Green revolutionary blasts opponents of biotechnology

Star TribuneSource: AgBioView Newsletter (www.agbioworld.org)

In an era of war and global terrorism, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug sees agriculture as an instrument of peace.

Though he`s revered as a peacemaker, this pugnacious 90-year-old is quick to wrestle with procrastinating bureaucrats in third-world countries, and he`s worked tirelessly to convince kings and presidents of the value of his agricultural advancements.

These days, Borlaug is speaking out against those who fervently oppose biotechnology, referring to them as “extremist greenies” who have never seen the misery and hopelessness that he`s seen up close.

“Today, anti-science and technology zealots are trying to retard — and even stop — the application of new science and technology, especially the new transgenic biotechnological tools that offer so much promise for the future,” Borlaug said at commencement exercises for 240 agriculture graduates at the University of Minnesota on Sunday.

A University of Minnesota graduate himself, Borlaug is famous for developing a hearty strain of dwarf wheat in Mexico. He took the new hybrid seeds and fertilizing practices to India and Pakistan to launch the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, and for that he`s credited with saving a billion lives.

But the work that led to his Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 is far from over for this former Iowa farm boy, who now splits his time between working with poor farmers in Africa and teaching college students in Texas.

“We`ve still got 800 million people that need more food,” Borlaug said in an interview. So many people go hungry around the world, he said, not because there isn`t enough to food to go around, but because they`re too poor to buy or produce it.

A white-haired, energetic man, Borlaug spoke of what drives him to work from sunup to sundown at an age when most others are comfortably ensconced in retirement. It`s the sight of starving children who can barely stand on spindly legs — children barely alive, many of whom die.

“I hate poverty and misery,” Borlaug said, his boyish face full of anger. “I`ve seen people suffering.”

Amid his busy schedule, Borlaug continues his alliances with agricultural scientists around the world, such as M.S. Swaminathan — India`s most famous scientist. Borlaug is most consumed, however, with his efforts in Africa, where he, former President Jimmy Carter and the Sasakawa family of Japan are trying to bring a new Green Revolution in food production to millions of small-scale farmers.

“African food production remains in crisis, even though technology is available to double and triple yields of the major food crops,” he said at the commencement speech at the University of Minnesota College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

Technology is available to African farmers who work tiny patches of land, he said, but progress is thwarted by deplorable infrastructure and bureaucracy, which he finds “infuriating.”

“Unless Africa`s rural infrastructure and institutions are significantly improved — especially transport systems, energy, water, schools and clinics — all other efforts to reduce poverty and hunger, improve health and education and secure peace and prosperity will continue to falter,” he said.

Worldwide, agricultural technology has improved food availability, yet the need remains great: In 2002, the United Nations estimated that about 24,000 people die of hunger-related causes each day around the globe.

Population growth has eased, Borlaug said, but the world is still adding nearly 80 million people a year, posing the daunting challenge of doubling food production to feed the 9 billion to 10 billion people likely to be on earth by the end of the 21st century.

Beyond that, there`s the desperate need for equitable distribution so the food reaches those who need it most, he said.

In the past five decades, Borlaug has trained thousands of the world`s young scientists, telling them that they`re morally obligated to warn political, education and religious leaders of the magnitude of land, food and population problems.

In southern India, Swaminathan has long shared Borlaug`s vision. Trained by Borlaug, he fights not only for availability of seeds and fertilizer, but also for education and social justice for the poor.

Throughout India, Swaminathan, 79, is know as the “Father of the Green Revolution” –Borlaug`s title on this continent. In the 1960s, the two scientists worked side by side to teach Indian farmers how to use the high-yielding Mexican wheat varieties and fertilizer to increase production.

Between 1965 and 2000, cereal production in the developing countries of Asia tripled, leading to a 25 percent increase in per capita food availability and literally saving hundreds of millions of people from hunger and starvation.

“I believe that where hunger rules, peace cannot prevail,” Swaminathan said recently in Chennai, India, at his research foundation, part of which he named after Borlaug.

Swaminathan speaks of the need for an “Evergreen Revolution” to improve productivity without ecological harm. “We have to produce more from less land, less water,” he said.

In 1987, Borlaug bestowed Swaminathan with the first World Food Prize, telling him that his trail-blazing would attract some of the most talented and motivated young people toward careers in the food system.

Today, Swaminathan`s students grow experimental mangrove trees in steamy greenhouses and transgenic rice seedlings in petri dishes. They`ve launched a large project to develop rice that can withstand seawater, which accounts for 97.5 percent of the world`s water. In India, surrounded by three seas, one in four people live near a coast, and their future is at stake, Swaminathan said.

Borlaug, for his part, spends much of his time in Africa but also teaches a few months out of the year at Texas A & M University in College Station.

He`s been as much a politician as a scientist — a robust statesmen who never shrinks from tough political issues, said Charles Muscoplat, dean of the University of Minnesota`s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

“He wasn`t a scientist who worked in a vacuum,” Muscoplat said.

Borlaug has been honored the world over, and on Saturday, there was yet another ceremony. Muscoplat and others gathered at St. Mark`s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis to show Borlaug the new “Window of Peace” and to offer prayers of blessing for his work.

He gazed upward to see the sun shining through a 30-foot-tall stained glass window. There — along with depictions of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and other modern-day peacemakers — was a life-size likeness of Borlaug, holding a fistful of wheat.

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