Nobel Winner: Without Technology, Millions Starve
Advances in agricultural technology, from chemical fertilizers to genetically modified crops, are the keys to feeding more than 6 billion people worldwide while preserving vast expanses of uncultivated land for other purposes, a renowned geneticist says.
Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug said such limitations as availability of water and natural plant nutrients makes biotechnology and improved crop production methods that much more important in stabilizing agricultural land and battling starvation.
Borlaug offered his views on agriculture, global crop production and risk taking during a recent presentation at Ohio State University.
Borlaug is an agricultural geneticist. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to the "Green Revolution," a food production movement of the 1960s that helped lift many countries out of starvation through the introduction of high-yielding wheat varieties. He's lived in food-deprived countries for more than 55 years.
Feeding the world has been possible because of agricultural technology, Borlaug said. Increased use of irrigation has made it possible to grow crops in areas that might not have been able to sustain them. Borlaug applauded the use of organic fertilizers but said they cannot replace chemical fertilizers.
"Cereals, such as rice, maize and wheat make up 70 percent of the world's food supply," he said. "In reality, 99 percent of all edible dry matter comes from the land but only 1 percent of Earth's water can be used to support that production.
"And when it comes to organic fertilizers, I say without qualification, use all there is, but don't let anyone tell you that we can feed 6.2 billion people without the use of chemical nitrogen."
Nearly 80 million tons of nitrogen is consumed annually through synthetic applications. To maintain that amount through organic sources -- livestock manure, for exampleU.S. cattle numbers would need to increase from 1.5 billion head to 10 billion head, Borlaug said.
Because of improved crop production techniques, China, India and Pakistan have increased grain production as much as sevenfold since the 1960s, Borlaug said. Global grain production has jumped 23 percent in the past 50 years, from 650 million tons to more than 1 billion tons.
"These improvements in yield are due to high-yielding varieties, agronomic practices, weed control, fertilizers and seeding dates, combined with economic policies that farmers have adopted and put into practice," Borlaug said. "Plus, we are producing more food on less land than we were in 1940 -- all of this due to technology."
Genetically modified crops, commonly known as GMOs, will continue to play an important part in crop production, Borlaug said.
"I'm convinced biotechnology is going to help us," he said. "There's fear, but biotechnology has been going on since the beginning of time. Mother Nature was crossing plant genes long before scientific man and agricultural man began doing it. If you like to eat spaghetti, you are eating a GMO that Mother Nature made. It's a natural cross of two wild wheat plants."
Agricultural land used for transgenic crop production has increased thirtyfold over the past five years. The United States leads the world in transgenic crop production, followed by Argentina, Canada and China, and use of such crops has boosted yields and reduced costs.
With world population expected to reach 7.6 billion people by 2020 and the demand for grain production likely to increase 40 percent to 50 percent, agricultural technology advances should not be ignored, Borlaug said.
"There's always fear when you change," he said. "We did everything that the book told us not to do, and when we moved all that wheat to India in the 1960s, they were saying that we were mad and insane, playing with the lives of millions.
"There's little or no starvation in Pakistan and India today, and if you travel through China you won't see emaciated people. You don't know what's going to happen when you change something, but you have to change it to try to improve it."