Nobel Laureate Says Biotechnology Can Feed 10 Billion People

Tim Johnson
March 7, 2000
Kyodo News Service

International donors should not be swayed by antibiotechnology extremists if they are to accomplish the gargantuan task of feeding billions more people over the coming decades, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s and 1970s said Tuesday.

"Extreme environmental elitists seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks," Norman Borlaug, who has continued his fight against hunger since winning the prize in 1970, told a forum on biotechnology in Bangkok.

The 85-year-old American microbiologist said the debate over the safety and ethics of biotechnology and high-yield agriculture systems "has confused, if not paralyzed, many in the international donor community."

Many donors, he said, "have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernization projects still needed in much of small-holder 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, many-indeed probably most-of whom will begin life in abject poverty," he said.

While there were less than 1.5 billion mouths to feed at the beginning of the 20th century, today there are over six billion. Borlaug said a medium projection is for world population to reach about 8.3 billion by 2025, before stabilizing at about 11 billion toward the end of the 21st century.

On Asia, Borlaug said the world’s most populous region will have to produce its food supply on a shrinking land basis during the next century.

Noting that total cereal production in Asian developing countries increased from 248 million to 795 million tons between 1961 and 1998, largely due to application of Green Revolution technologies, he said, "During the next 20 years, Asian farmers will have to meet this current level of production plus produce several hundred million additional tons of cereals more than they do today."

Borlaug said the technology to feed 10-11 billion people, including genetic modification of crops to better resist insects and tolerate soil toxicity, is now either available or well advanced in the research pipeline.

"The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology," he said, citing the threat from small but vociferous and well-financed "antiscience groups," joined by "politically opportunistic pseudo-scientists."

Environmental organizations and some independent scientists argue that since current understanding of genetics is extremely limited, tampering with the DNA of organisms carries unpredictable risks to human health and the environment.

While acknowledging risks are inherent in many scientific endeavors, Borlaug said governments can establish regulatory frameworks to guide the testing and use of genetically modified crops, though such 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," he said. "It is access to new technology that will be the salvation of the poor, and not, as some would have us believe, maintaining them wedded to outdated, low-yielding, and more costly production technology."

According to Borlaug, even if current per-capita food consumption stays constant, population growth would require that world food production increases by 2.6 billion gross tons, or 57%, between 1990 and 2025. But if diets improve among the estimated one billion people living in hunger, mainly in Asia and Africa, world food demand could increase by 100% to above 9 billion gross tons over this 35-year period.

"While affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt elitist positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘natural’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot," he said.


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