Text: Nobel Laureate Borlaug on Need for Increasing Food Supply
(Cites needs for technology, equitable
A scientist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for expanding food production
says the key to feeding a mushrooming global population is allowing
farmers in developing countries access to high-yielding biotechnology.
The scientist, Norman Borlaug of Texas A&M University, made the comments
in a September 8 speech to the Nobel Institute in Norway marking the
30th anniversary of his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
He said the technology to feed as many as 10,000 million people in 2025
either exists now or is in development.
"The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will
be permitted to use this new technology?" Borlaug said.
He said agriculturalists and environmentalists must quickly resolve
their dispute over what constitutes sustainable agriculture in the developing
Borlaug said he and most other agriculture scientists expect good results
from biotechnology in expanding world food supply. He said also, however,
he expects obstacles in getting that technology to developing country
farmers -- obstacles from the technology owners and from misguided government
regulation in some countries.
Besides genetic improvements, he said, researchers must find other ways
to expand crop yield, especially in increasing productivity through
crop management techniques such as conservation tillage.
Involved since 1986 in a project transferring food technology to sub-Saharan
Africa, Borlaug said Africa remains the area of the world facing the
most critical food shortage in years ahead.
"To a considerable extent, the present food crisis is the result of
the long-time neglect of agriculture by political leaders" who placated
African urban constituents while ignoring their farmers' economic needs,
He said that, despite success implementing Green Revolution technology
to increase grain crop yields, "the battle to ensure food security for
millions of miserably poor people is far from won, especially in South
Producing sufficient food in environmentally and economically sustainable
ways is a daunting task, Borlaug said. Equally or even more daunting,
he said, is to distribute food equitably.
"Poverty is the main impediment to equitable food distribution, which,
in turn, is made more severe by rapid population growth," he said.
Following are terms and abbreviations used in the text:
-- billion: 1,000 million.
-- ha: hectare.
-- t/ha: tons per hectare.
-- FAO: U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
-- PTP: production test plots.
Following is the text of Borlaug's speech:
September 8, 2000
THE GREEN REVOLUTION REVISITED AND THE ROAD AHEAD/1
Norman E. Borlaug/2
1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
It is a great pleasure to be here in Oslo, nearly 30 years after I was
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I wish to thank the Nobel Institute and
the U.S. Embassy in Norway for arranging this lecture. Today, I am here
to take stock of the contributions of the so-called "Green Revolution,"
and explore the role of science and technology in the coming decades
to improve the quantity, quality, and available of food for all of the
Although I am an agricultural scientist, my work in food production
and hunger alleviation was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize because
there is no Nobel prize for food and agriculture. I have often speculated
that if Alfred Nobel had written his will to establish the various prizes
and endow the Nobel Foundation in the 1850s, the first prize he would
have established would have been for food and agriculture. However,
by the time of his death in 1895 the horrors of the widespread potato
famine that had swept across western Europe in 1840-45, taking the lives
of untold millions, had been forgotten. The subsequent migration of
millions of western Europeans to the Americas during 1850-60 restored
a reasonable, yet still tenuous balance in the land-food-population
equation. Moreover, the European food supply was further greatly increased
during the last three decades of the 19th century through the application
of improved agricultural technology developed earlier in the century
(i.e., restoration of soil fertility, better control of diseases, and
use of improved varieties and breeds of crops and animals). Hence, when
Alfred Nobel wrote his will at the end of the 19th, there was no serious
food production problem haunting Europe.
I am now in my 56th year of continuous involvement in agricultural research
and production in the low-income, food-deficit developing countries.
I have worked with many colleagues, political leaders and farmers to
transform food production systems. Despite the successes of the Green
Revolution, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions
of miserably poor people is far from won.
Mushrooming populations, changing demographics and inadequate poverty
intervention programs have eaten up many of the gains of the Green Revolution.
This is not to say that the Green Revolution is over. Increases in crop
management productivity can be made all along the line -- in tillage,
water use, fertilization, weed and pest control, and harvesting. However,
for the genetic improvement of food crops to continue at a pace sufficient
to meet the needs of the 8.3 billion people projected at the end of
the quarter century, both conventional breeding and biotechnology methodologies
will be needed.
Dawn of Modern Agriculture
Science-based agriculture is really a 20th century invention. Until
the 19th century, crop improvement was in the hands of farmers, and
food production grew largely by expanding the cultivated land area.
As sons and daughters of farm families married and formed new families,
they opened new land to cultivation. Improvements in farm machinery
expanded the size of a farm that could be cultivated by one family.
Machinery also made possible better seedbed preparation, conservation
and utilization of moisture, and improved planting practices and weed
control, resulting in modest increases in yield per hectare.
By the mid-1800s, German scientist Justus von Leibig and French scientist
Jean-Baptiste Boussingault had laid down important theoretical foundations
in soil chemistry and crop agronomy. Sir John Bennett Lawes produced
superphosphate in England in 1842, and shipments of Chilean nitrates
(nitrogen) began arriving in quantities to European and North American
ports in the 1840s. However, the use of organic fertilizers (animal
manure, crop residues, green manure crops) remained dominant into the
Groundwork for more sophisticated genetic crop improvement was laid
by Charles Darwin in his writings on the variation of life species (published
in 1859) and by Gregor Mendel through his discovery of the laws of genetic
inheritance (reported in 1865). Darwin's book immediately generated
a great deal of interest, discussion and controversy. Mendel's work
was largely ignored for 35 years. The rediscovery of Mendel's work in
1900 provoked tremendous scientific interest and research in plant genetics.
The first decade of the 20th century brought a fundamental scientific
breakthrough that was followed by the rapid commercialization of the
breakthrough. In 1909, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1918) Fritz Haber
demonstrated the synthesis of ammonia from its elements. Four years
later -- in 1913 -- the company BASF, thanks to the innovative solutions
of Carl Bosch, began operation of the world's first ammonia plant. The
expansion of the fertilizer industry was soon arrested by WWI [World
War I] (ammonia used to produce nitrate for explosives), then by the
great economic depression of the 1930s, and then by the demand for explosives
It is only since WWII that fertilizer use, and especially the application
of low-cost nitrogen derived from synthetic ammonia, has become an indispensable
component of modern agricultural production (nearly 100 million nutrient
tons consumed annually). It is estimated that 40 percent of today's
6 billion people are alive, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing
ammonia (Vaclav Smil, University Distinguished Professor, University
By the 1930s, much of the scientific knowledge needed for high-yield
agricultural production was available in the United States. However,
widespread adoption was delayed by the great economic depression of
the 1930s, which paralyzed the world agricultural economy. It was not
until WWII brought a much greater demand for food to support the Allied
war effort that the new research findings began to be applied widely,
first in the United States and later in many other countries.
Maize cultivation led the modernization process. In 1940, U.S. farmers
produced 56 million tons of maize on roughly 31 million hectares, with
an average yield of 1.8 t/ha. In 1999, U.S. farmers produced 240 million
tons of maize on roughly 29 million hectares, with an average yield
of 8.4 t/ha. This more than four-fold yield increase is the impact of
modern hybrid seed-fertilizer-weed control technology!
Following WWII, various bilateral and multilateral agencies, led by
the United States and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of
the United Nations, initiated technical agricultural assistance programs
in a number of countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America. In the beginning,
there was considerable naivet? especially about the transferability
of modern production technology from the industrialized temperate zones
to the tropics and subtropics. Most of the varieties transplanted from
the United States, for example, were not well suited to many of the
environments in which they were introduced.
There was another model of technical assistance that preceded these
public sector foreign technical assistance programs, which ultimately
proved to be superior. This was the Cooperative Mexican Government-Rockefeller
Foundation agricultural program, which began in 1943. This foreign assistance
program initiated research programs in Mexico to improve maize, wheat,
beans, and potato technology. It also invested significantly in human
resource development, training scores of Mexican scientists and helping
to establish the national agricultural research system.
The breakthrough in wheat and rice production in Asia in the mid-1960s,
which came to be known as the Green Revolution, symbolized the process
of using agricultural science to develop modern techniques for the Third
World. It began in Mexico with the "quiet" wheat revolution in the late
1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s in India, Pakistan, and the Philippines
received world attention for their agricultural progress (Table 1).
Since 1980, China has been the greatest success story. Home to one-fifth
of the world's people, China today is the world's biggest food producer.
With each successive year, its average cereal crop yield approaches
more closely that of the United States.
Table 1. Cereal Production in Asia, 1961-99
Source: FAO AGROSTAT, April 2000
Over the past four decades FAO reports that in Developing Asia the irrigated
area has more than doubled -- to 176 million hectares, fertilizer consumption
has increased more than 30-fold, and now stands at about 70 million
tons of nutrients, and tractor in use has increased from 200,000 to
4.6 million (Table 2).
Table 2. Changes in Factors of Production in Developing Asia,
Source: FAO AGROSTAT, April 2000
I often ask the critics of modern agricultural technology what the world
would have been like without the technological advances that have occurred,
largely during the past 50 years? For those whose main concern is protecting
the "environment," let's look at the positive impact that the application
of science-based technology has had on land use.
Had the global cereal yields of 1950 still prevailed in 1999 we would
have needed nearly 1.8 billion ha of additional land of the same quality
-- instead of the 600 million that was used-to equal the current global
harvest (Figure 1). Obviously, such a surplus of land was not available,
and certainly not in populous Asia, where the population has increased
from 1.2 billion to 3.8 billion over this time period. Moreover, if
more environmentally fragile land had been brought into agricultural
production, think of the impact on soil erosion, loss of forests and
grasslands, and extinction of wildlife species that would have ensued.
Poverty Still Haunts Asia
Despite the successes of smallholder Asian farmers in applying Green
Revolution technologies to triple cereal production since 1961, the
battle to ensure food security for millions of miserably poor people
is far from won, especially in South Asia. Of the roughly 1.3 billion
people in this sub-region, 500 million live on less than US$1 per day,
400 million are illiterate adults, 264 million lack access to health
services, 230 million to safe drinking water, and 80 million children
under 4 are malnourished (Eliminating World Poverty. UK White Paper,
A comparison of China and India -- the world's two most populous countries,
which both have achieved remarkable progress in food production -- is
illustrative of the point that increased food production, while necessary,
is not sufficient alone to achieve food security (Table 3).
Table 3. Social Development Indicators in China and India
|1961 population, millions
|2000 population, millions
|Population growth, 1985-95,
|GDP per capita, 1995
|Percent in agriculture, 1990
|Poverty, percent pop below $1/day,
|Child malnutrition, percent
|Percent illiterate population
(over 15), 1995
Sources: 1997 World Bank Atlas; 1998 FAOSTAT
China has been more successful in achieving broad-based economic growth
and poverty reduction than India. Nobel Economics Laureate Professor
Amartya Sen attributes this to the greater priority the Chinese government
has given to investments in rural education and health care services.
Nearly 80 percent of the Chinese population is literate while only 50
percent of the Indian population can read and write. India has more
than half of its population below the poverty line whereas China has
less than 30 percent. Only 17 percent of Chinese children are malnourished
compared to 63 percent in India. With a healthier and better-educated
rural population, China's economy has been able to grow about twice
as fast as the Indian economy over the past two decades and today China
has a per capita income nearly twice that of India.
Water covers about 70 percent of the Earth's surface. Of this total,
only about 2.5 percent is fresh water, and most of this is frozen in
the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland, in soil moisture, or in deep
aquifers not readily accessible for human use. Indeed, less than 1 percent
of the world's freshwater -- that found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs,
and underground aquifers shallow enough to be tapped economically --
is readily available for direct human use (World Meteorological Organization,
1997). This only represents about 0.007 percent of all the water on
Earth! Irrigated agriculture -- which accounts for 70 percent of global
water withdrawals -- covers some 17 percent of cultivated land (about
275 million ha) yet accounts for nearly 40 percent of world food production.
The rapid expansion in world irrigation and in urban and industrial
water uses has led to growing shortages. The UN's 1997 Comprehensive
Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World estimates that "about
one third of the world's population lives in countries that are experiencing
moderate-to-high water stress, resulting from increasing demands from
a growing population and human activity. By the year 2025, as much as
two-thirds of the world's population could be under stress conditions."
In many of the irrigation schemes, especially in developing Asia, proper
investments were not made originally in drainage systems to maintain
water tables from rising too high and to flush salts that rise to the
surface back down through the soil profile. We all know the consequences-serious
salinization of many irrigated soils, especially in drier areas, and
waterlogging of irrigated soils in the more humid area. In particular,
many Asian irrigation schemes -- which account for nearly two-thirds
of the total global irrigated area -- are seriously affected by both
problems. The result is that most of the funds going into irrigation
end up being used for stopgap maintenance expenditures for poorly designed
systems, rather than for new irrigation projects.
In future irrigation schemes, water drainage and removal systems should
be budgeted from the start of the project. Unfortunately, adding such
costs to the original project often will result in a poor return on
investment. Society then will have to decide how much it is willing
to subsidize new irrigation development.
There are many technologies for improving the efficiency of water use.
Wastewater can be treated and used for irrigation. This could be an
especially important source of water for peri-urban agriculture, which
is growing rapidly around many of the world's mega-cities. Water can
be delivered much more efficiently to the plants and in ways to avoid
soil waterlogging and salinization. Changing to new crops requiring
less water (and/or new improved varieties), together with more efficient
crop sequencing and timely planting, can also achieve significant savings
in water use.
Proven technologies, such as drip irrigation, which saves water and
reduces soil salinity, are suitable for much larger areas than currently
used. Various new precision irrigation systems are also on the horizon,
which will supply water to plants only when they need it. There is also
a range of improved small-scale and supplemental irrigation systems
to increase the productivity of rainfed areas, which offer much promise
for smallholder farmers.
Clearly, we need to rethink our attitudes about water and move away
from thinking of it as nearly a free good and a God-given right. Pricing
water delivery closer to its real costs is a necessary step to improving
use efficiency. Farmers and irrigation officials (and urban consumers)
will need incentives to save water. Moreover, management of water distribution
networks, except for the primary canals, should be decentralized and
turned over to the farmers. Farmers' water user associations in the
Yaqui valley in northwest Mexico, for example, have done a much better
job of managing the irrigation districts than did the Federal Ministry
of Agriculture and Water Resources previously.
In order to expand food production for a growing world population within
the parameters of likely water availability, the inevitable conclusion
is that humankind in the 21st century will need to bring about a "Blue
Revolution" to complement the so-called "Green Revolution" of the 20th
century. In the new Blue Revolution, water-use productivity must be
wedded to land-use productivity. New science and technology must lead
World Food Production
In 1998 global food production of all types stood at 5.03 billion metric
tons of gross tonnage and 2.48 billion tons of edible dry matter (Table
4). Of this total, 99 percent was produced on the land -- only about
1 percent came from the oceans and inland waters.
Table 4. World Food Production, 1998
Production, million metric tons
|Roots & Tubers
| Sweet potato
|Legumes, oilseeds, oil nuts
|Sugarcane & sugar beet2/
|Vegetables & melons
| Milk, meat, eggs
1/ At zero moisture content, excluding inedible hulls and shells.
2/ Sugar content only.
Source: FAOSTAT, 1999
Plant products constituted 92 percent of the human diet, with about
30 crop species providing most of the world's calories and protein,
including eight species of cereals, which collectively accounted for
70 percent of the world food supply. Animal products, constituting 8
percent of the world's diet, also come indirectly from plants.
Had the world's food supply been distributed evenly, it would have provided
an adequate diet in 1998 (2,350 calories, principally from grain) for
6.9 billion people -- about 900 million more than the actual population.
However, had people in Third World countries attempted to obtain 70
percent of their calories from animal products -- as in the U.S. [United
States], Canada, or EU [European Union] countries -- slightly less than
half of the world population could be fed.
These statistics point out two key problems. The first is the complex
task of producing sufficient quantities of the desired foods to satisfy
needs, and to accomplish this Herculean feat in environmentally and
economically sustainable ways. The second task, equally or even more
daunting, is to distribute food equitably. Poverty is the main impediment
to equitable food distribution, which, in turn, is made more severe
by rapid population growth.
Projected World Food Demand
A medium projection is for world population to reach about 8.3 billion
by 2025, before hopefully stabilizing at about 10-11 billion toward
the end of the 21st century. At least in the foreseeable future plants
-- and especially the cereals -- will continue to supply virtually all
of our increased food demand. Even if current per capita food consumption
stays constant, population growth would require that world food production
grow by 2.6 billion gross tons -- or 57 percent -- between 1990 and
2025. However, if diets improve among the destitute hungry, estimated
to be 1 billion people living mainly in Asia and Africa, world food
demand could double -- to 9 billion gross tons -- by 2025. Using these
population growth rates and expected changes in per capita cereal demand,
and assuming that most of the increased production will come from existing
farmland, I have come up with following projections on yield increases
needed by the year 2025 (Table 5).
Table 5. Current and Projected World Cereal Production
And Demand (million tons) and Yield Requirements
Source: FAO Production Yearbook and author's estimates
Africa is the Greatest Worry
More than any other region of the world, food production south of the
Sahara is in crisis. High rates of population growth and little application
of improved production technology resulted during the last two decades
in declining per capita food production, escalating food deficits, and
deteriorating nutritional levels, especially among the rural poor. While
there are some signs during the 1990s that smallholder food production
is beginning to turn around, this recovery is still very fragile.
Sub-Saharan Africa's extreme poverty, poor soils, uncertain rainfall,
increasing population pressures, changing ownership patterns for land
and cattle, political and social turmoil, shortages of trained agriculturalists,
and weaknesses in research and technology delivery systems all make
the task of agricultural development more difficult. But we should also
realize that to a considerable extend, the present food crisis is the
result of the long-time neglect of agriculture by political leaders.
Even though agriculture provides the livelihood to 70-85 percent of
the people in most countries, agricultural and rural development has
been given low priority. Investments in distribution and marketing systems
and in agricultural research and education are woefully inadequate.
Furthermore, many governments pursued and continue to pursue a policy
of providing cheap food for the politically volatile urban dwellers
at the expense of production incentives for farmers.
Many of the lowland tropical environments -- especially the forest and
transition areas -- are fragile ecological systems, where deeply weathered,
acidic soils lose fertility rapidly under repeated cultivation. Traditionally,
slash and burn shifting cultivation and complex cropping patterns permitted
low yielding, but relatively stable, food production systems. Expanding
populations and food requirements have pushed farmers onto more marginal
lands and also have led to a shortening in the bush/fallow periods previously
used to restore soil fertility. With more continuous cropping on the
rise, organic material and nitrogen are being rapidly depleted while
phosphorus and other nutrient reserves are being depleted slowly but
steadily. This is having disastrous environmental consequences, such
as serious erosion and weed invasions leading to impoverished fire-climax
Since 1986, I have been involved in food crop production technology
transfer projects in sub-Saharan Africa, sponsored by the Sasakawa Foundation
and its Chairman, Mr. Ryoichi Sasakawa, and enthusiastically supported
by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Our joint program is known as
Sasakawa-Global 2000 and currently operates in 11 sub-Saharan African
countries. Working with national extension services during the past
14 years, SG 2000 has helped small-scale farmers to grow more than half
a million production test plots (PTPs), ranging in size from 1,000 to
5,000 square meters. These PTPs have been concerned with demonstrating
improved technology for basic food crops: maize, sorghum, wheat, cassava,
rice, and grain legumes.
The packages of recommended production technology include: (1) the use
of the best available commercial varieties or hybrids, (2) proper land
preparation and seeding to achieve good stand establishment, (3) proper
application of the appropriate fertilizers and, when needed, crop protection
chemicals, (4) timely weed control, and (5) moisture conservation and/or
better water use if under irrigation. We also work with participating
farm families to improved on-farm storage of agricultural production,
both to reduce grain losses due to spoilage and infestation and to allow
farmer to hold stocks longer to exploit periods when prices in the marketplace
are more favorable.
Virtually without exception, PTP yields are two to three times higher
than the control plots employing the farmer's traditional methods. Hundreds
of field days, attended by thousands of farmers, have been organized
to demonstrate and explain the components of the production package.
In areas where the projects are operating, farmers' enthusiasm is high
and political leaders are taking much interest in the program.
Despite the formidable challenges in Africa, the elements that worked
in Latin America and Asia will also work there. If effective seed and
fertilizer supply and marketing systems are developed, the nations of
sub-Saharan Africa can make great strides in improving the nutritional
and economic well being of their populations.
Crop Research Challenges
Agricultural researchers and farmers worldwide face the challenge during
the next 25 years of developing and applying technology that can increase
the global cereal yields by 50-75 percent and to do so in ways that
are economically and environmentally sustainable. Much of the yield
gains will come from applying technology "already on the shelf." But
there will also be new research breakthrough, especially in plant breeding
to improve yield stability and, hopefully, maximum genetic yield potential.
Genetic Improvement -- Continued genetic improvement of food crops --
using both conventional as well as biotechnology research tools -- is
needed to shift the yield frontier higher and to increase stability
of yield. In rice and wheat, three distinct, but inter-related strategies
are being pursued to increase genetic maximum yield potential: changes
in plant architecture, hybridization, and wider genetic resource utilization
(Rajaram and Borlaug, 1996; Pingali and Rajaram, 1997). Significant
progress has been made in all three areas although widespread impact
on farmers' fields is still probably 10-12 years away. IRRI claims that
the new "super rice" plant type, in association with direct seeding,
could increase rice yield potential by 20-25 percent (Khush, 1995).
In wheat, new plants with architecture similar to the "super rices"
(larger heads, more grains, fewer tillers) could lead to an increase
in yield potential of 10-15 percent (Rajaram and Borlaug, 1997). Introducing
genes from related wild species into cultivated wheat can introduce
important sources of resistance for several biotic and abiotic stresses,
and perhaps for higher yield potential as well, especially if the transgenic
wheats are used as parent material in the production of hybrid wheats
(Kazi and Hettel, 1995).
The success of hybrid rice in China (now covering more than 50 percent
of the irrigated area) has led to a renewed interest in hybrid wheat,
when most research had been discontinued for various reason, mainly
low heterosis which trying to exploit cytoplasmic male sterility, and
high seed production costs. However, recent improvements in chemical
hybridization agents, advances in biotechnology, and the emergence of
the new wheat plant type have made an assessment of hybrids worthwhile.
With better heterosis and increased grain filling, the yield frontier
of the new plant material could be 25-30 percent above the current germ
Maize production has really begun to take off in many Asia countries,
especially China. It now has the highest average yield of all the cereals
in Asia, with much of the genetic yield potential yet to be exploited.
Moreover, recent developments with high-yielding quality protein maize
(QPM) varieties and hybrids stand to improve the nutritional quality
of the grain without sacrificing yields. This achievement -- which was
delayed a decade because of a bad decision and inadequate funding --
offers important nutritional benefits for livestock and humans. With
biotechnology tools, it is likely that we will see a range of nutritional
"quality" improvements in the cereals in years to come.
There is growing evidence that genetic variation exists within most
cereal crop species for genotypes that are more efficient in the use
of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other plant nutrients than are currently
available in the best varieties and hybrids. In addition, there is good
evidence that further heat and drought tolerance can be built into high-yielding
Crop Management -- Crop productivity depends both on the yield potential
of the varieties and the crop management employed to enhance input and
output efficiency. Productivity gains can be made all along the line
-- in tillage, water use, fertilization, weed and pest control and harvesting.
An outstanding example of new Green/Blue Revolution technology in wheat
production is the "bed planting system," which has multiple advantages
over conventional planting systems. Plant height and lodging are reduced,
leading to 5-10 percent increases in yields and better grain quality.
Water use is reduced 30 percent, a spectacular savings and input efficiency
(fertilizers and crop protection chemicals) is also greatly improved,
which permits a total input reduction by 30 percent.
Already adopted in Mexico and growing in acceptance in other countries,
Shandong Province and other parts of China are now preparing to extend
this technology rapidly (personal communications, Prof. Xu Huisan, President,
Shandong Academy of Agricultural Science, July 7, 1999). Think of the
water use and water quality implications of such technology!!
Conservation tillage (no-tillage, minimum tillage) is spreading rapidly
in the agricultural world. The Monsanto Company estimated that there
were 75 million ha using conservation tillage in 1996 and this area
is projected to grow to 95 million ha by the year 2000 (1997 Annual
Report). Conservation tillage offers many benefits. By reducing and/or
eliminating the tillage operations, turnaround time on lands that are
double- and triple-cropped annually can be significantly reduced, especially
rotations like rice/wheat and cotton/wheat. This leads to higher production
and lower production costs. Conservation tillage also controls weed
populations and greatly reduce the time that small-scale farm families
must devote to this backbreaking work. Finally, the mulch left on the
ground reduces soil erosion, increases moisture conservation, and builds
up the organic matter in the soil-all very important factors in natural
What Can We Expect from Biotechnology?
During the 20th century, conventional breeding has produced a vast number
of varieties and hybrids that have contributed immensely to higher grain
yield, stability of harvests, and farm income. There also have been
important improvements in resistance to diseases and insects and in
tolerance to a range of abiotic stresses, especially soil toxicities,
but we also must persist in efforts to raise maximum genetic potential
if we are to meet with the projected food demand challenges before us.
In the last 20 years, biotechnology has developed invaluable new scientific
methodologies and products which need active financial and organizational
support to bring them to fruition. In animal biotechnology, we have
Bovine somatatropin (BST) now widely used to increase milk production.
Transgenic varieties and hybrids of cotton, maize, potatoes containing
genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, which effectively control a number
of serious insect pests, are now being grown commercially in the United
States, Argentina, Canada, and China. The use of such varieties will
greatly reduce the need for insecticide sprays and dusts. Considerable
progress also has been made in the development of transgenic plants
of cotton, maize, oilseed rape, soybeans, sugar beet, and wheat, with
tolerance to a number of herbicides. This can lead to a reduction in
overall herbicide use through much more specific interventions and dosages.
Not only will this lower production costs; it also has important environmental
Good progress has been made in developing cereal varieties with greater
tolerance for soil alkalinity, free aluminum, and iron toxicities. These
varieties will help to ameliorate the soil degradation problems that
have developed in many existing irrigation systems. They will also allow
agriculture to succeed into acid soil areas, such as the Cerrados in
Brazil and in central and southern Africa, thus adding more arable land
to the global production base.
Greater tolerance of abiotic extremes, such as drought, heat, and cold,
will benefit irrigated areas in several ways. First, we will be able
to achieve "more crop per drop" through designing plants with reduced
water requirements and adoption of between crop/water management systems.
Recombinant DNA techniques can speed up the development process.
Virus diseases have for centuries caused heavy losses in animal and
crop production. Within the past decade, varieties of tomato, pepper,
cucumber, squash, and papaya have been developed, and are being grown
commercially, with coat-protein mediated resistance to one or more important
virus diseases. These breakthroughs, using biotechnology transgenic
gene-splicing techniques, reduce pesticide use and crop losses while
improving crop quality (Beachy et al, 1990). Virus-resistant varieties
of sugar beets, rice, barley and wheat are now in various stages of
There are also hopeful signs that we will be able to improve fertilizer
use efficiency as well. For example, by genetically engineering wheat
and other crops to have high levels of glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH),
preliminary evidence suggests that yields can be increased 20-30 percent
with the same amount of fertilizer (Smil, 1999).
I would like to share one dream that I hope scientists will solve in
the not-too-distant future. Among all the cereals, rice is unique in
its immunity to the rusts (puccinia spp.) All the other cereals -- wheat,
maize, sorghum, barley, oats, and rye -- are attacked by two to three
species of rusts, often resulting in disastrous epidemics and crop failures.
Much of my scientific career has been devoted to breeding wheat varieties
for resistance to stem, leaf, and yellow rust species. After many years
of intense crossing and selecting, and multi-location international
testing, a good, stable, but poorly understood type of resistance to
stem rust was identified in 1952 that remains effective worldwide to
the present. However, no such success has been obtained with resistance
to leaf or yellow rust, where genetic resistance in any particular variety
has been short-lived (3-7 years). Imagine the benefits to humankind
if the genes for rust immunity in rice could be transferred into wheat,
barley, oats, maize, millet, and sorghum. Finally, the world could be
free of the scourge of the rusts, which have led to so many famines
over human history.
The majority of agricultural scientists including myself anticipate
great benefits from biotechnology in the coming decades to help meet
our future needs for food and fiber. Indeed, the commercial adoption
by farmers of transgenic crops has been one of the most rapid cases
of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture. Between 1996
and 1999, the area planted commercially to transgenic crops has increased
from 1.7 to 39.9 million hectares (James, 1999).
However, since most of this research is being done by the private sector,
which patents its inventions, agricultural policy makers must face up
to potentially serious problems. How will these resource-poor farmers
of the developing world, for example, be able to gain access to the
products of biotechnology research? How long, and under what terms,
should patents be granted for bio-engineered products? Further, the
high cost of biotechnology research is leading to a rapid consolidation
in the ownership of agricultural life science companies. Is this desirable?
These issues are matters for serious consideration by national, regional
and global governmental organizations.
At the same time, developing country governments need to be prepared
to work with -- and benefit from -- the new breakthroughs in biotechnology.
First and foremost, governments must establish a regulatory framework
to guide the testing and use of genetically modified crops. These rules
and regulations should be reasonable in terms of risk aversion and cost
effective to implement. Let's not tie science's hands through excessively
restrictive regulations. Since much of the biotechnology research is
under way in the private sector, the issue of intellectual property
rights must be addressed, and accorded adequate safeguards by national
Agricultural research has become a substantial enterprise over the past
century, so extensive that no research director can keep abreast of
the many advances in science nor can any scientist stay on top of all
the changing conditions in agricultural production. Certainly, there
are many management problems that must be addressed to improve the efficiency
of agricultural research. But what needs to be done is far from clear.
The international agricultural research centers (IARCs) and national
agricultural research systems (NARS) in the developing world certainly
have advanced the frontiers of knowledge over the past four decades.
However, I believe their more significant contribution has been the
integration of largely known scientific information and its application
in the form of improved technologies to raise farmers' incomes in order
to overcome pressing crop production problems and food shortages. This
should continue to be the their primary mission. Moreover, impact on
farmers' fields should be the primary measure by which to judge the
value of IARC and NARS work. Sadly, the twin organizational evils of
bureaucracy and complacency have begun to invade many international
and national research institutions today.
I agree with T.W. Shultz that most working scientists are research entrepreneurs
and that centralized control is an anathema to progress.
"In the quest for appropriations and research grants all too little
attention is given to that scarce talent which is the source of research
entrepreneurship. The convenient assumption is that a highly organized
research institution firmly controlled by an administrator will perform
this important function. But in fact a large organization that is tightly
controlled is the death of creative research. No research director ...
can know the array of research options that the state of scientific
knowledge and its frontier afford.
"Organization is necessary. It too requires entrepreneurs. But there
is an ever-present danger of over-organization, of directing research
from the top, of requiring working scientists to devote ever more time
to preparing reports to 'justify' the work they are doing, and to treat
research as if it was some routine activity."
Unfortunately, agricultural science -- like many other areas of human
endeavor -- is subject to changing fashions and fads, generated from
both within the scientific community and imposed upon it by external
forces, especially the politically induced ones. Increasingly, I fear,
too much of international and national research budgets are being directed
towards "development bandwagons" that will not solve Third World food
production problems, and for which scientists are ill equipped to solve.
Educating Urbanites about Agriculture
The current backlash against agricultural science and technology evident
in some industrialized countries is hard for me to comprehend. How quickly
humankind becomes detached from the soil and agricultural production!
Less than 4 percent of the population in the industrialized countries
is directly engaged in agriculture. With a low-cost food supplies and
urban bias, is it any wonder that consumers don't understand the complexities
of re-producing the world food supply each year in its entirely and
expanding it further for the nearly 100 million new mouths that are
born into this world each year. I believe we can help address this "educational
gap" in industrialized urban nations by making it compulsory in secondary
schools and universities for students to take courses on biology and
science and technology policy.
As the pace of technological change has accelerated the past 50 years,
the fear of science has grown. Certainly, the breaking of the atom and
the prospects of a nuclear holocaust added to people's fear and drove
a bigger wedge between the scientist and the layman. Rachel Carson's
book "Silent Spring," published in 1962, which reported that poisons
were everywhere, also struck a very sensitive nerve. Of course, this
perception was not totally unfounded. By the mid 20th century air and
water quality had been seriously damaged through wasteful industrial
production systems that pushed effluents often literally into "our own
We all owe a debt of gratitude to environmental movement in the industrialized
nations, which has led to legislation over the past 30 years to improve
air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic
wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity.
However, I agree also with environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook, who
argues in his book, "A Moment on the Earth," that "In the Western world
the Age of Pollution is nearly over .... Aside from weapons, technology
is not growing more dangerous and wasteful but cleaner and more resource-efficient.
Clean technology will be the successor to high technology."
However, Easterbrook goes on to warn that, "As positive as trends are
in the First World, they are negative in the Third World. One reason
why the West must shake off its instant-doomsday thinking about the
United States and Western Europe is so that resources can be diverted
to ecological protection in the developing world."
In his writings, U.S. Professor Robert Paarlberg, who teaches at Wellesley
College and Harvard University, sounded the alarm about the deadlock
between agriculturalists and environmentalists over what constitutes
"sustainable agriculture" in the Third World. This debate has confused
-- if not paralyzed -- many in the international donor community who,
afraid of antagonizing powerful environmental lobbying groups, have
turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernization
projects still needed in much of smallholder Asia, sub-Saharan Africa,
and Latin America.
This deadlock must be broken. We cannot lose sight of the enormous job
before us to feed 10-11 billion people, 90 percent of whom will begin
life in a developing country, and probably in poverty. Only through
dynamic agricultural development will there be any hope to alleviate
poverty and improve human health and productivity and reducing political
Thirty years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize,
I said that the Green Revolution had won a temporary success 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.
I now say that 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. The more pertinent question today
is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this 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 tons per year. By 2025, 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.
Moreover, higher farm incomes will also permit small-scale farmers to
make added investments to protect their natural resources. As Kenyan
archeologist Richard Leakey likes to reminds us, "you have to be well
fed to be a conservationist!" We need to bring common sense into the
debate on agricultural science and technology and the sooner the better!
Most certainly, agricultural scientists have a moral obligation to warn
the political, educational, and religious leaders about the magnitude
and seriousness of the arable land, food and population problems that
lie ahead. These problems will not vanish by themselves. Unless they
are addressed if a forthright manner future solutions will be more difficult
1/ Special 30th Anniversary Lecture, The Nobel Institute, Oslo, September
2/ Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Texas A&M University;
President, Sasakawa Africa Association
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State.)
Source: Washington File, September 8, 2000