used properly, people enjoy abundant, safe and affordable supplies of food."

When "extreme antiscience environmentalists" speak out about dangers from ag chemicals, they frequently lump together fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, implying they are of similar toxicities, points out Borlaug.

"The truth is, fertilizers are nutrients - food for plants - whereas insecticides, fungicides and herbicides were selected for their toxicity to control organisms that threaten our crops," he states. "Such improper grouping together of these entirely different kinds of agricultural production inputs has contributed greatly to the confusion about food safety and environmental pollution."

People live better and longer than ever before, and the average life span continues to increase, the scientist reminds.

Borlaug believes biotechnology foes are really "afraid of change. Status quo is comfortable, while the fear of the new is frightening."

In that regard, says Borlaug, "they aren't a lot different from some of the senior agricultural scientists I've worked with in some Latin American, Asian and African countries, and in the U.S. and Canada. Rather than embracing new technology and the positive changes it can bring, they fear what might happen if it failed."

Borlaug suggests that, if opponents of biotechnology were concerned about protecting the environment and improving conditions for others in the world, they would embrace the new technology - and maybe even work for its adoption.

"We must use every tool available to us to improve food production around the world," Borlaug insists.

"And that means including biotechnology in our plant breeding programs in addition to all the other modern, proven technologies that have allowed U.S. farmers to lead the world in food production."

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