Agriculture In The 21st Century Vision For Research And Development In Asia Norman E. Borlaug and Christopher Dowswell

Excerpts from Lecture
South East Asia


It is a pleasure to visit southeast Asia again, to participate with scientists and national policy makers in discussions about the prospects and future of biotechnology in Thailand and the Philippines. The majority of agricultural scientists-myself included-anticipate great benefits from biotechnology in the coming decades to help meet our future food and fiber needs. Indeed, the commercial adoption by farmers of transgenic crops has been one of the most rapid cases of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture. Between 1996 and 1999, the area planted commercially to transgenic crops has increased from 1.7 to 39.9 million hectares (James, 1999).

I am now in my 56th year of continuous involvement in agricultural research and production in the low-income, food-deficit developing countries. I have worked with many colleagues, political leaders, and farmers to transform lower-yielding food production systems into higher-yielding ones.

Great progress has been achieved in Asian agriculture since the early 1960s (FAOSTAT, 1998). Between 1961 and 1998, cereal production in Developing Asia has increased more than three-fold, due largely to the widespread adoption during the 1960s and 1970s of high-yielding rice and wheat production technology (and later in maize and other crops). The core technological components were management-responsive varieties, fertilizers, and irrigation.

Poverty Still Haunts Asia

Despite the successes of smallholder Asian farmers in applying Green Revolution technologies to triple cereal production since 1961, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of million miserably poor Asian people is far from won, especially in South Asia. Of the roughly 1.3 billion people in this sub-region, 500 million live on less than US$ 1 per day, 400 million are illiterate adults, 264 million lack access to health services, 230 million to safe drinking water, and 80 million children under 4 are malnourished (Eliminating World Poverty. UK White Paper, 1997). Mushrooming populations and inadequate poverty intervention programs have eaten up many of the gains of the Green Revolution.

These statistics point out two key problems of feeding the world's people. The first is the complex task of producing sufficient quantities of the desired foods to satisfy needs, and to accomplish this Herculean feat in environmentally and economically sustainable ways. The second task, equally or even more daunting, is to distribute food equitably. Poverty is the main impediment to equitable food distribution, which, in turn, is made more severe by rapid population growth.

Future Food Demand

IFPRI's 2020 projections indicate that Asian cereal demand (for food and feed) will increase considerably, both because of expected population growth and rising incomes (Rosegrant, et. al., 1995).

Most Asian societies today are still primarily rural, with more than half their labor forces engaged in agriculture. But the region is urbanizing rapidly, at roughly twice the rate of national population growth. In a number of countries non-farm employment (rural and urban) already exceeds agricultural employment. By the year 2020 most Asian countries are likely to have more people living in urban centers than in rural areas.

Higher incomes and urbanization are leading to major changes in dietary patterns. While per capita rice consumption is declining wheat consumption is increasing in most Asian countries, an indication of rising incomes and westernization of diets (Pingali and Rosegrant, 1998). Per capita consumption of fish, poultry and meat products is on the rise., and this expanding poultry and livestock demand will, in turn, require growing quantities of high quality feeds to supply its needs.

The migration of rural Asians to urban areas will affect farm production in several ways. First, with an out-migration of labor, more farm activities will have to be mechanized to replace labor-intensive practices of an earlier day. Second, large urban populations, generally close to the sea, are likely to increasingly buy food from the lowest-price producer, which for certain crops may very well mean importing from abroad. Domestic producers, therefore, will have to compete-in price and quality-with these imported foodstuffs.

Standing up to the Anti-Science Crowd

Science and technology are under growing attack in the affluent nations where misinformed environmentalists claim that the consumer is being poisoned out of existence by the current high-yielding systems of agricultural production. While I contend this isn't so, I often ask myself how it is that so many supposedly "educated" people are so illiterate about science? There seems to be a growing fear of science, per se, as the pace of technological change increases. The breaking of the atom and the prospects of a nuclear holocaust added to people's fear, and drove a bigger wedge between the scientist and the layman. The world was becoming increasingly unnatural, and science, technology and industry were seen as the culprits. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, reported that poisons were everywhere, killing the birds first and then humans-struck a very sensitive nerve.

Of course, this perception was not totally unfounded. By the mid 20th century air and water quality had been seriously damaged through wasteful industrial production systems that pushed effluents often literally into "our own backyards." Over the past 30 years, we all owe a debt of gratitude to environmental movement in the industrialized nations, which has led to legislation to improved air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity.

Yet, in almost every environmental category far more progress is being made than most in the media are willing to admit--at least in the industrialized world. Why? I believe that it's because "apocalypse sells." Sadly, all too many scientists, many who should and do know better, have jumped on the environmental bandwagon in search of research funds.

When scientists align themselves with anti-science political movements, like the anti-biotechnology crowd, what are we to think? When scientists lend their names to unscientific propositions, what are we to think? Is it any wonder that science is losing its constituency? We must be on guard against politically opportunistic, pseudo-scientists like T.D. Lysenko, whose bizarre ideas and vicious persecution of anyone who disagreed with him, contributed greatly to the collapse of the former USSR.

I often ask the critics of modern agricultural technology what the world would have been like without the technological advances that have occurred? For those whose main concern is protecting the "environment," let's look at the positive impact that the application of science-based technology has had on the land.

Had Asia's 1961 average cereal yields (930 kg/ha) still prevailed today, nearly 600 million ha of additional land-of the same quality-would have been needed to equal the 1997 cereal harvest (milled rice adjusted) (Figure 1). Obviously, such a surplus of land was not available in populous Asia. Moreover, even if it were available, think of soil erosion, loss of forests and grasslands, wildlife species that would have ensured had we tried to produce these larger harvests with the low-input technology!

In his writings, Professor Robert Paarlberg, who teaches at Wellesley College and Harvard University in the United States, has sounded the alarm about the consequences of the debilitating debate between agriculturalists and environmentalists over what constitutes so-called "sustainable agriculture" in the Third World. This debate has confused--if not paralyzed--many in the international donor community who, afraid of antagonizing powerful environmental lobbying groups, have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernization projects still needed in much of smallholder 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, manyžindeed probably mostžof whom will begin life in abject poverty. Only through dynamic agricultural development will there be any hope to alleviate poverty and improve human health and productivity.

Farmers need to be motivated to adopt many of the desired improvements in input use efficiency (irrigation water, fertilizers, crop protection chemicals). This will require a two-pronged-strategy, in which reductions in subsidies are linked to aggressive and effective extension education programs to increase the efficiency of input use. Many agricultural research and extension organizations need to be decentralized, more strongly farmer-oriented, and more closely linked within the technology-generation and dissemination process. Universal primary education in rural areas-for both boys and girls-is imperative and must be given the highest priority. Ways must also be found to improve access to information by less-educated farmers-because of equity reasons and also to facilitate accelerated adoption of the newer knowledge-intensive technologies.

Closing Comments
Thirty years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, I said that the Green Revolution had won a temporary success in man's war against hunger, which if fully implemented, could provide sufficient food for humankind through the end of the 20th century. But I warned that unless the frightening power of human reproduction was curbed, the success of the Green Revolution would only be ephemeral.

I now say that the world has the technology-either available or well advanced in the research pipeline-to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology?

Extreme environmental elitists seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. Small, well-financed, vociferous, and anti-science groups are threatening the development and application of new technology, whether it is developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science.

I agree fully with a petition written by Professor C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University, and now signed by several thousand scientists worldwide, in support of agricultural biotechnology, which states that "no food products, whether produced with recombinant DNA techniques or more traditional methods, are totally without risk. The risks posed by foods are a function of the biological characteristics of those foods and the specific genes that have been used, not of the processes employed in their development."

While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt elitist and 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. 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.

Most certainly, agricultural scientists and leaders have a moral obligation to warn the political, educational, and religious leaders about the magnitude and seriousness of the arable land, food and population problems that lie ahead, even with breakthroughs in biotechnology. If we fail to do so, we will be negligent in our duty and inadvertently may be contributing to the pending chaos of incalculable millions of deaths by starvation. But we must also speak to policy makers-unequivocally and convincingly-that global food insecurity will not disappear without new technology; to ignore this reality will make future solutions all the more difficult to achieve.


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