Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey

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Durum wheat was OK for making flat Arab bread, but it didn't have elastic gluten. The thing that makes modern wheat different from all of the other cereals is that it has two proteins that give it the doughy quality when it's mixed with water. Durum wheats don't have gluten, and that's why we use them to make spaghetti today. The second cross of durum wheat with the other wild wheat produced a wheat whose dough could be fermented with yeast to produce a big loaf. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.

Reason: Environmentalists say agricultural biotech will harm biodiversity.

Borlaug: I don't believe that. If we grow our food and fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we have and what's coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land, with all of their plant and animal diversity. It is because we use farmland so effectively now that President Clinton was recently able to set aside another 50 or 60 million acres of land as wilderness areas. That would not have been possible had it not been for the efficiency of modern agriculture.

In 1960, the production of the 17 most important food, feed, and fiber crops--virtually all of the important crops grown in the U.S. at that time and still grown today--was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled, to 596 million tons, and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960. If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares, about 460 million more acres of land of the same quality--which we didn't have, and so it would have been much more. We would have moved into marginal grazing areas and plowed up things that wouldn't be productive in the long run. We would have had to move into rolling mountainous country and chop down our forests. President Clinton would not have had the nice job of setting aside millions of acres of land for restricted use, where you can't cut a tree even for paper and pulp or for lumber. So all of this ties together.

This applies to forestry, too. I'm pleased to see that some of the forestry companies are very modern and using good management, good breeding systems. Weyerhauser is Exhibit A. They are producing more wood products per unit of area than the old unmanaged forests. Producing trees this way means millions of acres can be left to natural forests.

Reason: A lot of environmental activists claim that the BT toxin gene, which is derived from Bacillus thuringiensis and which has been transferred into corn and cotton, is going to harm beneficial insects like the monarch butterfly. Is there any evidence of that?

Borlaug: To that I [respond], will BT harm beneficial insects more than the insecticides that are sprayed around in big doses? In fact, BT is more specific. There are lots of insects that it doesn't affect at all.

Reason: It affects only the ones that eat the crops.

Borlaug: Right.

Reason: So you don't think that putting the BT gene in corn or cotton is a big problem?

Borlaug: I think that whole monarch butterfly thing was a gross exaggeration. I think the researchers at Cornell who fed BT corn pollen to monarch butterflies were looking for something that would make them famous and create this big hullabaloo that's resulted. In the first place, corn pollen is pretty heavy. It doesn't fly long distances. Also, most monarchs are moving at different times of the season when there's no corn pollen. Sure, some of them might get killed by BT corn pollen, but how many get killed when they are sprayed with insecticides? Activists also say that BT genes in crops will put stress on the pest insects, and they'll mutate. Well, that's been going on with conventional insecticides. It's been going on all my life working with wheat. It's a problem that has been and can be managed.

Reason: But the Cornell researchers went ahead and published their paper on the effects of BT corn pollen on monarch butterflies in the laboratory.

Borlaug: Several of us tried to encourage them to run field tests before it was published. That's how science gets politicized. There's an element of Lysenkoism [Lysenko was Stalin's favorite biologist] all tangled up with this pseudoscience and environmentalism. I like to remind my friends what pseudoscience and misinformation can do to destroy a nation.

Reason: Some activists claim that herbicide-resistant crops end up increasing the amount of herbicide that's sprayed on fields. Do you think that's true?

Borlaug: Look, insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizer cost money, and the farmer doesn't have much margin. He's going to try to use the minimum amount that he can get by with. Probably in most cases, a farmer applies less than he should. I don't think farmers are likely to use too much.

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    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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