Rebooting the Green Revolution

by Leo Quigley
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The contributions Dr. Norman Borlaug made to the world are just faded memories for most North Americans as is the optimism of the “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s that promised to feed the world.

At the time there was hope that scientists could develop crops and agricultural systems that would reduce, or even eliminate, world hunger using modern research to increase the production of grain, more nutritious food and open agriculturally barren lands in Third World Countries to farming.

Borlaug and his associates seemed to be on the road to achieving that dream with the creation of the “supergrain,” Triticale, at research facilities in Canada and Mexico.

However, with his death in September 2009, the vision of a man who was winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and India’s Padma Vibhushan and credited with having “Saved a Billion Lives” began to fade, particularly among North America’s urban population.

Instead, a new vision for agriculture began to emerge, that of farming techniques that were popular at the turn of the century with inadequate housing for livestock, crops that were susceptible to all types of disease and insect attacks – a rake and hoe culture.

Meanwhile, the world population is expected by the United Nations to grow from roughly 7 billion this year to between 8 and 10 billion by 2050. Returning to outdated and inefficient farming practices methods is clearly not the answer.

Applied science under attack

With over 1 billion new mouths to feed it would seem to be a bad time to discourage the adoption of applied science to agriculture. However, genetically modified grains, modern chemicals and the reputation of modern agriculture seem to be continually under attack in North America.

It’s not that the scientific community and concerned individuals have not tried to stem the flow of what they call “Junk Science” flooding the internet and our newsstands, but their efforts seem to be ineffectual.

Borlaug was honored posthumously on March 25, 2014 with the unveiling of his statue in Washington, D.C., U.S. During the ceremony, the American Council of Science and Health, of which Borlaug was a founding trustee, paid tribute to the legendary scientist, saying: “Norman Borlaug, known as the Father of the Green Revolution and a Founding Trustee of ACSH, was a member of the first international agricultural research and production team — namely the Cooperative Mexican Ministry of Agriculture Rockefeller Foundation Program — whose success gave rise to the 16 International Agricultural Research Centers currently operating worldwide. The wheat production technology he and his team developed in Mexico was introduced into Pakistan, India, Turkey, China, and several South American countries during the 1960s. He is credited with saving more lives than any person who has ever lived. One reliable estimate was that he saved “1 billion lives.”

However, while the Nobel Prize winner’s statue was being unveiled in the U.S. Capitol, headlines creating a fear of eating genetically altered foods were screaming at North American consumers. For example:

“Why 80% of People Worldwide Will Soon Stop Eating Wheat!”
“Before Eating Red Meat, Think Twice and Live Longer”
“8 Reasons Chicken Is Not A Health Food”
“The Very Real Danger of Eating Genetically Modified Foods”
Stories such as these run regularly in all media, including social media and the Internet worldwide, and they have led to imports of North American genetically modified grain, feed grains and oilseeds being barred from a long list of countries in Europe, South America, Asia, the Phillipines and the Middle East.

The ACSH’s goal, “to restore science and common sense to personal and public health decisions in order to foster a scientifically sound and sensible public health policy for the American people,” is one foundation of Dr. Borlaug’s vision and of the nucleus of the roughly 350 physicians, scientists and policy advisors, like Borlaug, who are experts in a wide variety of fields.

In a recent statement, the group talked about the Vitamin A deficiency that affects roughly a quarter of a million preschool children worldwide: “The World Health Organization estimates that a quarter to a half a million of these children become blind every year because of this deficiency, and of those about half die within a year of losing their sight. Moreover, low levels of Vitamin A and its precursors are known to impair immune responses to various microorganisms, increasing the toll of contagious diseases among those populations.

“In the face of such horrendous statistics, one might think that every effort to improve vulnerable children’s vitamin status would receive support from all quarters. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen.

“Apparently acting under the mantra, ‘We must kill them to save them,’ anti-GM ideologues destroyed trial plots of so-called “Golden Rice” in the Philippines. Golden Rice has been genetically engineered with genes that allow it to produce beta-carotene, a substance the human body can use to form Vitamin A. If this rice is consumed instead of the typical white rice that is a staple food in much of Asia, it could go far to ameliorate the vitamin A deficiency that threatens so many young children. In the Philippines, agronomists were testing varieties of Golden Rice to find types that would grow best in various climates. It was the test plots of these trials that were destroyed by anti-GMO vandals.”

 ACSH’s Dr. Ruth Kava was amazed by this vandalism and said: “It’s unbelievable that people would destroy a means of bringing hope and health to thousands, if not millions, of children worldwide. In my opinion, this vandalism is tantamount to murder!”

Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical/executive director of the ACSH, told World Grain he was discouraged by the lack of impact the ACSH has had on the media or public attitudes and feels that the group needs a celebrity who would take up the cause of scientific truth in the news.

However, what is also needed is for farm families who are most impacted by junk science to stand up and give scientists their support.

North American farmers are among the most productive and progressive farmers in the world. Through their farm organizations, such as 4-H, farm business associations, farm women’s clubs, co-operatives, community meetings and publications, they can remind others of their importance and their pride in being food suppliers to the world – and why Dr. Borlaug’s statue now stands proudly in National Statuary Hall, in Washington, D.C.

And perhaps they can play a vital role in rebooting the Green Revolution.

Advocate of GM food sources urges public to reject ‘junk science’

Dr. Camille (Cami) Ryan is a powerful, outspoken and knowledgeable firebrand in Canada’s agricultural community. She is an advocate of crop science, including genetically modified food sources.

Ryan is an independent research consultant and public speaker. She works in the Department of Bioresource Policy, Business & Economics, College of Agriculture, at the University of Saskatchewan.

In an interview with World Grain, she attributed much of the fear of GMO’s to the fact that today’s consumers are far removed from the farm and have little or no understanding as to what North American farmers do or how their food is produced. Consumers, she said, are living in a world of “overcommunication,” and this opens the door to believing in myths and junk science.

The anti-GMO movement has taken advantage of this knowledge vacuum by providing their message in powerful images and words using all forms of communications ranging from national television programming to the Internet and social networks.

While there is no way in a democracy such as North America to block these messages, Ryan urges agricultural scientists to “break out of their ivory tower” and begin communicating with food users.

She also encourages producers, private industry, governments and research institutions to talk to one another and to “collaborate” if they hope to reboot the Green Revolution.

“Public sector scientists are the ones that have the knowledge about the science; they are the experts. And we live in a world where the lines are blurring between the expert and the lay-person. There is confusion about who the real experts are,” she said.

“Public sector scientists have a bit of an advantage in the debate over things like GMOs because they are generally trusted by the public. The problem is that scientists that work in the public sector operate under traditional incentive and reward models (research, teaching and more traditional approaches to outreach, and scientists are busy just attending to these activities). 

“The institutional models under which they work need to adjust to accommodate support mechanisms for more non-traditional forms of outreach, like leading and or contributing to online dialogues about controversial issues to ensure that the proper information is shared by those ‘in the know.’ This mode of communication, however, runs counterintuitively to the culture of science itself where research objectivity has traditionally meant being ‘removed’ from society,” she said.

“Not every scientist would have the interest or skillset to communicate in this way. But the university system should evolve to include support mechanisms for this type of outreach activity and provide rewards and incentives for those activities. Other options could be that federally funded research projects, such as Genome Canada, could include communication/outreach activities as part of project milestones and requirements.

The short answer, she said, “is that science needs to step up as part of what I see as broader (collective) actions on the part of the agriculture industry in order to counter some of the misinformation out there and to proactively manage controversial issues as they arise.”

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Leo Quigley writes for a variety of national and international publications specializing in agriculture and transportation. He can be reached at Quigley@dccnet.com.

Ryan invites World Grain readers to visit her blog at:  <http://doccamiryan.wordpress.com/best-of-camis-blog/> or Twitter her @DocCamiRyan.

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