Friday, May 30, 2008

Agriculture scientist Norman Ernest Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, played a significant role to usher in the Green Revolution by developing successive generations of disease-resistant, high-yield wheat varieties in the 1960s and the ‘70s. In an interview with Washington Times reporter Ashish Kumar Sen, Mr. Borlaug, 94, refutes President Bush’s assertion that countries such as India and China are to blame for the shortage of food stocks and higher prices. The fault, he says, lies with the world’s obsession with biofuels. Excerpts:

QUESTION: Do you believe the U.S. is facing a crisis?

ANSWER: This is not just the U.S. This is getting to be the [situation] everywhere.

What is happening is that the price of food grains - especially rice, wheat and corn - has been so low that many opportunities present themselves to sell the grain to those who are converting it to energy by fermentation.

It is not easy to control this change in demand. The prices for grain going into production of ethyl alcohol are very great. Some governments have placed a limit on this, but how effective this will be remains to be seen.

Q: President Bush said one of the reasons for the shortage of supplies is the increased demand from the middle classes of countries such as India and China. Are India and China to blame for the present situation?

A: No. They are doing what any reasonable government would do in order to try to alleviate their energy problems. But this comes in conflict with food policies - trying to keep the prices of food at a low-enough level so that you don’t get inflation that will destroy the standards of living of many of the lower-income people.

Q: Is the increased focus on biofuels responsible for this problem?

A: Of course. We are mixing together two things that shouldn’t be together. We neglected for decades the importance of energy and fuel. And now we are looking for ways to correct all of this, and it is going to have to be by setting limits on the amount of corn that can be converted into alcohol in certain countries.

Q: Are genetically engineered crops the solution to this crisis?

A: Genetically improved crops are important tools for the future to produce food and part of the energy. There are a lot of extreme greenies who don’t want to have anything to do with the improved biotechnology. I think this is foolhardy. This is something that we have to have to continue to make human progress for the benefit of all mankind over long periods of time ahead.

Q: Is the time ripe for another Green Revolution?

A: The so-called Green Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s is a continuing one. Yields have continued to go up. In the ‘60s, the world was saying that there was no hope. India and China were going to starve. That was wrong.

Q: Do the benefits of genetically modified crops outweigh the harmful effects?

A: We need to use new biotechnology if we are going to cope with the future growth of population and standards of living. If we did not use the so-called Green Revolution technology of the 1960s, we would [have been unable to produce] the food that changed India and China and Pakistan to food-adequate nations, so that there was no massive starvation. India became self-sufficient. Had this not happened - this Green Revolution - what kind of a mess would the world be in now?

Q: What is your advice to governments as they grapple with these food crises?

A: Use some common sense. The sad part is, as nations become more and more urban and less and less rural, there are fewer and fewer people who understand the basic importance of the food system and how it contributes not only to better nutrition and better health but how it is deeply involved in the economic development of a country.

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