Dr Borlaug’s views on modern plant breeding

I had to start this blog with a paper from Dr Borlaug.  For those of you who haven’t heard his name (I would hope that would be very few of you, if any), Dr Norman Borlaug is (almost) every Plant Breeders’ hero.  I say ‘almost’ because to say ‘every plant breeder’ would be too strong a word.  However, I find it hard to imagine anyone who has had the opportunity to spend some time in the world of plant breeding, to disagree with Dr Borlaug, or to not acknowledge his contribution to this field of science.

The paper: Ending World Hunger. The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry.  Norman E. Borlaug.  Plant Physiology, October 2000, Vol. 124, pp. 487–490

Highlights:

Dr Borlaug acknowledges that although the Green Revolution was extremely successful, the increasing population and urbanization of the population has resulted in increasing concerns over hunger and poverty around the world.  Although he proposes agronomic measures like tillage, weed control, and pesticides as ways of improving yield, he emphasizes that use of biotechnology is the key to achieving increased food grain yields that would be necessary to support the increasing world population.   He cites examples of commercially successful transgenic varieties of cotton, maize, and potatoes that have insecticide or herbicide tolerance.  These varieties reduce the use of insecticides which may be toxic to the environment , reduce production costs, and increase yields.

Dr Borlaug shared a dream that he hoped would be achieved by scientists some day.  He stated that rice has resistance to Puccinica sp., a fungus that causes a disease called rust.  He hoped that some day this rust resistance gene would be introduced into other cereals like wheat, barley, oats, maize, millets, and sorghum to develop varieties resistant to this disease across all cereal crops

He highlighted two key aspects of modern science that need to be addressed by Governments in developing and underdeveloped countries.  First, they need to come up with a regulatory framework with appropriate laws that would approve the products of modern science after adequate testing to determine their safety.  Second, the Governments need to address intellectual property concerns when these products are the result of extensive research in private companies.

Scientific advancements have made it possible to have the technology to feed the increasing population.  However, the increasing resistance from environmental extremists operating from rich countries makes it impossible for the underdeveloped countries to benefit from this research.  Dr Borlaug asserts that genetic engineering is not a new technology.  Mother nature has been using this technology for years. He  cites the example of bread wheat which was formed by hybridization between 3 plant genomes.  He also reinstates that genetic engineering is a tool that is used in addition to conventional plant breeding when the desirable genes (such as disease resistance) are not available in closely related germplasm.  In such cases, the genes from the distant species is inserted into the genome to achieve the benefits from a distant species.

Instead of ego and belief, we need common sense to drive the debate.  He acknowledges the concerns raised by some scientists about the risks from genetically engineered plants.  However, he explains that the risks are a function of the fact that these are biologically derived food and and not specific to them being engineered.  Finally, he asserts that the rich countries can afford to reject the results of scientific advancements to feed the world, however, we need the benefits of such research to feed the billions of poor and hungry people in other not-so-affluent parts of the world.

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