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Norman Borlaug Cites Importance of Plant Biotechnology in Fighting World Hunger

American Society of Plant Biology
October 31, 2002

(See the video of the talk here. Files are in real media format and require Free RealPlayer Basic. Note that the audio in the videos may be slightly difficult to hear at times. See Video.)

The storybook journey of Norman Borlaug’s life turned a page to the American Society of Plant Biologists at its annual meeting August 3. There in Denver he wrote yet another inspirational chapter for all who came to hear.

"Don’t be satisfied with mediocrity. Don’t waste the potential talent you inherited from your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents! Reach for the stars. You will not reach the stars – but with some stardust in your hands. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish for yourself, your family, community, state, nation and well-being of all humankind," Borlaug exhorted.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Father of the Green Revolution, Borlaug spoke with experience on star reaching and other astronomical feats in plant science. He is credited with saving more lives than any person who has ever lived. Speaking on the prospects for agriculture in the 21st Century, Borlaug said he believes the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people.

"In crop improvement, we will need to apply both conventional breeding and biotechnology methodologies. The new tools of genetic engineering – if scientists are permitted to use them – can permit accelerated development of food crop varieties with greater tolerance to drought, heat, cold and soil mineral toxicities; greater resistance to menacing insects and diseases; and higher nutritional quality levels. African governments should take care not to let these research products pass them by," Borlaug said.

"Of course, governments must prepare themselves with the necessary legislation and regulations to ensure proper testing of genetically modified crops. But they also must ensure that farmers have adequate access to the new technologies that come from these scientific developments."

"The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use the new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called "organic" methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot."

"It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion gross tons per year. Within 25-30 years, we will have to nearly double current production again. This cannot be done unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yielding crop-production methods as well as new biotechnological breakthroughs that can increase the yields, dependability and nutritional quality of our basic food crops," Borlaug said.

Prior to his Perspectives of Science Leaders Presentation coordinated by the Committee on Public Affairs, ASPB President Vicki Chandler presented Dr. Borlaug with the ASPB Leadership in Science Public Service Award in recognition of his contributions to science and humanity. The award is inscribed on a crystal clock.

"Dr. Borlaug serves as an admired and remarkable example for all of us. Dr. Borlaug, we’re proud to have this opportunity to present you with the ASPB Leadership in Science Public Service Award," Chandler said in presenting the award. As Chandler indicated during her introduction of Borlaug, he has followed his own advice on reaching for the stars and has been rewarded with uncommon results.

Born 88 years ago and schooled in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa, Borlaug worked the family farm when his plow was horse-drawn and attaining increased yields meant farming more land.

Weight training early 20th century style -- as in hefting a plow and other farm tools -- helped build a strong and durable athlete. Borlaug’s success in the sport of wrestling enabled him to attend the University of Minnesota where he competed on the school team. At one meet, he had to wrestle at both one of the middleweight (his weight) classes and the much larger heavyweight class, as his team was short-handed that meet. He won both matches. In various aspects of his life, he would continue to make a habit of taking on long odds and beating them.

Borlaug studied forestry and after graduation in 1937, worked for the U.S. Forest Service. He returned to graduate school at the University of Minnesota and took up the study of plant pathology, receiving his Ph.D. in 1942. He then worked as a microbiologist for E.I. Dupont de Nemours, until being released from his wartime service. In 1944, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s pioneering technical assistance program in Mexico, where he was research scientist in charge of wheat improvement. For the next 16 years, he worked to solve a series of wheat production problems that were limiting wheat cultivation in Mexico and to help train a whole generation of young Mexico scientists.

His work in Mexico not only had a profound impact on his life and philosophy of agricultural research and development, but also on agricultural production, first in Mexico and later in many parts of the world. It was on the research stations and farmers’ fields of Mexico that Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential. These wheats and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s and later in Asia and Latin America, sparking what today is known as the "Green Revolution."

By the mid-1960s, Dr. Borlaug was taking his high-yielding "Mexican" wheats and crop management technology to Asia, first to Pakistan and India, and later to China, the Middle East, South America, North America, Australia, indeed anywhere that spring-habit wheats were grown. The impact has been spectacular. Over the past 40 years, wheat production in India has increased from 12 to 76 million metric tons; in Pakistan, from 4.5 to 21 million metric tons; and in the world, from 300 to 650 million metric tons.

The high-yielding wheat varieties that Norman Borlaug and his many scientific colleagues developed are today grown on more than 75 million hectares (187 million acres) throughout the world and may well be responsible for saving tens of millions of people from starvation.

Dr. Borlaug has always considered himself to be a teacher, as well as a scientist. Today, several thousand men and women agricultural scientists from more than 50 countries are proud to say they are Norman Borlaug's "students." Not only has he been a builder of individuals but he also has been a builder of institutions dedicated to the service of humankind.

With the establishment of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico in 1964-66, Dr. Borlaug assumed leadership of the Wheat Program, a position he held until his "official" retirement in 1979; but where he has continued to serve as a senior consultant to this day. Since 1984, Dr. Borlaug has been the Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, where he teaches one semester each year.

Since 1986, he has also been the President of the Sasakawa Africa Association, and leader of the Sasakawa-Global 2000 agricultural program in sub-Saharan Africa, along with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which has worked with several million farmers in 15 countries of sub-Saharan Africa to increase food production.

Dr. Borlaug has been honored by scores of governments, universities, scientific associations, farmer groups, and civic associations. He holds 50 honorary doctorate degrees and belongs to the academies of science in 12 nations. He has served on two U.S. Presidential Commissions: on World Hunger (1978-79) and on Science and Technology (1990-92). He is also a member of the U.S. Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Dr. Borlaug was also the driving force behind the establishment of the World Food Prize in 1985, which is awarded annually in recognition of outstanding human achievements in the fields of food production and nutrition, and still serves as Chairman of its Council of Advisors. Dr. Borlaug is married to the former Margaret Gibson, has a daughter, son, and five grandchildren. He still works each day at either CIMMYT or Texas A&M University.

A videotape of Borlaug’s presentation was made and will be available for viewing on the ASPB web site http://www.ASPB.org Peggy Lemaux, then Chair of the Committee on Public Affairs, noted her appreciation for the help of Borlaug’s colleagues Page Morgan and Marla Binzel at Texas A&M. Morgan helped in contacting Borlaug concerning making the annual meeting presentation. Binzel greeted Borlaug on behalf of ASPB at the Dallas airport and accompanied him on his flight from Dallas to Denver.

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