Tricounty News

Biotechnology can help feed the world

Plenty of people with Minnesota ties have made names for themselves on the world stage. None, however, have had the positive impact of University of Minnesota (U of M) alum and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. In recognition of Dr. Borlaug's achievements, Governor Pawlenty signed legislation earlier this year marking Oct. 16 as Dr. Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Day. In the 1960s, Dr. Borlaug was at the forefront of a movement that become known as the "Green Revolution." He led a team that developed a special breed of high-yielding wheat that resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases. To his great credit, Borlaug didn't stop there. Working side-by-side with local farmers, Borlaug showed farmers in India and Pakistan how to cultivate the crop properly. By doing so, he helped the drought-stricken countries avoid a famine that would have claimed thousands of lives. More recently, Dr. Borlaug has been involved in Sub-Saharan African programs bringing similar benefits to farmers in that region. In countries where he has worked, crop yields have doubled or tripled over what the traditional practices provided. While regional food shortages still occur today, they are more often due to social crises than production crises. It is appropriate to reflect on Dr. Borlaug's impressive list of accomplishments, but it would be a mistake for us to overlook his message for us now. Dr. Borlaug is a staunch supporter of biotechnology, describing it as a tool that can help the world produce enough food to feed the still-growing population while also reducing the need for turning pristine wilderness lands into cropland. "Today, anti-science and technology zealots are trying to retard - and even stop - the application of new science and technology ... that offer so much promise for the future," Borlaud said during an appearance at the U of M last May. Like Dr. Borlaug, I consider biotechnology a tool that has immense potential for improving agriculture and protecting the environment in the 21st century. Properly implemented, biotechnology can help farmers around the world grow more nutritious crops more efficiently and with fewer inputs. It will allow us to increase production on existing cropland and thereby reduce the need for converting rain forests and untouched grasslands into cropland. I understand why some people have concerns about specific biotechnology applications. It is entirely fitting that society asks questions about potential impacts, and that we have a rigorous system of testing and regulation to prevent unintended negative consequences for humans or the environment. Since agriculture is a business, it is also fitting that American farmers listen to the demands of overseas consumers even when they clash with our own views on biotechnology. However, it is a mistake to dismiss all biotechnology (and for that matter, other beneficial technologies such as food irradiation) due to hypothetical dangers or real but remote risks that can be minimized by proper implementation and effective regulation. Forty years ago, Dr. Borlaug showed the world it was possible to effectively use crop breeding techniques, fertilizers, pesticides and other crop technologies to feed a hungry world. Today, at an age when most people are decades into retirement, he is still directing his considerable energies to show us that biotechnology can feed the world better while also slowing the destruction of the world's remaining wilderness.