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Norman Borlaug: Compromising the Potential of Biotechnology

Norman Borlaug's foreword to "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution" by Henry Miller and Greg Conko (Praeger Publishers, 2004)

Henry Miller and Gregory Conko have written a brilliant account of how self-interest, bad science, and excessive government regulation have profoundly compromised the potential of the new biotechnology. This book is a call to action to resist a pernicious political process that is currently denying enormous potential benefits to consumers throughout the world.

All of life involves weighing risks against benefits. Through our own experience, and by observing that of others, we assess the risks of familiar activities and, sometimes almost subconsciously, we adapt to them. A child soon learns, sometimes painfully, about the high risk of touching a hot stove. Usually without a great deal of thought, we run the hazard of shark attacks at the beach. Academics and insurance company experts have been able to quantify the risks of, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, commuting to work by car, or undergoing cardiac surgery. Risk is more problematic when we are confronted with unfamiliar activities or products. In the absence of sufficient experience (what scientists would call "data") to make a confident assessment of risk, we tend to become anxious and to compensate for our lack of knowledge by overestimating the risk.

The authors use an apposite contemporary example to illustrate public policy run amok: the regulation in the United States and abroad of the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, which has great potential to improve plants and microorganisms for agriculture and food production. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko make a persuasive case not only that the benefits of the technology far exceed its risk but also that there has been an abject failure in the formulation of public policy. The result has been, they argue correctly, gross over-regulation of the technology and its products, disincentives to research and development, and fewer choices and inflated prices for consumers.

As a plant pathologist and breeder, I have seen how the skeptics and critics of the new biotechnology wish to postpone the release of improved crop varieties in the hope that another year's, or another decade's, worth of testing will offer more data, more familiarity, more comfort. But more than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.

I am reminded of our using the technology at hand to defeat the specter of famine in India and Pakistan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most "experts" thought that mass starvation was inevitable, and environmentalists like Stanford's Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions would die in Africa and Asia within just a few years "in spite of any crash programs embarked upon." The funders of our work were cautioned against wasting resources on a problem that was insoluble.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government formed the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT) and sent my team to South Asia to teach local farmers how to cultivate high-yield wheat varieties. As a result, Pakistan became self sufficient in wheat production by 1968 and India a few years later.

As we created what became known as the "Green Revolution," we confronted bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers' customs, habits, and superstitions. We surmounted these difficult obstacles because something new had to be done. Who knows how many would have starved if we had delayed commercializing the new high-yielding cereal varieties and improved crop management practices until we could perform tests to rule out every hypothetical problem, and test for vulnerability to every conceivable type of disease and pest? How much land for nature and wildlife habitat, and topsoil would have been lost if the more traditional, lowyield practices had not been supplanted?

At the time, Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, "Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won't be able to get permission for more of these efforts." Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later. As Henry Miller and Gregory Conko describe in this volume, the naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available.

From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland -- an increase in yield of more than 150 percent. Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation -- with losses of pristine wilderness a hundred times greater than all the losses to urban and suburban expansion.

Today, we confront a similar problem: feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people in the coming quarter of a century. The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to meet this challenge. The new biotechnology can help us to do things that we could not do before, and to do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way. The crucial question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology. Extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in the regulatory agencies are more than eager to help.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement for raising global awareness of the importance of air and water quality, and of wildlife and wilderness preservation. It is ironic, therefore, that if the platform of anti-biotechnology extremists were to be adopted, it would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been priedicting for nearly 40 years.

For a decade, the United States has produced ever-larger quantities of gene-spliced, insect-resistant corn that yields as much as or more than the best traditional hybrids but with far less need for chemical pesticides. No negative health or environmental effects have been observed. Yet there is an immensely strong, rabid anti-biotech lobby, especially in Europe, where activists have convinced many governments thwart new approvals and have opposed the use of gene-spliced corn and soybeans as food aid in famine-stricken parts of Africa and Asia. Recently, in the southern African countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola, where many people are dying of starvation, this anti-biotech movement has helped to persuade government authorities to refuse food aid from the United States because it contains gene-spliced corn. But the risk-benefit characteristics of gene-splicing in general, and of this insect-resistant corn in particular, are extraordinarily favorable; this is an obscene exaggeration of risk.

Tragically, this is not an isolated case. There are many other examples of overreaction and resistance to technology. The American Council on Science and Health has documented a series of twenty cases -- including pesticides on cranberries in 1959, the supposed hazards of cyclamates in 1969, "agent orange" in 1979, and Alar® on Pacific coast apples in 1989in which scare stories trumpeted by the media became widely known and accepted but later were shown to be of little or no consequence. The resistance to igene splicing is yet another sordid episode in this larger anti-technology, junk-science movement.

In spite of the many powerful and precise new tools and the greater health and well-being that science and technology have offered us, our society has become overly risk averse. We obsess over impurities that are detectable at levels of one part per billion, for example, while not so many years ago we would have declared a product pure if adulterants were present at less than one part per five hundred thousand. Not infrequently, regulators worry about levels of contamination not because they are worrisome but because they are detectable. They regulate not because they should but because they can. This is both foolish and destructive. Sometimes greater analytical sensitivity requires greater intellectual perspicacity.

Regulators are not alone in their demands for ever-increasing margins of safety. It seems we are born with an instinct to resist change and to regard what is new with suspicion, while forgetting the faults and risks that were readily tolerated in the past and that were eliminated or ameliorated by new technologies; chlorination of water, pasteurization, and vaccination readily come to mind. Our very wealth and well-being, made possible by technology, now seem to offer the luxury of forgoing such additional improvement. But we are hard put to equal the immortal observation of the head of the U.S. patent office at the dawning of the twentieth century who suggested that the office be closed because surely everything possible had already been invented.

We must be more rational about our approach to risks. We need to think in broader terms, recognizing, for example, that the world cannot feed all its 6.3 billion people from organic farms or power all its cities and industries by wind and solar energy.

Although we must be prudent in assessing new technologies, these assessments must not be based on overly conservative -- or overtly inaccurate -- assumptions or be swayed by the anti-business, anti-establishment, anti-globalization agendas of a few activists, or by the self-interest of bureaucrats. They must be based on good science and good sense. It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don't know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be.

The authors of this book address the problems of the new biotechnology that have arisen not from limits of the technology itself or from the science underlying it but from the machinations and peregrinations of policy makers. We must begin to solve those problems before it is too late.

-- Norman E. Borlaug, Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Texas A&M University, Nobel Peace Laureate, 1970

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