Personal Reflections on Dr. Norman Borlaug: From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution – and Beyond!
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since Monsanto introduced the first commercial, genetically modified soybean, corn and cotton seeds. By contrast, the 15+ years of research that led to those milestones often felt very long. I was elated when my colleagues and I finally succeeded in transferring a gene into petunia plants – a first important step in enabling the use of advanced biotechnology for crop improvement.
It was the type of breakthrough every scientist dreams about – our team made a true discovery and was able to create a technique that vastly improved farming around the world. Today, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are grown in nearly 30 countries on more than 440 million acres globally, and help farmers produce more crops using fewer resources thanks to added traits that protect them against insects, weeds and drought.
One result we didn’t dream about was the amount of misinformation that would be circulating about GMOs two full decades later. In the late 1990s, we were excited about explaining the technology to farmers – who would quickly adopt and experience the safety and benefits of GMOs in their fields – but in retrospect, we didn’t do a good job of helping consumers understand the science. Unfortunately, others were quick to fill the void of consumer-friendly information with their own fears, conspiracy theories, and “fake news,” despite having no scientific expertise or firsthand experience. Fear is an effective swayer of opinions. Although scientists have since learned how crucial it is to have an open dialogue with the public, helping society understand the proven safety of GMOs is an ongoing battle.
Anytime I grow weary of the fight, I reflect on some of the lessons I learned from my friend and mentor, Dr. Norman Borlaug. Although his areas of agricultural research were different from mine, Norm and I often discussed the parallels in our science…and in our careers. While the work with GMOs is referred to as the “Gene Revolution,” Norm was recognized by his generation as “The Father of the Green Revolution.” Driven by a desire to alleviate the struggles of poverty and starvation, particularly in developing countries, he spent years developing new wheat strains that were resistant to fungal disease; were suitable for machine harvesting; could benefit from fertilizer without tipping over...and had much higher yields!
Norm introduced these new wheat varieties to several countries that couldn’t produce enough food to feed their growing populations. Within five years, wheat production in India increased by an amazing 63 percent and in Pakistan it nearly doubled. In the end, Norm was credited with saving as many as one billion lives for averting catastrophic famines. He is one of only seven people ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
But you know what? The world didn’t immediately jump at Norm’s big scientific breakthrough either. When he introduced his new types of wheat to India and Pakistan, field trials were sabotaged and rumors spread that if farmers grew these wheat crops their land would be ruined and children would be made sterile – very similar to some of the crazy claims that are made about GMOs today. But Norm persevered and, as a result, lives were saved.
Looking back, it’s easy for anyone to see that the wheat-fearmongering was nonsense; the science was clear, and the benefits for struggling farmers and a starving population were obvious. But when Norm was in the middle of that difficult journey, I’m sure it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He often shared with me the three core tenets, or “Normanisms,” that carried him through the toughest challenges of his career. They continue to influence my own work today.
One, hunger never sleeps…farmers will always need new tools to improve yields to feed the planet. This is a key motivator for me and my scientific colleagues every day. The food supply problem hasn’t been solved yet. In fact, our challenge now is greater than ever. The world population is predicted to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. To be able to feed those people, we must double our current food supply in the next 33 years – and find ways to do it on less land. To feed the planet today requires farming a land mass equivalent to the size of South America. Without innovation and the broad support of new technologies, we will need to find another South America to farm by mid-century, which I am doubtful we will find.
Two, helping farmers helps alleviate both hunger and poverty…because they comprise the bulk of the rural poor. It’s important to remember that in many parts of the world, people can’t just drive to the grocery store to buy food. If they want to eat, they have to grow their own crops, or rely on what local small-holder farmers can produce. When there isn’t enough food, it creates problems that spread far beyond hunger. As Norm once said, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.” When we can give farmers better technology to grow more crops, particularly in challenging landscapes and climates, we are helping to improve the quality of life for entire communities. And through public-private partnerships like Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), I’m proud to say Monsanto does exactly that.
And finally, there will always be opposition to your work. Someone will always fight change—you must be prepared to fight even harder. Throughout his career, Norm stood for bringing technology to all farmers, but he also stood for communicating with everyone about the importance of agricultural research. Decades later, in a social media landscape where fake news is spread more easily than ever, standing up for science has never been more important. Scientists and farmers have a responsibility to reach out, magnify our voices, and continually explain to consumers and decision-makers the importance of agriculture innovation.
I still remember one of the last conversations I had with Norm. He was asking me about the latest biotechnology innovations, and as I explained the new traits we were working on, I saw tears in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong. He said, “You know, I made it through the Green Revolution, and you’re telling me about these exciting developments…but I don’t think I’m going to make it through the Gene Revolution.”
Looking back over the decades of my own career, which have passed in the blink of an eye, I’m starting to understand how he felt. I see so many exciting new technologies that will continue to improve agriculture, from gene editing to soil microbials to data science and beyond. I can’t help but wonder which one will spark the next “revolution” that changes the world, and if I’ll be around to see it.
To the next generation of scientists leading that charge, whoever you may be, I hope these Normanisms will continue to challenge and inspire you. When the road gets tough – when it feels like that breakthrough will never come or you just can’t understand why people aren’t excited about a technology that will improve lives – remember that others have been down this path. Don’t forget that you are on a noble mission. And do what Dr. Norman Borlaug would do – fight even harder.
Well said, Robb. Thanks to you and the generations of new scientist that will learn from your experience and be committed to making change work.
David L.Chicoine | David.firstname.lastname@example.org | 08/07/2017 9:55 PM