Billions Served

Ronald Bailey
March 27, 2000
Reason Magazine

REASON Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey met with Borlaug at Texas A&M, where he is Distinguished Professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department and still teaches classes on occasion. Despite his achievements, Borlaug is a modest man who works out of a small windowless office in the university's agricultural complex. A few weeks before the interview, Texas A&M honored Borlaug by naming its new agricultural biotechnology center after him. "We have to have this new technology if we are to meet the growing food needs for the next 25 years," Borlaug declared at the dedication ceremony. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotech, he fears, they may finally bring on the famines they have been predicting for so long.

Reason: You mentioned that you are afraid that the doomsayers could stop the progress in food production.

Borlaug: It worries me, if they gum up all of these developments. It's elitism, and the American people are vulnerable to this, too. I'm talking about the extremists here and in Western Europe....In the U.S., 98 percent of consumers live in cities or urban areas or good-size towns. Only 2 percent still live out there on the land. In Western Europe also, a big percentage of the people live off the farms, and they don't understand the complexities of agriculture. So they are easily swayed by these scare stories that we are on the verge of being poisoned out of existence by farm chemicals.

Bruce Ames, the head of biochemistry at Berkeley, has analyzed hundreds and hundreds of foods, including all of the basic ones that we have been eating from the beginning of agriculture up to the present time. He has found that they contain trace amounts of many completely natural chemical compounds that are toxic or carcinogenic, but they're present in such small quantities that they apparently don't affect us".

Reason: Could genetically engineered crops help farmers in developing countries?

Borlaug: Biotech has a big potential in Africa, not immediately, but down the road. Five to eight years from now, parts of it will play a role there.

Reason: What do you see as the future of biotechnology in agriculture?

Borlaug: Biotechnology will help us do things that we couldn't do before, and do it in a more precise and safe way. Biotechnology will allow us to cross genetic barriers that we were never able to cross with conventional genetics and plant breeding. In the past, conventional plant breeders were forced to bring along many other genes with the genes, say, for insect or disease resistance that we wanted to incorporate in a new crop variety. These extra genes often had negative effects, and it took years of breeding to remove them. Conventional plant breeding is crude in comparison to the methods that are being used with genetic engineering. However, I believe that we have done a poor job of explaining the complexities and the importance of biotechnology to the general public.

Reason: A lot of activists say that it's wrong to cross genetic barriers between species. Do you agree?

Borlaug: No. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera--that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man.

Reason: Environmentalists say agricultural biotech will harm biodiversity.

Borlaug: I don't believe that. If we grow our food and fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we have and what's coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land, with all of their plant and animal diversity.

Reason: A lot of environmental activists claim that the BT toxin gene, which is derived from Bacillus thuringiensis and which has been transferred into corn and cotton, is going to harm beneficial insects like the monarch butterfly. Is there any evidence of that?

Borlaug: To that I [respond], will BT harm beneficial insects more than the insecticides that are sprayed around in big doses? In fact, BT is more specific. There are lots of insects that it doesn't affect at all.

Reason: So you don't think that putting the BT gene in corn or cotton is a big problem?

Borlaug: I think that whole monarch butterfly thing was a gross exaggeration. I think the researchers at Cornell who fed BT corn pollen to monarch butterflies were looking for something that would make them famous and create this big hullabaloo that's resulted. In the first place, corn pollen is pretty heavy. It doesn't fly long distances. Also, most monarchs are moving at different times of the season when there's no corn pollen. Sure, some of them might get killed by BT corn pollen, but how many get killed when they are sprayed with insecticides? Activists also say that BT genes in crops will put stress on the pest insects, and they'll mutate. Well, that's been going on with conventional insecticides. It's been going on all my life working with wheat. It's a problem that has been and can be managed.

Reason: But the Cornell researchers went ahead and published their paper on the effects of BT corn pollen on monarch butterflies in the laboratory.

Borlaug: Several of us tried to encourage them to run field tests before it was published. That's how science gets politicized. There's an element of Lysenkoism [Lysenko was Stalin's favorite biologist] all tangled up with this pseudoscience and environmentalism. I like to remind my friends what pseudoscience and misinformation can do to destroy a nation.

Reason: Some activists claim that herbicide-resistant crops end up increasing the amount of herbicide that's sprayed on fields. Do you think that's true?

Borlaug: Look, insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizer cost money, and the farmer doesn't have much margin. He's going to try to use the minimum amount that he can get by with. Probably in most cases, a farmer applies less than he should. I don't think farmers are likely to use too much.

Reason: Do biotech crops pose a health risk to human beings?

Borlaug: I see no difference between the varieties carrying a BT gene or a herbicide resistance gene, or other genes that will come to be incorporated, and the varieties created by conventional plant breeding. I think the activists have blown the health risks of biotech all out of proportion.

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.


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