Julie Borlaug speaks out on wheat research, world hunger

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Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 will require scientific and technological advances in the area of agriculture, and that might include tools that lack acceptance by the general public at this time, according to speakers at the recent Rolling Plains Spring Field Day.

The field day, held recently at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research station near Chillicothe, featured Julie Borlaug, granddaughter of the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate known internationally as the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

Borlaug, external relations director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, spoke as well as moderated a wheat seed industry panel consisting of: Jon Rich with AgriPro-Syngenta in Junction City, Kansas; Marla Barnett with Limagrain Cereal Seeds in Wichita, Kansas; Sid Perry with WestBred-Monsanto in Filer, Idaho; and Janet Lewis with Bayer CropScience in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“March 25 was my grandfather’s birthday and many people have asked me if he was here today what would his message be about how we are going to feed 9 billion people by 2050,” Borlaug said. “I think he would probably tell you there are three areas we need to be concerned about.”

The first area of concern would be involving the next generation, she said.

“It’s important for us to continue to train the next generation of agricultural scientists,” Borlaug said. “We need to engage students; we need to engage those even outside of agriculture, because it is going to take people from various backgrounds across different disciplines to help figure out how to feed 9 billion people.”

This challenge – feeding the world – will require new economic and political policies, new rounds of innovation and technology advancements in engineering, medicine, energy, but most importantly agriculture, she said.

This challenge will depend on the actions of the next generation of entrepreneurs – scientists, researchers, policymakers and farmers. These are the people she said her grandfather called his “hunger fighters.”

These hunger fighters must embrace technological innovation, creativity, bold ideas and collaborate across all disciplines, while effectively engaging smallholder farmers and the private and public sectors to come up with sustainable solutions, Borlaug said.

“So we need to continue to reinvest in that and move our next generation forward, so they will become the next Norm Borlaugs and leaders in agriculture,” she said.

The second thing he would talk about is the role of the public and private sector, she said. The need for funding and advancements in research and development, biotechnology and other components is important.

“We need to re-engage the funding entities and those outside of agriculture to understand why their support is so important,” Borlaug said. “We are going to need a lot of technology and improvements to feed 9 billion people, especially with climate change and scarce natural resources.”

The third thing, she said, is something her grandfather was really concerned with toward the end of his life and has become a much larger problem now, and that is “the misunderstanding and misinformation that’s spread about agriculture.” She said it mainly comes from the anti-science, anti-GMO groups who don’t understand the role of biotechnology in agriculture.

Borlaug said her grandfather was known to say “fear of change is the greatest obstacle to progress.”

The ag sector needs to start addressing the public differently, she said. The messaging needs to change to help them understand why it is so important to support innovation in agriculture and technology and even the role of biotechnology.

“It is no longer enough to just have collective support of the research and private sector. We must gain the support of the general public in order to move agricultural research forward.”

Borlaug said that often arguments against these advancements are mainly emotional rather than rational, and they resonate because it fuels the anti-corporate mentality.

But she asks people to recall the GMO golden rice crop in the Philippines: “Do you as biotech opponents really want to deny golden rice to those children who could so profoundly benefit? Are you willing to condemn them to blindness and death out of your own ignorance? I say out of your opposition, you are somewhat responsible for their vitamin A deficiency and blindness.”

That is not to say biotechnology will single-handedly erase world hunger, Borlaug added, “but we must understand that a multi-faceted integrated solution is needed.”

Part of that will include new trends in wheat breeding, which has only recently seen a greater investment of research dollars, according to the breeders’ panel moderated by Borlaug.

Wheat is probably the most important food crop in the world, Perry said. It is time for the private breeding industry to reinvest time and energy in the crop.

“What’s happened over the years is that in the U.S., wheat has not been looked upon as a high staple crop like corn and soybeans,” Rich said.

He identified lower costs of molecular markers and the ability to find them more rapidly, allowing “speed breeding” to bring greater yields, as the positive things that have driven the investment into cereal grains such as wheat.

“I think it has largely been customer-driven – seedsmen and farmer driven,” Barnett said. “We’ve seen the demand for wheat yields to be increased. Farmers have long been asking,“Why am I still getting the same wheat yields my grandfather got while my corn yields have tripled?”

Perry said the industry has learned a lot of tricks from corn, soybeans, cotton and canola that can be applied to wheat.

Currently, there are no genetically modified wheats anywhere on the market, but that is a direction, along with hybrid wheat, that is expected to take place in the near future. Acceptance, however, will be necessary, the wheat breeder panelists agreed.

“Most people don’t know what GMO means; they don’t know that GMO is a technique, a tool that can be used in the breeding toolbox,” Lewis said. “There is a lot of confusion on what GMO is, and it has been a slow process of education for the general public. There is a perception issue.”

The breeders agreed they will look at both GMO and non-GMO solutions to issues and the non-GMO alternative will be taken, if there is one, because it is much cheaper. Nitrogen use efficiency, heat tolerance and water use efficiency are traits being worked on.

“We have a skeptical public, which is okay; but we also have a gullible public, which is discouraging,” Perry said. “They are willing to accept the popular view on something rather than scientific research. So take every opportunity to educate the people around you.”

Rich said GMO acceptance will be more likely when related to areas of food safety.

“It’s an emotional issue to a lot of people, and an education issue,” he said. “We need to educate the people on what GMO traits can do and how we can feed people correctly. We can reduce the amount of pesticides; we can reduce the amount of nitrogen we put in the soil; we can reduce the amount of irrigation we have to apply to get those maximum yields.”

In the end, Barnett said, it will need to be a trait that has direct effect to the pocketbook – of both the consumer and the producer – by making a loaf of bread cheaper and the production cheaper for the farmer.

“It’s a real luxury here in the U.S. as long as our bellies are full and food is cheap, we can complain about having GMOs in our products,” Perry said. “But that is a real disservice to others in the world who don’t have that luxury. I don’t know how we can get that across to our public; a lot of it is in their hands.”


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