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Biotechnology is one key to feeding the world, says Nobelist Norman Borlaug

| 23 July 2003


Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug

Biotechnology, chemical fertilizers, and policy changes will be key to feeding the world’s increasing population and protecting the environment, Nobel Laureate Norman E. Borlaug said to a full lecture hall on July 10, during a three-day visit to the Berkeley campus.

Borlaug’s comments were addressed to participants in the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program. This summer certificate course, sponsored by the College of Natural Resources’ Center for Sustainable Resource Development, brings together mid-career environmental professionals from around the world to tackle complex environmental-management issues.

Members of the audience questioned whether expensive technologies developed in industrialized nations are appropriate for developing countries. But Borlaug believes low-income countries can realize significant benefit from such technologies.

Borlaug noted that in the book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson advocated using sprays of the natural bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, instead of synthetic chemicals to control agricultural insect pests. “Now we put the Bt gene directly into corn and cotton. That controls the most important insect pests of cotton in China and Pakistan and can reduce insecticide spray from 12 to 13 [times] annually to two to three.”

In African nations, he continued, family farms are limited by weeds, which are usually controlled by the women of the family with machetes and hoes. Herbicide-resistant crops that allowed for chemical weed control could allow families who only have access to hand tools at present to produce more food and to spend their time in education and other worthwhile activities.

Borlaug’s dreams for biotechnology include transfering the natural rust-resistance found in rice to other grains like wheat, and transfering the proteins in bread wheat that allow leavening to rice and maize.

Borlaug gave the audience historical insight into agricultural advances of the last 50 years but also offered his opinion on several of today’s political and social issues. At one point he criticized the large amount of U.S. spending on the military: “Today we’re worried about terrorism. Is there any better, fertile seedbed for terrorism than hunger and human misery? It’s a time bomb to have as many miserable people as we have in the world today.”

Borlaug also rallied against the currently popular Precautionary Principle, which suggests that preemptive actions to protect human health and the environment take precedence over use of a beneficial technology if there are potential risks.

“The Precautionary Principle depends on where you are and how long it’s been since you’ve seen hungry people,” Borlaug said. “We should use any new crop variety that has an advantage over what is already out there. If you wait for perfection, you’ll never produce anything.”

No simple answers
He emphasized that the environment also benefits from increasing farmland productivity.

“When I was born in 1914 there were 1.6 billion people in the world. Today we have 6.2 billion, with 80 million more each year. By using improved technology, we have been able to feed the world on 660 million hectares of land. If we used the same methods that were used in the 1950s, we would have had to put an additional 1.1 billion hectares under the plow,” Borlaug stated.

“People want simple answers to complex questions, and they aren’t forthcoming,” he said.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his scientific and humanitarian contributions to what is known as the “Green Revolution” in the 1960s. He and other scientists developed high-yield, semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat varieties that were well adapted to growing conditions in Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. He and the scores of young scientists whom he trained at the International Maize and Wheat Improve-ment Center in Mexico are credited with saving millions from starvation.

Today, Borlaug and former President Jimmy Carter lead the Sasakawa-Global 2000 program, which is developing appropriate technology to increase crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa. Borlaug’s other accolades include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more than 50 honorary degrees from universities around the world.

He also founded the World Food Prize, the highest international honor bestowed upon an individual for achievements in improving the world’s food supply and reducing hunger. UC Berkeley has had two World Food Prize recipients, former visiting professor Pedro Sanchez and the late Ray Smith, professor in the Division of Insect Biology.

While Borlaug has fiery answers to issues he holds dear, he also seems open to debate.

“If you never want to be criticized and never want to make a mistake, never do anything in science,” he told Beahrs participants.

To view a webast of Norman Borlaug’s lecture, visit webcast.berkeley.edu.