Monday, November 20, 2006

Though he never became a household name, 92-year-old agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug should make any list of the greatest living Americans. Mr. Borlaug, an Iowan who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, ushered in the “green revolution” by developing new plant strains that thrived in countries where there previously were food production problems. He remains the only Peace Prize laureate honored for scientific achievement. The Senate has passed a resolution to award him the Congressional Gold Medal and the House should too when it gets back to business after Thanksgiving.

Mr. Borlaug clearly deserves the honor — economic models estimate agricultural developments resulting from his work saved at least 1 billion lives over the last 40 years. The crops he developed ended many plant diseases, greatly increased per-acre yields, and let nations like China, Brazil, and India banish famine. But even as we honor an extraordinary man, Congress should remember that his work feeding the world remains unfinished. To build on his legacy, the United States should revamp its aid programs to recognize the central importance of agriculture in relieving famine and, more specifically, follow Mr. Borlaug’s lead by developing economically useful, disease resistant crops that offer real nutritional benefits.

First, when the U.S. and other wealthy nations provide emergency food aid, we should make sure not to undermine local farmers or promote “innovations” that do not make economic sense. The seeds and plants Mr. Borlaug helped develop caught on because farmers could make money growing them. Too many of our aid programs provide only temporary relief while doing little to address the underlying agricultural conditions that make food production hard in the first place.

Second, we should not be shy about sending the best genetically engineered crops as food aid. Mr. Borlaug’s always used the best technology — hybrid seeds during the 1960s and genetic engineering today. Many of the crops he developed succeeded because they were heartier or more disease resistance and thus didn’t require expensive chemical pesticides or fertilizers. In the same way, advanced bioengineered crops help protect the environment. If farmers end up using a small portion of food aid to seed fields, we should consider it a benefit.

Finally, we should pay more attention to ensuring everyone in the world gets proper nutrition and clean water. Alone, a diet of 2,000 calories daily isn?t enough to maintain health. Proper diet and sustainable, safe drinking water can do more to improve health than the most advanced pharmaceuticals. Throughout the underdeveloped world, shortages of vitamins and minerals — many of which people need only tiny amounts of — mean many who consume sufficient calories still face afflictions like goiter and rickets.

A group of leading economists who met in Copenhagen in 2004 to discuss international development concluded “micronutrient” efforts ranked as the most cost-effective way to improve conditions for the underdeveloped world. One existing crop, genetically engineered “golden rice” that produces vitamin A, already holds enormous promise for reducing blindness and dwarfism that result from a vitamin-A deficient diet.

The U.S. government needs to make developing and spreading similar crops a key foreign aid priority largely because they compliment efforts I’ve spearheaded to help clean up the world’s water supply. Dirty water causes at least as many problems as lack of micronutrients and, as the world’s largest aid donor, we have a special responsibility to help the entire planet.

In concert, food and water efforts can improve standards of living around the world. Food is at the heart of many of our aid programs and Norman Borlaug’s extraordinary work points the way toward maximizing the impact of our efforts.

Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, is Senate Majority Leader and a physician.

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