Monday, July 30, 2007

Norman Borlaug: Continuing the green revolution

Wall Street Journal: Persistent poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries, changing global climatic patterns, and the use of food crops to produce biofuels, all pose new and unprecedented risks and opportunities for global agriculture in the years ahead.

Agricultural science and technology, including the indispensable tools of biotechnology, will be critical to meeting the growing demands for food, feed, fiber and biofuels. Plant breeders will be challenged to produce seeds that are equipped to better handle saline conditions, resist disease and insects, droughts and waterlogging, and that can protect or increase yields, whether in distressed climates or the breadbaskets of the world. This flourishing new branch of science extends to food crops, fuels, fibers, livestock and even forest products.

…Early crossbreeding experiments to select desirable characteristics took years to reach the desired developmental state of a plant or animal. Today, with the tools of biotechnology, such as molecular and marker-assisted selection, the ends are reached in a more organized and accelerated way. The result has been the advent of a "Gene" Revolution that stands to equal, if not exceed, the Green Revolution of the 20th century.

…However, science and technology should not be viewed as a panacea that can solve all of our resource problems. Biofuels can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but are not a substitute for greater fuel efficiency and energy conservation. Whether we like it or not, gas-guzzling SUVs will have to go the way of the dinosaurs.

…The debate about the suitability of biotech agricultural products goes beyond issues of food safety. Access to biotech seeds by poor farmers is a dilemma that will require interventions by governments and the private sector. Seed companies can help improve access by offering preferential pricing for small quantities of biotech seeds to smallholder farmers. Beyond that, public-private partnerships are needed to share research and development costs for "pro-poor" biotechnology.

Finally, I should point out that there is nothing magic in an improved variety alone. Unless that variety is nourished with fertilizers--chemical or organic--and grown with good crop management, it will not achieve much of its genetic yield potential.

Mr. Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, last week was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, America's highest civilian honor.

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