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Borlaug says biotech proponents have some explaining to do

DES MOINES, Iowa — One of the world’s leading scientists says biotechnology could be the key to feeding a rapidly growing world population. But only if stakeholders do a better job of explaining the benefits of transgenic crops.

Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and World Food Prize founder, says biotechnology can contribute to the 21st century challenge of feeding a world population of 10 billion — if proponents can help the rest of the world understand the need for the breakthrough technology.

Borlaug was the keynote speaker at the International Biotech Conference, a gathering of 75 top policymakers from 35 nations in Des Moines, Iowa. Attendees had an opportunity to do what most Americans never do — witness harvest in full swing in Iowa and see first-hand biotech and non-biotech corn production and handling.

“With available information and research, we can feed 10 billion people. But if we are going to be able to use the technology, we must first end the debate,” Borlaug said, reminding the audience, “You can’t win by being nice guys.”

Borlaug is known as a man who has “saved more lives than any person who has ever lived” because of his “Green Revolution” in wheat development that helped Pakistan, India and a number of other countries improve their food production in the 1960s.

Since then, he has continued working tirelessly in saving millions from starvation and suffering, mainly through the World Food Prize, which he established in 1976.

If not for biotechnology, the roadblocks to feeding the world are downright scary, according to Borlaug. For instance, he noted, the world food supply must be doubled over the next 30 years.

“However, 80 percent of future growth in food production must come from lands already in production,” he said, adding there is limited potential for land expansions except in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa itself, with 200 million hungry people, according to Borlaug, presents the greatest concern. “Africa faces declining soil fertility and little application of improved technology, rural isolation because of a lack of roads and transportation and poor education and health services,” he said.

Before the technology to increase yields, battle pests, disease and weeds, resist drought and adverse weather conditions and improve nutritional quality is put to use on a worldwide basis, Borlaug said, the debate over “GMOs” needs to end. He explained that the term GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a misnomer that leftwing environmental groups use to create unwarranted fear and skepticism.

“After all, Mother Nature is a biotechnologist,” he said, describing the slow, natural evolution of wheat from its early varieties to the bread wheat that is used today. Before issuing his call to action to technology providers and producers to better communicate the benefits of biotechnology, Borlaug said he has his own personal “biotechnology dreams.”

“I have a dream that someday we will be able to transfer rice’s immunity to rusts to other cereals such as wheat, maize, sorghum and barley,” he said. “I also envision the transfer of bread wheat’s proteins for making superior dough for leavened bread to other cereals, especially rice and maize.”

In addition to hearing from Borlaug, conferees got a close-up look at agriculture during tours of the farm of Iowa Corn Promotion Board President Gordon Wassenaar, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Hy-Vee Supermarket, Iowa State University, and the Greater Omaha Pack Facility in Nebraska.

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