The Green Revolution started with high-yield wheat that resisted a variety of plant pests and diseases. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
What is the Green Revolution?
Borlaug: It started in the 1940s when I joined a new program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, aimed at assisting poor farmers in Mexico to increase their wheat production. We spent nearly 20 years breeding high-yield dwarf wheat that resisted a variety of plant pests and diseases and yielded two to three times more grain than traditional varieties.
Eventually, in the 1960s, we were able to expand the program and teach local farmers in Pakistan and India to cultivate the new wheat properly. The results were wonderful:
- Pakistan produced 8.4 million tons in 1970, up from 4.6 million in 1965.
- India’s production was 20 million tons in 1970, up from 12.3 million 1965.
In 1968, when the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) wrote in his annual report that there was a big improvement in Pakistan and India, he said, “It looks like a Green Revolution.” That is how the label ‘The Green Revolution’ got started. As an aside, the “greenies” have nothing to do with the Green Revolution, which is all about alleviating world hunger.
In the 1980s, the success of the Green Revolution spilled over to China, which is now the world’s biggest food producer.
Is global hunger still a threat as it was in the 1960s?
Borlaug: Yes, it is. For example, Africa now has a food crisis in a number of countries. That is what our African program is trying to solve — and former President Jimmy Carter is involved in it. Our joint program is called Sasakawa-Global 2000. We’re helping farmers in countries struggling with food shortages to help them with the best possible farming practices, such as choosing seed and controlling weeds. We have the technology to double or triple food production but there is no viable system of transportation in these countries — no roads, no railroads. The cost of moving fertilizer to these places, for example, would be three to four times more than what American farmers currently pay. Even if African farmers could produce more grain, how do they get it to their cities?
Sub-Saharan countries suffer from poor soil and uncertain rainfall, a shortage of trained agriculturalists, and lack of technology among other things. But our African program’s test plots for corn, sorghum, wheat, cassava, rice, and grain legumes have two or three times higher yields than the control test plots using conventional methods.
What do you say to those who oppose the use of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries?
Borlaug: Biotechnology will help these countries accomplish things that they could never do with conventional plant breeding. The technology is more precise and farming becomes less time consuming. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production so it won’t be so critical.
You have to recognize food habits and it’s difficult to change food habits. You have to start with the crops that are the most basic to the country and apply technology to it so you can double or triple the yield. You begin by planting in select test plots to demonstrate to farmers the potential of the new crop. You can bring seed to them easier than fertilizer. In places where fertilizer is available, many farmers don’t have the money to buy it anyway. Farmers who see success in their test plots will be able to help change governmental policy and public attitude towards biotechnology.
There is a big potential for biotech in Africa. For example, Roundup ReadyÂ® crops. The gene for herbicide tolerance is built into the crops. These kinds of biotech crops promote good farming methods. For example, traditional African farms are plagued with razor-sharp grasses and so the farmers slash and burn. Herbicide-resistant crops can eliminate these grasses.
While biotechnology holds much promise in food production, we cannot ignore conventional plant breeding methods since these methods continue to be important. In the last century, conventional breeding produced higher yields and will continue to do so in this century.
Studies have shown that some genetically modified (GM) food crops carry toxins and allergens. Aren’t these foods a health risk to humans?
Borlaug: There is no good evidence of toxicity in these foods but I am aware that allergenic properties may exist. Allergies caused by natural foods have been with us for a long time, so why wouldn’t they happen with GM crops? Researchers are constantly monitoring crops for allergens and should be able to modify seeds to lessen the risks. There is a report by scientists at University of California at Berkeley who analyzed foods, including some that humans have eaten since the dawn of agriculture. The report shows that there are natural foods that contain trace amounts of natural chemicals that are toxic or carcinogenic. These foods don’t seem to harm us.
If you’re a theoretical scientist, you can philosophize about this but I’ve been in the field for a long time and I believe genetically modified food crops will stop world hunger. I recognize the value of crops created by traditional plant breeding but I also see the viability of crops that carry an herbicide-resistant gene or whatever gene is incorporated by biotechnology.
What about risks to the environment?
Borlaug: Biotechnology helps farmers produce higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally favorable benefit. For example, the world’s grain output in 1950 was 692 million tons. Forty years or so later, the world’s farmers used about the same amount of acreage but they harvested 1.9 billion tons — a 170% increase! We would have needed an additional 1.8 billion hectares of land, instead of the 600 million used, had the global cereal harvest of 1950 prevailed in 1999 using the same conventional farming methods.
If we had continued practicing conventional farming, we would have cut down millions of acres of forest, thereby destroying wildlife habitat, in order to increase cropland to produce enough food for an escalating population. And we would have to use more herbicides in more fields, which would damage the environment even more. Technology allows us to have less impact on soil erosion, biodiversity, wildlife, forests, and grasslands.
Can farmers in developing nations access biotech products?
Borlaug: In spite of biotech’s great potential, access is a problem. Most of the research on crops is conducted by private enterprise and corporations hold patents on their inventions. Farmers in developing nations have little resources. How can they afford these patented products? Global governments need to seriously address the problem.
Governments also need to address issues such as a framework for testing genetically modified foods, funding research in the public sector, and educating the public better about agricultural science and technology. Most people in the “western” world are urbanites and they don’t know what it takes to feed the world. These people can afford to buy expensive “organic” food and to criticize genetically modified food. They pressure governments to ban genetically modified foods and that could be disastrous for developing nations.
What do you see for the Green Revolution in this century?
Borlaug: The Green Revolution is an ongoing continuum. Millions of people are currently undernourished in the world. The world population for 2025, at a medium fertility rate, is projected to be about 8.3 billion people. I calculate that we will need an additional one billion tons of grain by then. We have to increase yields to feed these people — more bushels per acre, more tons per hectare. Higher yields are especially important now due to spreading urbanization, which takes away agricultural land. We will need to use both conventional breeding and biotechnology methods to meet the challenges of this century.
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