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Column: Concern over biotech crops unwarranted, Borlaug says

Since his youth on an Iowa farm, Norman Borlaug has spent a lot of years in Third World countries, received the Nobel Peace Prize, and garnered honors galore. All this has rewarded him with a bully pulpit that he doesn’t hesitate to use.

At USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum 2005, he minced few words in his remarks, loosely titled “From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution — a 21st Century Challenge.”

Honored by the Nobel committee for his “Green Revolution” that boosted crop production in Third World nations and saved millions from starvation, his work was with crops bred and developed in the laborious, time-consuming manner. Nonetheless, he is a firm believer in the utilization of genetically engineered crop varieties to help meet world food needs.

“I don’t understand all the dread and furor over these products,” he said. “There’s no scientific justification for it — it’s simply resistance to change.”

People too often forget their own heritage when it comes to scientific progress,” Borlaug said, citing his own example. “I’m a product of horse-drawn agriculture; I attended a one-room country school for eight years. I lived in the ‘good old days’ that people say they yearn to return to, and I can tell you, they weren’t so good. In fact, they were pretty miserable.”

Assertions that “we’re being poisoned out of existence” by pesticides and bioengineered crops just don’t hold water, he said, and life expectancy statistics bear that out. “In 1900, a boy baby had a life expectancy of 46 years, a girl 47 years. By 2000, it was 75 years for a boy, 80 for a girl.

“There will be many more new developments from biotechnology, and we need to use them for mankind’s benefit.”

And “organic” farming? “All my work has been on worn-out lands — not beautiful soils like in the United States — and fertilizer and nutrients have been of tremendous importance to increasing crop production in these countries. You can’t eat superior genetics until it’s converted to grain, and that means adequate fertility, weed control, conservation measures, and availability of inputs.

“China is the world’s expert in organic fertilizer. I’ve always said there should be no debate between the use of organic or chemical fertilizers.” His voice rises to pay-attention level: “Use all the organics available, but for God’s sake, don’t try to tell the world that we can produce the food that’s needed without chemical fertilizers. Yet we hear it on the television and in great debates. It’s nonsense!”

Borlaug is concerned, too, about the diminishment of agricultural research in the public sector. “We need to restore public funding. Maintaining a balance between public and private research is essential.”

All the research before World War II was in the public arena, he said: universities, land grant colleges, departments of agriculture, etc. After World War II, the private sector took over, and the network we established in transferring technology and in the training of young scientists to work in the Third World was diminished.

“That system is broken down. We need to be training these young people.”


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