WOOSTER, Ohio – An unexpected crowd of more than 250 people forced organizers to change rooms on the campus of Wooster’s Ohio Agricultural and Research Development Center Feb. 22 to accommodate Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug’s presentation on 21st century agriculture.
The seminar, “Prospects for World Agriculture in the 21st Century,” was also presented Feb. 21 on the Ohio State campus in Columbus as part of a no-till and Asian farming conference.
Background. Borlaug, an Iowa native, is an agricultural researcher who developed a high yielding short strawed, disease-resistant wheat that sparked the “Green Revolution.” The production movement, which swept the globe during the 1960s, helped lift countries such as Pakistan and India out of starvation. The wheat is still being grown in Latin America, the Near and Middle East and Africa.
Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in food production and continues today to fight world hunger.
Borlaug worked in the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture as a geneticist and plant pathologist for the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico, where he conducted research in wheat production. He later served as director of the International Maize and Wheat Movement Center (CIMMYT), a research facility that has played a major role in increasing the world’s supply of cereal grains.
Project success. Borlaug shared anecdotes of his experiences in the United States and abroad, including ordeals associated with his introduction of wheat in Asian countries.
“It was chaos, and there was trouble in New York, Mexico, Pakistan and India,” Borlaug said, referring to the war that had broken out between India and Pakistan, delaying shipments of wheat from Mexico.
“We got a message from India that the wheat was dying from rust, and seed rates had to be doubled and fertilizer increased. But when I went home from there, despite all the trouble, the project was a success,” he said, adding that the crop prevented wartime starvation in the region.
Great neglect. Borlaug also commented on observations he has made in the past 57 years in different countries and how they relate to agricultural production today and tomorrow.
“I can only give a yardstick of the world food and population situation,” he said. Statistics he provided indicate worldwide population approaching 6.2 billion and growing by 85 million each year.
“My hope and personal feeling in watching events worldwide shows one great neglect, and that is very little attention given to educating the masses,” he said.
Borlaug said educating the masses could help starving countries feed themselves and help improve the standards of living in countries around the globe.
“Education will have a direct influence on whether the population growth forecasts are right, or if those numbers are misleading,” he said.
Technology will also play a leading role in coping with and feeding a growing population, he said.
“The key to understanding and using technology that has potential goes back to infrastructure,” he said. Borlaug emphasized that railroads built into “good agricultural areas” have helped countries prosper and grow, and the lack of roads have held other countries back.
“Historical developments like war and railroads hinge the development of high-yield technologies today,” he said.
Available resources. The crowd of Agricultural Technical Institute and high school students, university faculty and staff, visiting international researchers and local residents listened as Borlaug also shared statistics of usable freshwater and land masses for agricultural production.
According to data presented, less than 2 percent of freshwater is available for human or agricultural uses, and 11 percent of the world land mass is suitable for agriculture without major limitations, including latitude, temperature, rainfall and topography.
“One of the most important things to keep in mind is Mother Nature did this, made land non-arable. So it’s a great achievement to open new lands that were formerly not cultivated,” he said.
Borlaug also shared statistics of the 1998 world food supply, which indicate nearly 60 percent of edible dry matter comes from wheat, maize and rice around the globe. He also praised the importance of animal protein, including fish, in balancing diets.
Looking ahead. Borlaug emphasized the need for chemical fertilizers in order to maintain food production levels.
He cited China, the largest food producer in the world, as an example of the benefits of fertilizer use, noting the country’s production levels wouldn’t have been possible without the use of chemical fertilizers in the past 25 years.
“Looking ahead, we’ve got to consider nutrients in the soils, which will be our biggest limiting factor,” he said, noting current chemical nitrogen use totals 80 million metric tons. Borlaug also urged using all organic materials available as fertilizers.
“But don’t be misled and don’t let anyone tell you that you can feed 6.2 billion people with just organic materials. And for those who like their foods produced organically, well then, God bless them,” he said.
Figures presented indicate 10 billion head of cattle would be required to produce the organic nitrogen required for food production around the globe.
“Looking at it this way, how many forests would have to be cut down to make room for all these cattle? We have got to use all our wits and resources to continue to produce food on this planet,” he said.
Biotechnology. Borlaug also touted the benefits of high-yield crop varieties, including resistance to major diseases.
“There is a tremendous variation in pathogens all over the world, and no crop will ever be completely resistant,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of prioritizing crop breeding programs, and pushed for making good decisions in breeding.
“In the areas where we’ve got to get these crops – starving areas of the world – the people have lived for several generations close to hunger. Hunger and famine are always waiting for a mistake, for an entire crop to be wiped out,” he said.
Borlaug also boasted increased yields per acre – a result of biotechnology – is a major factor in helping to feed the growing population.
“Land of the same quality is hard to come by in this day and age,” yet world cereal production has tripled since 1950 to 1.877 billion metric tons using the same amount of acreage, he said.
Modern varieties have also increased irrigation and tractor use, but have spared habitat for wildlife, forests and plains.
“Imagine the Great Plains buffalo as they disappeared as we pushed westward. Herds of zebra and other animals in Africa will also be gone unless technology continues,” Borlaug said.
“With the technology available and if research is done properly, global agriculture will continue to prosper without destroying the environment,” Borlaug said.
Feedback. “I thought the presentation was really interesting, and found it helpful that he told his story in everyday words,” said Greg Myers, research manager in the department of food and animal health at the center.
“I really found his comment about organic fertilizer never feeding the world to be interesting, and something to think about,” he said.
Having agriculture’s only Nobel laureate on campus was also a big deal to Mark Erbaugh, assistant director of international programs in agriculture for Ohio State.
“His focus of why international agriculture is important was aimed pretty well at the students,” he said.
“It’s a message that doesn’t get out that often, and everything he said is food for thought for everyone in the audience.”
(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)