Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey

(Page 4 of 5)

Reason: What other crop pests might biotech control in the future?

Borlaug: All of the cereals except rice are susceptible to one to three different species of rust fungi. Now, rusts are obligate parasites. They can only live under green tissue, but they are long-lived. They can move in the air sometimes 100, 500, 800 miles, and they get in the jet stream and fall. If the crop variety is susceptible to rust fungi and moisture is there and the temperature is right, it's like lighting a fire. It just destroys crops. But rice isn't susceptible--no rust....One thing that I hope to live to see is somebody taking that block of rust-resistance genes in rice and putting it into all of the other cereals.

Reason: Do biotech crops pose a health risk to human beings?

Borlaug: I see no difference between the varieties carrying a BT gene or a herbicide resistance gene, or other genes that will come to be incorporated, and the varieties created by conventional plant breeding. I think the activists have blown the health risks of biotech all out of proportion.

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.

Reason: What do you think of Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown and his work?

Borlaug: I've known Lester Brown personally for more than 40 years. He's done a lot of good, but he vacillates, depending on the way the political and economic winds are blowing, and he's sort of inclined to be a doomsayer.

Reason: He recently said, "The world's farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to our numbers." Do you agree with that?

Borlaug: No, I do not. With the technology that we now have available, and with the research information that's in the pipeline and in the process of being finalized to move into production, we have the know-how to produce the food that will be needed to feed the population of 8.3 billion people that will exist in the world in 2025.

I don't like to try to see further than about 25 years. In 1970, at the Nobel Prize press conference, I said I can see that we have the technology to produce the food that's needed to the year 2000, and that we can do it without destroying a lot of the environment. Modern agriculture saves a lot of land for nature, for wildlife habitat, for flood control, for erosion control, for forest production. All of those are values that are important to society in general, and especially to the privileged who have a chance to spend a lot of long vacations out looking at nature. I say we can produce enough food with the technology available and what's in the process of being developed, assuming that we don't have all this agricultural progress destroyed by the doomsayers. That is, we will be able to produce enough food in 2025 without expanding the area under cultivation very much and without having to move into semi-arid or forested mountainous topographies.

Reason: It seems that every five years or so, Lester Brown predicts that massive famines are imminent. Why does he do that? They never happen.

Borlaug: I guess it sells. I guess what he writes has a lot to do with raising funds.

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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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