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Feeding the World in the 21st Century

The Role of Agricultural Science and Technology

(Speech given at Tuskegee University -- April, 2001)
By Norman E. Borlaug
1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate


It is a great pleasure to visit Tuskegee University, an institution with an illustrious history and great traditions. I would also like to acknowledge and thank the Dupont Company for recently establishing the Norman Borlaug/Dupont Scholarship program here, with a grant of $100,000, to support undergraduate and graduate students in the biosciences.

I have long been fascinated by the career of George Washington Carver, and the role that my native state, Iowa, played in his early life. Permit me to quote a few passages about him from a book published by WCCO Radio, Minneapolis, in 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial.

"After the Civil War, the South was a slave to one crop, cotton. The man who helped free the South from cotton was himself a black man, the son of a slave, George Washington Carver. He taught farmers in the South about the peanut and the sweet potato, about soil erosion, crop rotation, and compost."

"There is a small town in central Iowa called Winterset. On September 8, 1890, a young black man walked 30 miles from here on a dirt road. His destination: Simpson College at Indianola, a white college with white students and white teachers in a white state. He had been refused elsewhere. Simpson College, to its everlasting credit, accepted him, for $12 tuition."

"Later at Iowa State in Ames, Carver was forced at first to eat with the kitchen help rather than in the dining hall. Gradually he was accepted. He was a janitor, waiter, a caretaker of the greenhouse and laboratory. He studied mycology (fungus growth) and had some 20,000 specimens. In the dining hall with white students he started a table game that survived decades after him. Chemistry students must ask for an item at the table by its scientific name; pass the Triticum vulgare (the bread); pass the Solanum tuberosum, please (the potatoes)."

Upon completion of his M.Sc in 1896, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington, for the Agriculture Chair at the Normal and Industrial Institute at Tuskegee, Alabama. He spent the rest of life there, dying in 1943.

During his career, Carver created over 300 products from peanuts and over 100 products from sweet potatoes, just to mention some of his scientific achievements. In a message to Tuskegee Institute following his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, "The world of science has lost one of his most eminent figures. The versatility of his genius and his achievements in diverse branches of the arts and sciences were truly amazing. All mankind are beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere."

Permit me one more anecdote about Carver. While at Iowa State, Carver took a fancy to young Henry A. Wallace, a "boy who loved plants" and the 16-year old son of Harry Wallace, a professor at the college. Carver was a frequent guest in the Wallace home, and as Henry Wallace recalled later, "Carver often took me with him on his botanizing expeditions. I remember him claiming to my father that I had greatly surprised him by recognizing the pistil and stamens of redtop, a kind of grass-Agrotis alba, to be precise. I also remember rather questioning his accuracy in believing that I had recognized these parts, but anyhow he boasted about me, and the mere fact of his boasting, I think, incited me to learn more than if I had really done what he said I had done."

Henry Wallace went on to become a preeminent scientist and hybrid corn breeder who founded Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company, the largest seed company in the world, held two cabinet posts, including Secretary of Agriculture, and was the wartime Vice President of the United States.

I am now in my 57th year of continuous involvement in agricultural research and production in the low-income, food-deficit developing countries. I have worked with many colleagues, political leaders, and farmers to transform food production systems. As a result of these efforts, food production has more than kept pace with global population growth. On average, world food supplies were 24 percent higher per person in 1998 than they were in 1961 and real prices are 40 percent lower (Pinstrup-Anderson et al, 1999).

Despite the successes of the Green Revolution, the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won. Mushrooming populations, changing demographics and inadequate poverty intervention programs have eaten up many of the food production gains. This is not to say that the Green Revolution is over. Improvements in crop management productivity can be made all along the line-in tillage, water use, fertilization, weed and pest control, and harvesting. In addition, for the genetic improvement of food crops to continue at a pace sufficient to meet the needs of the 8.3 billion people projected in 2025, both conventional breeding and biotechnology methodologies will be needed.

Dawn of Modern Agriculture

Science-based agriculture is really a 20th Century invention. Until the 19th century, crop improvement was in the hands of farmers, and food production increased largely by area expansions. As sons and daughters of farm families married and formed new families, they opened new land to cultivation. Improvements in farm machinery expanded the area that could be cultivated by one family. Machinery made possible better seedbed preparation, moisture utilization, and improved planting practices and weed control, resulting in modest increases in yield per hectare.

By the mid-1800s, German scientist Justus von Leibig and French scientist Jean-Baptiste Boussingault had laid down important theoretical foundations in soil chemistry and crop agronomy. Sir John Bennett Lawes, produced super phosphate in England in 1842, and shipments of Chilean nitrates (nitrogen) began arriving in quantities to European and North American ports in the 1840s. However, the use of organic fertilizers (animal manure, crop residues, green manure crops) remained dominant into the early 1900s.

The groundwork for more sophisticated genetic crop improvement was laid by Charles Darwin in his writings on the variation of life species (published in 1859) and by Gregor Mendel through his discovery of the laws of genetic inheritance (reported in 1865). Darwin's book immediately generated a great deal of interest, discussion and controversy. Mendel's work was largely ignored for 35 years. The rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900 provoked tremendous scientific interest and research in plant genetics.

The first decade of the 20th Century brought a fundamental scientific breakthrough, that was followed by the rapid commercialization of the breakthrough. In 1909, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1918), Fritz Haber, demonstrated the synthesis of ammonia from its elements. Thanks to the innovative solutions of Carl Bosch-the company BASF began operation of the world's first ammonia plant in 1913. Development of the fertilizer industry was first delayed by WWI (ammonia was used to produce nitrate for explosives), then by the great economic depression of the 1930s, and then by the demand for explosives during WWII. However, after the war, rapidly increasing amounts of nitrogen became available and contributed greatly to boosting crop yields and production.

It is only since WWII that fertilizer use, and especially the application of low-cost nitrogen derived from synthetic ammonia, has become an indispensable component of modern agricultural production (nearly 80 million nutrient tonnes consumed annually). Distinguished University of Manitoba Professor Vaclav Smil has estimated that 40% of today's 6 billion people are alive, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia (Smil, 1999).

By the 1930s, much of the scientific knowledge needed for high-yield agricultural production was available in the United States. However, widespread adoption was delayed by the great economic depression of the 1930s, which paralyzed the world agricultural economy. It was not until WWII brought a much greater demand for food to support the Allied war effort that the new research findings began to be applied widely, first in the United States and later in many other countries.

Maize cultivation led the modernization process. In 1940, U.S. farmers produced 56 million tons of maize on roughly 31 million hectares, with an average yield of 1.8 t/ha. In 1999, U.S. farmers produced 240 million tons of maize on roughly 29 million hectares, with an average yield of 8.4 t/ha. This more than four-fold yield increase is the impact of modern hybrid seed-fertilizer-weed control technology!

Following WWII, various bilateral and multilateral agencies, led by the United States and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, initiated technical agricultural assistance programs in a number of countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In the beginning, there was considerable naiveté especially about the transferability of modern production technology from the industrialized temperate zones to the tropics and subtropics. Most varieties from the United States, for example, were not well suited in the environments in which they were introduced.

There was another model of technical assistance that preceded these public sector foreign technical assistance programs, which ultimately proved to be superior. This was the Cooperative Mexican Government-Rockefeller Foundation agricultural program, which began in 1943, and which I joined in 1944. This foreign assistance program initiated research programs to improve maize, wheat, beans, and potato technology. It also invested significantly in human resource development, training scores of Mexican scientists and helping to establish the national agricultural research system.

Green Revolution

The phrase, 'Green Revolution', was coined by the late William Daud, Director of USAID, to describe the breakthrough in wheat and rice production in Asia that began during the mid-1960s (table 1). This process of applying agricultural science to develop Third World agriculture actually began in Mexico with the "quiet" wheat revolution in the mid-1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s in India, Pakistan, and the Philippines received world attention for their agricultural progress. Since 1980, China has been the greatest success story. Home to one-fifth of the world's people, China today is the world's biggest food producer. With each successive year, its cereal crop yields approach that of the United States.

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