A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 22, 2003) by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, famed plant breeder and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, focuses on the controversy surrounding biotechnology.
Rather than becoming more widely understood and accepted as months pass without serious problems with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), groups such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Union seem more insistent than ever that GMO labeling regulations be put in place.
Borlaug was asked by President Clinton and European Commission President Romano Prodi to look at the issues that have caused people to take sides on biotechnology here and in Europe.
Green Revolution. Borlaug is enormously qualified for such a study, having fathered the “Green Revolution” in the 1960s in India, China and many countries of Africa with his superior, well-adapted varieties of wheat and rice.
These crops turned millions of people from subsistence farmers, barely able to produce enough to feed their families, into producers of cash grain crops capable of supporting the non-farm people of these countries with enough extra to export.
Borlaug realizes that biotechnology differs little from conventional plant breeding, except that it progresses at a much more rapid pace.
What took years of painstaking searching for desirable genes through selection and time-consuming breeding experiments now takes months due to gene mapping and gene-splicing technologies.
In fact, genes are routinely taken from non-related species and placed into the chromosomes of plants, bacteria, and even animals to produce traits unlike anything the natural breeding and selection process could ever produce.
Hence, we have bacteria that produce bovine growth hormone or human insulin, plants that produce their own Bacillus Thuriengensis (BT) insecticide to protect themselves against European Corn Borer, and many other heretofore unthinkable advances.
Borlaug says genetic engineering of crops, “plant breeding at the molecular level, is not some kind of witchcraft, but rather the progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of the human race.”
‘Great promise.’ Borlaug says most of the 20 U.S. and European experts he talked with on the issue agreed that “biotechnology holds great promise to make dramatic and useful advances during the 21st century.
“The most prestigious national academies of science in North America and Europe (including the Vatican) also have come out in support of genetic engineering to improve the quantity, quality and availability of food supplies.
“The idea that a new technology should be barred until proven conclusively that it can do no harm is unrealistic and unwise.
“Scientific advance always involves some risk of unintended outcomes. ‘Zero biological risk’ is not even attainable.”
‘Poison.’ Still, political leaders of developing countries are being told by anti-biotechnology groups that donated American corn is “poison” because it is genetically modified.
The president of Zambia, based on such misinformation, is willing to risk thousands of additional starvation deaths rather than distribute the same corn Americans have been eating for years with no ill effects.
Other African leaders say they are afraid to accept GMO corn because its pollen will contaminate local corn varieties and cause serious environmental consequences that are not possible, according to Borlaug.
Heating up. So, why is the debate on GMOs still heating up?
Borlaug says it is because most people have a poor background in biological science, resulting in ignorance about the challenges of providing food to growing billions of Earth inhabitants and an inability to understand good science.
Despite the fact that current GMO crop varieties that help to control insects and weeds are lowering production costs and increasing harvests, ignorance about the possible effects of such developments is standing in the way of greater progress.
Prohibited. Kenya is ready to field-test virus resistant sweet potatoes that will yield 30 percent to 50 percent more than conventional varieties of this important food staple.
Higher yielding virus-resistant bananas and potatoes have already been developed but are being prohibited in African countries where people urgently need them.
Researchers in India are developing a vaccine against the epidemic livestock disease rinderpest, which can be genetically engineered into peanut plants.
African farmers would be able to protect their animals from the disease simply by feeding them the peanuts… if biotechnology is permitted.
Confrontation. Borlaug thinks the “needless” confrontation of people against the use of GMO crops in Europe could have been reduced if more people had a solid education in biological sciences.
He says privileged people and societies have the luxury of demanding complete safety from risk in the implementation of new technologies, even while scientists are certain the alleged risks do not exist.
But most people across the world do not have the luxury of waiting years or decades until the anti-technology groups are satisfied or become bored and move on to their next crusade. Do you remember the fight over BST?
(The author is an agricultural extension agent in Columbiana County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)