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Painting the Big Picture: War Against Hunger Must Continue

July 7, 1999

Standing straight as a shaft of wheat in his crisp suit and tie, Norman Borlaug could have been mistaken for a retired farmer in his Sunday best. But, although the 1970 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize spoke with the accent of his rural childhood to an international audience at a Global Agricultural Summit in St. Paul, MN, there was no mistaking the voice of a brilliant scientist and crusader against world hunger.

"When I was born (1914 in Cresco, IA), there were 1.6 billion people in the world," Borlaug said. "Today there are nearly six billion and the world population is increasing by 95 million people annually. That's about the number of people in Mexico and we're gaining that many every year." It's estimated that the world population will reach 8.3 billion people by 2025.

In accepting his Nobel Prize, Borlaug predicted that technology available in 1970 could enable the world's farmers to produce enough food to feed a population of around six billion people. "That goal has been accomplished," Borlaug said, noting that hunger is now the result of unequal distribution of wealth rather than lack of production.

But Borlaug warned that, in order for agricultural production to continue outpacing population growth, new technology, like genetically modified crops, will have to be employed. Issues of unequal distribution must be addressed, too, but in most parts of the world, it's technology that demonstrates that a better life is possible.

The lesson of potato blight. "There is no Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture," Borlaug said. "But if Alfred Nobel had written his will in 1856 instead of 1896, there certainly would have been."

In the 1840s, a plant disease that became known as potato late blight first made its appearance in Belgium, then quickly spread across western Europe. Most notorious for causing famine in Ireland, the blight's impact was not confined to a single country.

"The potato had become a staple food throughout Europe," Borlaug said."The food situation became critical and cause mass emigrations across Europe." However, pioneering research into soil fertility, and plant and animal health had begun in the early 1800s and in the wake of the potato famine, great progress was made in controlling plant diseases. So much so that by the last decade of the century, people no longer gave much thought to the trials of an earlier era.

"It goes to show how quickly people forget," Borlaug said. A more recent example is the food shortages that were the rule across North Africa, India and Pakistan in the early to middle 1960s. "The situation was even worse in China, but we didn't hear about then because it happened behind the curtain (of Communism)," Borlaug said.

"Playing with the lives of millions." Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in developing high-yielding varieties of dwarf wheat that could thrive in tropical or semi-tropical areas. The adoption of these varieties by Asian and African farmers in was dubbed "The Green Revolution" and credited with ending famine and promoting political stability in troubled regions.

The Green Revolution was preceded by a "quiet wheat revolution," Borlaug said. In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation began working with the government of Mexico to develop higher-yielding, more disease-resistant varieties of wheat. The time was right for international collaboration in this research because the wheat-growing areas of the United States had become vulnerable to the then-new disease of stem rust.

By 1956, Mexico had become self-sufficient in wheat production and the research was turned over to Mexican scientists that Borlaug and his colleagues had trained. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Borlaug and his team turned their attention to Africa, India and Pakistan.

They established international nurseries and began advocating the adoption of modern agricultural practices, a move that stirred controversy then and is still criticized by some environmentalists today. "We were accused of playing with the lives of millions of peasant farmers," Borlaug said.

In fact, the Green Revolution has proved to be environmentally beneficial. From 1960 to 1995, cereal production in Asia increased from 272 million bushels per year to 801 million bushels. "Using traditional agricultural practices, that would have required another billion hectares of land," Borlaug said.

Borlaug and his associates never looked at new technology as the solution to world hunger outside a context of economic and political reform. "But you have to demonstrate that the technology can work," Borlaug said. "When people are living close to starvation, yield increases of 5 to 10 percent do not mean much to them. Why change the way you do things for that small an increase? But if you can show that yield increases of 50 percent or more are possible, then you can get people excited about it and then you can get in the door of the minister of agriculture's or minister of finance's office to talk about economic reform."

Baffled by anti-biotech activists. Borlaug said he simply can't understand the movement against genetically modified crops. Not only have human beings been modifying the genetics of plants and animals for hundreds of years, nature itself may do so. A spontaneous mutation of wheat occurred sometime in the early Greco-Roman era.

"Mother Nature added a third set of seven chromosomes to the wheat plant," Borlaug said. However, the consequences were anything but catastrophic.

Borlaug affirmed his own love of nature. He received his bachelor's degree in forestry and in the 1930s spent long periods of time living by himself in the back-country of Idaho. Only through the application of high-yield agricultural practices to the land most suited for crop production can the world's remaining wildlife areas be preserved.

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