OP-ED BY JULIE BORLAUG: LIKE IT OR NOT, BIOTECH IS A NECESSARY AG TOOL
Oct. 16, 2013
by Julie Borlaug as it ran in the Des Moines Register
When a committee of distinguished scientists chose three biotechnology pioneers to receive the 2013 World Food Prize on Thursday night, they surely knew the response in some quarters would be utter horror.
But the World Food Prize laureate selection committee in fact did select three pioneers of plant cell transformation through the use of recombinant DNA - and then took its decision a step further by issuing a statement stoutly defending the role of biotechnology in the future of agriculture.
To which I can only say, hallelujah. In my view, advocates of biotechnology desperately need to do a better job of explaining to the public why biotechnology is so important to humanity's future and why the opposition to it cannot be permitted to deprive billions of people of its promise.
For years, the advocates have had the losing end of the argument, in part, I think, because they thought they could win the day with science alone and with scientists doing the talking. Scientists like my grandfather, Norman Borlaug, the founder of the Green Revolution, were unfortunately a lot better at doing science than communicating about it.
Meanwhile, opponents gained the offensive with arguments that are often more emotional than rational and tangled up with tangential issues.
In their critique of the 2013 World Food Prize selections, for example, critics have tended to conflate one of the winners - Robert T. Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto Co. - with his employer. They have then invoked their anti-Monsanto and anti-corporate arguments.
All those arguments are side issues, at best, but they resonate because much of the fuel for the anti-biotechnology critique seems to grow out of an anti-corporate mentality.
In reality, however, the prize has been awarded not to a company, but to three scientists, who besides Fraley include Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and distinguished fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology.
I might add that my grandfather, a strong biotechnology proponent, told me many times that he hoped all three would one day receive the award.
Whatever the source of their opposition to biotechnology, we need to ask critics if they really want to bar spectacular, life-changing and lifesaving innovations because of it.
Just last month, protesters broke through fences around a field test of "Golden Rice" in the Philippines and uprooted the plants growing inside. "Golden Rice" has been genetically engineered to provide a new source of vitamin A, a vital nutrient whose absence causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children every year and about 2 million deaths a year in Asia and Africa.
Do biotechnology's opponents really want to deny Golden Rice to those who could so profoundly benefit from it? I can't really believe they do.
Likewise, I wonder how many Americans and Europeans who rail against biotechnology have actually been to sub-Saharan Africa and met with farmers struggling with increasingly arid conditions there. I wonder how many of them have seen these women - the people in the fields are usually women - spending hour after precious hour pulling weeds or losing their crops to insects or viruses, bacteria, or fungi.
Not many, I think. Once one sees these people, as I have, one wants to ensure their access to whatever innovations science can possibly provide to overcome their challenges.
The world population today is about 7.2 billion. By 2050, it's expected to hit 9.6 billion. Almost all of that growth will take place in undeveloped countries, in the kinds of places where small-holder farmers are already struggling to raise crops in conditions that are only becoming more challenging through climate change.
I think it's obvious: These farmers should have the option to choose from whatever farming techniques they choose, as long as they are safe. And to date, study after study has validated the safety of the innovations offered by genetically modified products.
This is not to say that biotechnology will single-handedly erase world hunger, as critics think advocates believe. Advocates understand that multifaceted, integrated solutions are needed. The farmer in underdeveloped regions not only needs drought-resistant seeds: She also needs facilities for post-harvest storage, a cellphone to follow market fluctuations, clean water to nourish her crops and keep her family healthy, and roads to get her grain to market.
In short, she needs a lot of tools. But biotechnology is one.