Today's date:
  Fall 2004

Biotech Can Feed 8 Billion

Norman Borlaug, the microbiologist and agronomist, is hailed as "the father of the Green Revolution." Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing high-yield wheat and other grain crops in India and throughout the Third World.

He is currently president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, a rural development project in Africa, and has been chief consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico City for the last four decades. He is also professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University. From the Fall 1999 issue of NPQ.

Mexico City--Just over 30 years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, I said that the Green Revolution was a temporary victory in man's war against hunger which, if fully implemented, could provide sufficient food for humankind through the end of the 20th century. But I warned that unless the frightening power of human reproduction was curbed, the success of the Green Revolution would only be ephemeral.

Agricultural science has so far been able to meet food production demands.

But the population monster continues to run amok. During the 1990s alone, world population grew by nearly 1 billion people and will grow again by another 1 billion during the first decade of the 21st century. It is projected to reach 8.3 billion by 2025 before stabilizing (hopefully) at about 10 billion toward the end of this century.

Clearly the most fundamental challenge ahead is to produce and equitably distribute an adequate food supply for this heavily burdened planet.

I believe that we have the agricultural technology--either already available or well-advanced in the research pipeline--to feed those 8.3 billion people anticipated in the next quarter of a century. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology.

Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous, highly effective and well-funded Luddites are predicting doom and provoking fear, slowing the application of new technology, whether it be transgenics, biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science. Witness the campaign against genetically modified crops called "Frankenstein food" by activists in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

I am particularly alarmed by those elitists who seek to deny small-scale farmers in the Third World, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, access to conventionally improved seeds, fertilizers and crop-protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their economic development.

While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food produced by so-called "organic" methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot. (There isn't enough "organic fertilizer" to produce the food for today's population of 6 billion. If we attempted to produce the equivalent of the 80 million tons of nutrient nitrogen from manure needed for such a task, world cattle production would have to increase to 5 or 6 billion head.)

Of course, we must be environmentally responsible. I have always subscribed to what in the old days we used to call "integrated crop management" and is today called "sustainability"--utilizing the land for the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time.

But today's extremist thinking is dangerously misguided. Most worrisome, it preys upon a "knowledge gap" about the complexities of biology among the general public in the affluent societies--now thoroughly urban and removed from any relationship to the land--that grows ever greater with the rapid advances in genetics and plant biotechnology.

No doubt one of the other great challenges of the coming century is a renewal and broadening of scientific education--particularly in primary, secondary and early college levels--that keeps pace with the times. Nowhere is it more important for knowledge to confront fear born of ignorance than in this basic activity of mankind--the production of food. The needless confrontation of consumers against the use of transgenic crop technology, now so widespread in Europe and growing in the United States and Asia, could have been avoided with sound education about genetic diversity and variation.

The fact is we cannot turn back the clock on agriculture and only use methods that were developed to feed a much smaller number of people. It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year. By 2025 we will have to nearly double that amount, and that cannot be done unless farmers across the world have access to current high-yield crop-production methods and to continuing biotech breakthroughs.

NATURE'S OWN GM FOODS | "Genetically modified organism" (GMO) and "genetically modified food" (GMF) are ambiguous and imprecise terms that have contributed greatly to the fuss over the use of transgenic crops--crops grown from seeds that contain the genes of different species.

But, long before mankind started breeding plants, Mother Nature did. The wheat groups we currently rely on for much of our food supply are the result of natural crosses between different species of grasses.

Today's bread wheat is made up of three different plant genomes, each containing a set of seven chromosomes each. The most primitive wheat types are called "diploids," which still grow wild in their zone of origin in the Near East. Before agriculture was born, diploid wheat crossed with another wild grass and became the first major wheat crop of commerce, which we know as "tetraploids," the durum or pasta wheat. This wheat dates back to the Sumerians from 6,000bc and remained the most important wheat of commerce until well into the Roman period. Then somewhere--no one knows where--the tetraploids crossed with another species of wild grass to produce the bread wheats from which we make leavened bread today.

What probably happened is that a light frost killed the pollen in the male stamen at a temperature just below freezing, but leaving the female receptive. The female stigma exerted itself on the outside of the plant on the feathery end of the stalk, where the pollen from another plant landed. Thus, a new cross species was born. Nature's own "GM food."

Thus, the bread wheat varieties that account for 98 percent of the tonnage of wheat produced today are "transgenic."

Thanks to the development of science in the past couple of centuries, we now have the insights into plant genetics and breeding to do purposefully what Mother Nature herself did in the past by chance or design. Genetic modification of crops is not some kind of witchcraft; like cultivation, it harnesses the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race.

THE PROMISE OF BIOTECH | Over the past seven decades, conventional plant breeding has produced vast numbers of improved varieties and hybrids that have contributed immensely to higher grain yield, stability of harvests and farm income. But there has been no major increase in the maximum genetic yield potential of wheat and rice since the dwarf varieties that gave rise to the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

To meet the rapidly growing food needs of the population, we must find new and appropriate technologies to raise cereal crop yields. Recent developments in animal biotechnology have produced Bovine somatatropin (BST), now widely used to increase milk production. Currently, vast commercial areas are planted with transgenic varieties and hybrids of cotton, maize and potatoes that contain genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, which effectively control a number of serious insect pests. The use of such varieties will protect crops while greatly reducing the need for insecticide sprays and dusts. Great progress has also been made in development of transgenic plants of cotton, maize, oilseed rape, soybeans, sugarbeet and wheat with tolerance to a number of herbicides. This can lead to a reduction in herbicide use by much more specific dosages and timing of applications.

There are also promising developments of transgenic plants for the control of viral and fungal diseases, especially by employing "virus coat protein" genes in transgenetic varieties of potatoes and rice. Different promising disease-resistant genes are being incorporated into other transgenic crop species. Obviously, the reduction of damage to crops by pestilence and disease increases yield.

Finally, preliminary experiments have shown that inserted genes from some species can help crops withstand drought conditions.

RAISING YIELD LEVELS ON EXISTING LANDS, NEW FRONTIERS | Total global food production now stands at around 5 billion metric tons annually. (Had the world's food supply been distributed evenly in 1994, it would have provided an adequate diet of 2,350 calories per day for a year for 6.4 billion people--about 800 million more than the actual population.)

To meet projected food demands, however, the average yield of all cereals must be increased by 80 percent between now and 2025. Using currently available technologies, yields can still be doubled in much of the Indian sub-continent, Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100–200 percent in sub-Saharan Africa--provided that political stability is maintained, entrepreneurial initiative is let loose and production inputs are made available at the farm level.

Yield gains in industrialized North America and Western Europe will be much harder to achieve since they already have such high levels. Still, with genetic engineering breakthroughs, yields in these areas could increase as much as 20 percent over the next 35 years.

The most frightening prospect of food insecurity is found in sub-Saharan Africa where the number of chronically undernourished could actually rise to several hundred million people if current trends of declining per capita production are not reversed. Increasing population pressures, extreme poverty, disease and lack of health care, poor education, poor soil, uncertain rainfall, changing ownership patterns for land and cattle and poorly developed infrastructure combine to make agricultural development very difficult.

Despite these challenges, many of the elements that worked in Asia and Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s can also work to bring a Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa. An effective system to deliver modern inputs--seeds, fertilizers, crop-protection chemicals--and market output must be established. If this is done, subsistence farmers, who constitute more than 70 percent of the population in most countries there, can have a chance to feed their people.

What about new lands for growing food? The vast acid-soils area found in the Brazilian cerrado, or savannah, and llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, central and south Africa, and in Indonesia are among the last major land frontiers available for agriculture. As with the Brazilian cerrado these lands have historically never been cultivated because their soils were leached of nutrients long before humankind appeared on the planet. These soils are strongly acidic and have toxic levels of soluble aluminum.

Improved crop management systems built in recent years around liming, fertilizing to restore nutrients, crop rotation and minimum tillage have made these lands productive. Newly developed varieties of aluminum-tolerant soybeans, maize, rice and wheat sorghum are now also being cultivated in these new areas.

By 1990, 20 million tons of rainfed crops were grown on 10 million hectares (out of 100 million potentially arable hectares). By 2010, food production in the cerrado is expected to increase to 98 million tons, a fourfold increase over 1990.

MORAL OBLIGATION TO WARN OF STARVATION | At the end of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, over 400 scientists presented an appeal to heads of state and government. That appeal has now been signed by thousands of scientists, including myself. Let me quote the last paragraph:

"The greatest evils which stalk our Earth are ignorance and oppression, and not science, technology and industry, whose instruments, when adequately managed, are indispensable tools of a future shaped by humanity, by itself and for itself, in overcoming major problems like overpopulation, starvation and worldwide diseases."

Agricultural scientists and policy makers have a moral obligation to warn our political, educational and religious leaders about the magnitude and seriousness of the arable land, food and population problems that lie ahead. They must also recognize the indirect effect the huge human population pressures exert on the habitats of many wild species of flora and fauna, pushing them toward extinction.

If we fail to do so in a forthright manner we will be contributing to the pending chaos of incalculable millions of deaths by starvation. The problem will not vanish by itself; to continue to ignore it will make a future solution more difficult to achieve.