Financial Express (India), March 20, 2005
‘We have to use all types of fertilisers to raise farm output, says Nobel Laureate Borlaug’
The only agricultural scientist to win a Nobel peace prize, Norman E Borlaug, has said that we need to use, and extensively, all kinds of fertiliser, organic and inorganic, to enhance farm productivity which was vital to fight the problem of hunger in the world.
Delivering the 22nd Coromandel Lecture in the Capital on Wednesday, he said productivity has to be enhanced substantially as 900 million people in the world still suffer from hunger. “Use all forms of fertilisers, organic and inorganic, as they enhance soil nutrient contents leading to higher level of farm productivity. The big challenge facing the world today is to make it hunger-free,” he said adding that the world food supply would have to be doubled by 2050.
Borlaug applauded the use of organic fertilisers but said they cannot replace chemical fertilisers. “When it comes to organic fertilisers, 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.” He said the amount of nitrogen consumed annually through synthetic applications can just not be met through organic sources.
Linking hunger to conflict he said peace cannot be built on empty stomach. He said only 8% of countries with the lowest levels of hunger are mired in conflict compared to 56% of countries with highest levels of hunger that has civil conflict.
Speaking at the lecture, ‘From The Green To The Gene Revolution: A 21st Century Challenge’, Borlaug said there are limited potential for land expansions, except in the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa and the need for increased farm output has to come by way of application of genetically modified organisms on a wider scale, advancement in techniques like zero-tillage and bed planting.
He said 85% of future growth in food grain production should come from the lands already in production by raising the average productivity level through a combination of measures. “Productivity could be enhanced by improving the efficiency of irrigated lands and soil fertility management,” he said.
“Irrigation will remain crucial to meeting food demand and genetically modified crops, commonly known as GMOs, will continue to play an important part in crop production,” Borlaug said adding that such limitations as availability of water and natural plant nutrients makes biotechnology and improved crop production methods that much more important in battling starvation.
Advances in agricultural technology, from chemical fertilisers 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, said the renowned geneticist. “One has to go by scientific facts on productivity, and not by emotion,” Borlaug said in reply to a question as to why NGOs worldwide oppose the application of Bt crops.
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, Brazil and China, and use of such crops have boosted yields and reduced costs.
Global grain production has jumped 23% in the past 50 years, from 650 million tonne to more than 1 billion tonne. “These improvements in yield are due to high-yielding varieties, agronomic practices, weed control and fertilisers,” he said.
Borlaug 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, including India, out of starvation through the introduction of high-yielding wheat varieties.
Nature 456, 421-422 (27 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456421b;
Published online 26 November 2008
A fruitless campaign
Another protracted fight over genetically modified crops in Africa will be costly and wasteful.
The global food crisis that came to the fore last spring may have been overshadowed by the global financial crisis that erupted this autumn, but it has certainly not been solved. That is one reason why many governments and philanthropic foundations are now looking to agricultural biotechnology to improve future food production. Despite the virulent opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops in some quarters, many believe that progress in areas such as drought-tolerant or nutritionally fortified plants could make a big difference in many of the poorest countries.
Indeed, environmentalists, policy-makers, scientists and industry representatives have been meeting both formally and informally over the past few years — first to establish a degree of common ground, and then to approach the trickier business of bridging some of their differences on the role of GM technology in agriculture.
A prime example is the work of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology, which was charged with charting a way forward in what have become known as Africa's GM wars. For well over a decade, companies such as Monsanto have sought to create African markets for GM crops such as insect-resistant Bt cotton, while against them have stood European environmental groups and not a few African political leaders, for whom multinational businesses evoke the spectre of
colonialism. The two sides have waged a war in parliaments, in the media and even on the streets.
Africa's nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture.
Fed up, the African Union eventually brought together a group of key individuals and institutions who might otherwise be talking to each other through a megaphone. The group included Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, who is a leading environmental campaigner and a vocal critic of multinationals in developing countries. Sat next to him was Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University and a passionate proponent of technology's role in economic development. And next to him was Cheick Modibo Diarra, chairman of Microsoft in Africa.
The group eventually came to a consensus that Africa's nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture — but that all new technologies would need appropriate safeguards to protect human health and the environment. This seemingly obvious statement was, in fact, a rare example of successful collaboration between multinationals and environmentalists.
The fragility of that consensus is illustrated by the fate of a much larger initiative, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. That effort
attempted to forge a similar consensus among the major players in world agriculture, but fell apart in January when industry representatives chose to walk away from the table (see Nature 451, 223–224; 2008). They felt unable to sign a document that did not list biotechnology as a high enough priority.
From the other side, meanwhile, GM opponents are trying to rekindle the controversy. A new opposition campaign — http://www.bangmfood.org
— was endorsed in the November issue of The Ecologist magazine, an influential voice in the global environmental movement.
In that context, the magnitude of the African Union panel's achievement is clear — as are the challenges it still faces. Its report, Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa's Development,
has not yet officially seen the light of day, even though it was published more than a year ago. Ordinarily, a document from the African Union would be expected to be harsh in its criticism of
multinational industry. As this report is more measured, senior officials in the African Union's Commission based in Addis Ababa are nervous about releasing it.
Happily, the report is in wide circulation and freely available on the Internet
). But the African Union should have the courage of its convictions and give the report its formal endorsement. Indeed, it should use it as a model for ongoing attempts to address the food crisis. Both the successful negotiations of the African Union panel and the failure of the international assessment show that there is no alternative to a grown-up discussion with all parties in the same room.