As a native Minnesotan, I have a license to make jokes about Iowa. A subset of this privilege permits jibes aimed at Des Moines. While I will withhold regional snarkiness – thus avoiding the wrath of Iowans who make jokes about Minnesota – I am going to atone for past sins and recommend if you’re anywhere near Des Moines, visit the World Food Prize Foundation.
Even as an aggie I was only casually aware of the World Food Prize, the smallest part of the legacy of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution in the 1960s. It was Borlaug and his genius as a plant pathologist and geneticist – his PhD was from the University of Minnesota – who worked literal miracles in developing semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. His innovation and discoveries helped a good chunk of the developing world, initially India and subcontinent Asia, prevent the starvation of millions. Borlaug is one of only seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
I was privileged to attend a dinner for the American Feed Industry Assn. board of directors this week at the World Food Prize Foundation. I learned the history of Borlaug’s work and the work of the Foundation from its president, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia. The self-effacing Quinn learned firsthand on postings to Vietnam and Cambodia you can change the politics, economy and society of a region by making it agriculturally self-sustaining. It was those lessons which led him to Borlaug and his current role with the Foundation.
This year, three scientists — Americans Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert T. Fraley, and Dr. Marc Van Montagu of Belgium – shared the World Food Prize, dubbed the “Nobel Prize for agriculture,” for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology. According to the Foundation, “Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields; resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.” In essence, they are 21st Centur Borlaugs, exploiting new technologies to feed the planet.
Instead of praising the accomplishments of these three scientists, protesters and anti-GMO activists with computer access vilified them. Former Texas Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower wrote a silly newspaper column in which he made the entire ceremony all about Monsanto, the corporate poster child for all that’s wrong with companies developing and selling technology. I’m guessing biotech would be OK if the first transgene was manipulated by the late Mother Theresa while in a convent.
I’m at a loss to understand fear of technology. Antibiotics, polio and other vaccines, artificial limbs and body parts, transplants, airplanes, cars, your HD TV and that nifty smartphone you’re always playing with, all of these things are the products of someone’s genius — underwritten by a company somewhere — all emanate from evolving technology and science.
Most consumers don’t understand the benefits of these breakthroughs, especially their use in the food industry, because we’ve abandoned the ultimate beneficiaries of this genius to a rabid, self-serving activist gaggle, groups who make money selling memberships and newsletter subscriptions by suing, threatening, cajoling, blackmailing and intimidating the individuals and companies who deign to embrace the promise of biotech, engineering or animal science and health, or for that matter any technology that has as its purpose the improvement of mankind’s stay on this planet.
The U.S. has successfully and safely used biotechnology for nearly 30 years. Over 85% of U.S. soybeans are genetically engineered; more than 90% of the U.S. corn crop is genetically engineered. More new seeds emerge every day. Arguably just about every food product in the U.S. is a product of or benefits from a genetically engineered/enhanced ingredient. I’ve seen no respected journal articles about diseases or defects resulting from such foods. I’ve read no Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data toting up the death toll from consuming popcorn from genetically engineered popcorn popped in genetically engineered oil.
I’ve spent a chunk of this week knee-deep in the activist push to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. Next week we’ll learn how the voters of Washington State feel about such labeling when the results of a statewide ballot initiative are tallied. As I said, so prevalent is genetic engineering in our food supply, to label that fact would mean just about all foods would carry the label, unless it’s organic and costs three times as much. This is also why just about every news outlet in Washington has editorialized against the labeling initiative; this is why Californians rejected the first such ballot initiative in 2012. The labels mean nothing.
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns agriculture must increase global food production 70% by 2050 in order to feed an estimated 9-10 billion people. Given 40-plus percent of the globe is already dedicated to some form of agriculture, given 75% of the planet can’t support crop production, and given water is a rapidly dwindling resource, then responsibly and sustainably advancing the science and technology of food production is the only way the world not only eats, but eats well, eats safely and eats affordably.
I’ve had enough of activists demonizing technology because of their fear and loathing of “corporations.” I’ve no time for groups which set themselves up as technology police, taking perverse delight in scaring the bejeesus out of the uninformed while they cash the consumer’s check. They must get out of the way and let the technologies emerge; trust the consumer to vote in the marketplace.
For broad agriculture and its technology providers, it’s time to stop moaning and groaning about “eroding consumer confidence.” Use some of those “tainted” corporate profits and start talking directly and simply to folks who benefit from this home-grown genius. Answer questions, be transparent. You should have started 30 years ago.
© Copyright 2013 Brownfield, All rights Reserved. Written For: Brownfield