Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey

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Reason: Could genetically engineered crops help farmers in developing countries?

Borlaug: Biotech has a big potential in Africa, not immediately, but down the road. Five to eight years from now, parts of it will play a role there. Take the case of maize with the gene that controls the tolerance level for the weed killer Roundup. Roundup kills all the weeds, but it's short-lived, so it doesn't have any residual effect, and from that standpoint it's safe for people and the environment. The gene for herbicide tolerance is built into the crop variety, so that when a farmer sprays he kills only weeds but not the crops. Roundup Ready soybeans and corn are being very widely used in the U.S. and Argentina. At this stage, we haven't used varieties with the tolerance for Roundup or any other weed killer [in Africa], but it will have a role to play.

Roundup Ready crops could be used in zero-tillage cultivation in African countries. In zero tillage, you leave the straw, the rice, the wheat if it's at high elevation, or most of the corn stock, remove only what's needed for animal feed, and plant directly [without plowing], because this will cut down erosion. Central African farmers don't have any animal power, because sleeping sickness kills all the animals--cattle, the horses, the burros and the mules. So draft animals don't exist, and farming is all by hand and the hand tools are hoes and machetes. Such hand tools are not very effective against the aggressive tropical grasses that typically invade farm fields. Some of those grasses have sharp spines on them, and they're not very edible. They invade the cornfields, and it gets so bad that farmers must abandon the fields for a while, move on, and clear some more forest. That's the way it's been going on for centuries, slash-and-burn farming. But with this kind of weed killer, Roundup, you can clear the fields of these invasive grasses and plant directly if you have the herbicide-tolerance gene in the crop plants.

Reason: What other problems do you see in Africa?

Borlaug: Supplying food to sub-Saharan African countries is made very complex because of a lack of infrastructure. For example, you bring fertilizer into a country like Ethiopia, and the cost of transporting the fertilizer up the mountain a few hundred miles to Addis Ababa doubles its cost. All through sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of roads is one of the biggest obstacles to development--and not just from the standpoint of moving agricultural inputs in and moving increased grain production to the cities. That's part of it, but I think roads also have great indirect value. If a road is built going across tribal groups and some beat-up old bus starts moving, in seven or eight years you'll hear people say, "You know, that tribe over there, they aren't so different from us after all, are they?"

And once there's a road and some vehicles moving along it, then you can build schools near a road. You go into the bush and you can get parents to build a school from local materials, but you can't get a teacher to come in because she or he will say, "Look, I spent six, eight years preparing myself to be a teacher. Now you want me to go back there in the bush? I won't be able to come out and see my family or friends for eight, nine months. No, I'm not going." The lack of roads in Africa greatly hinders agriculture, education, and development.

Reason: Environmental activists often oppose road building. They say such roads will lead to the destruction of the rain forests or other wildernesses. What would you say to them?

Borlaug: These extremists who are living in great affluence...are saying that poor people shouldn't have roads. I would like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their children raised out there. Let's see whether they'd have the same point of view then.

I should point out that I was originally trained as a forester. I worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and during one of my assignments I was reputed to be the most isolated member of the Forest Service, back in the middle fork of the Salmon River, the biggest primitive area in the southern 48 states. I like the back country, wildlife and all of that, but it's wrong to force poor people to live that way.

Reason: Does the European ban on biotechnology encourage elites in developing countries to say, "Well, if it's not good enough for Europeans, it's not good enough for my people"?

Borlaug: Of course. This is a negative effect. We always have this. Take the case of DDT. When it was banned here in the U.S. and the European countries, I testified about the value of DDT for malaria control, especially throughout Africa and in many parts of Asia. The point I made in my testimony as a witness for the USDA was that if you ban DDT here in the U.S., where you don't have these problems, then OK, you've got other insecticides for agriculture, but when you ban it here and then exert pressures on heads of government in Africa and Asia, that's another matter. They've got serious human and animal diseases, and DDT is important. Of course, they did ban DDT, and the danger is that they will do the same thing with biotech now.

Reason: What do you see as the future of biotechnology in agriculture?

Borlaug: Biotechnology will help us do things that we couldn't do before, and do it in a more precise and safe way. Biotechnology will allow us to cross genetic barriers that we were never able to cross with conventional genetics and plant breeding. In the past, conventional plant breeders were forced to bring along many other genes with the genes, say, for insect or disease resistance that we wanted to incorporate in a new crop variety. These extra genes often had negative effects, and it took years of breeding to remove them. Conventional plant breeding is crude in comparison to the methods that are being used with genetic engineering. However, I believe that we have done a poor job of explaining the complexities and the importance of biotechnology to the general public.

Reason: A lot of activists say that it's wrong to cross genetic barriers between species. Do you agree?

Borlaug: No. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera--that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man. Today's modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire.

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  • Derek Williams||

    Indeed this message is positive, however, its solutions are comparable with highways and traffic control. The roads get clogged so local authorities put in highways. People say "ooh, there's a highway going in, let's move there and build our house, raise kids and send them so to school and use the local supermarkets. " Once again, the authorities are faced with increased consumption and put in yet more highways in a cycle that never ends. The same applies to food production - population increases add to demand for food, and as this is met, populations accordingly increase. To me it's like using credit cards to pay other credit cards, the bubble is bound to burst, and the longer we leave it, the bigger the disaster is going to be. The world needs to curtail population growth and sustainably manage resources now, otherwise Mother Nature will do it for us, and I am sure we won't like the consequences for the human race.

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    The same applies to food production - population increases add to demand for food, and as this is met, populations accordingly increase.


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