Says Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug
Biotechnology is the key to feeding the world.
THE world's population was about 500 million in 1650. It did not reach one
billion until 1850. When I was born 89 years ago, the world's population
was 1.5 billion people. Now it is 6.2 billion. There are now 80 million more
people to feed every year.
The green revolution has had a huge impact on feeding this population. Take
India, for example. Indian wheat production in 1961 was 11 million tonnes. By
2000, this had grown to 76 million tonnes. Yields went from 856kg a
hectare to 2.9 tonnes a hectare. Despite India's population growing from 452
million in 1961 to 1.02 billion in 2000, they were still producing enough food
to feed themselves. The cultivated land area went from 11 million hectares
to about 22 million hectares.
If you tried to produce the harvest of 2000 with the yield of 1961, you would
have had to cut down all the forests. On a world basis, cereal production
in 1949 to 1951 averaged 650 million tonnes. From 1997 to 1999, average
production was 1887 million tonnes. The land used, on average, was 660 million
If you had tried to produce the harvest of 1999 with the technology of 1950, you
would have required another 1.1 billion hectares of land. Biotechnology is a
wonderful new tool to complement the genetic and plant breeding methods used
before. The difference is we can reach across the taxonomic barriers that
we could not cross before due to sterility. This technology opens many new
doors for disease and insect resistance.
Mother Nature was showing these genetic modifications long before Neolithic
women began agriculture some 10,000 years before Christ. Wheat is a good
example of Mother Nature building a pretty complex organism. First, it
crossed wild triticum with Aegilops speltoides to produce spaghetti wheat.
Later, Mother Nature made another cross with Aegilops tauschii (goat grass) to
produce the bread wheats.
She did not do this overnight: a million years did not make much difference to
her. But today, we have to use new technology or move into marginal areas
and plough up more fields, with more erosion and destruction of wildlife.
But we need to find the middle of the road, whether it is biotechnology or
conventional genetics and plant breeding.
One of my concerns is that too much of the genetically modified organism
technology is falling into the hands of one or two companies. I don't
believe in a monopoly and the best protection is public sector programs or
growers and the public sector working together, such as in Australia.
OMIGOD Norman! You can't be serious. Have you ever seen the public
sector grow food? It can't do it. GM is accumulating in the hands
of a couple of companies because only huge companies have the resources to
deal with the regulatory burden, and to face down the GM activists and their
friends in government. If politicians had let them alone many would
still be in the hands of the biotech startups which invented them.
With the technology available now or in the research pipeline, we can feed 10
billion people by the middle of this century. This has to be complemented
with good agronomy, good weed control and good irrigation. You have to get the
right economic policies to permit the farmer to adopt new technology. If
these pieces come together, this will be a continuation of the green revolution.
I get sick and tired of listening to people who say we can produce enough food
with organic fertilisers. Don't get me wrong: I support food being produced by
organic fertilisers. But don't give Third World nations the idea that you
can produce food for 6.2 billion people without destroying many lands that
should not be opened up for cultivation.
The question remains: will the world's farmers be permitted to use this GM
technology to benefit humankind? International agricultural research expenditure
is decreasing due to the lack of spending by the World Bank and other agencies.
The world spends $US850 billion each year on weaponry, of which the US accounts
for 47 per cent. But there is no money for food, roads or schools in the Third
As Nobel Peace laureate John Boyd Orr said: "You can't build peace on empty
- NORMAN BORLAUG, April 9, 2003,
Reprinted from the Herald and Weekly Times (Australia)