Norman E. Borlaug has been described as a scientist, teacher and humanitarian. As a scientist he is credited with developing a high-yielding, short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat. As a humanitarian, he took these new cereal strains to Third World Countries to feed the hungry. As a teacher he divided his time between Texas A&M University in the fall and the International Wheat Improvement Program in Mexico in the spring. Awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1970, Dr. Borlaug is a distinguished Professor of International Agriculture.
The following is Dr. Borlaug’s response address to the members of the Board of Regents of Texas A&M University; Dr. Ray M. Bowen, President; Dr. Edward A. Hiler, Vice Chancellor and Dean; Dr. E.C.A. Runge, Former Head of the Department of Soil & Crop Sciences; fellow faculty members; students; and guests, on the grounds of the newly named Borlaug Center on the afternoon of October 8, 1999.
“I feel greatly honored to have this magnificent, superbly equipped research facility, The Center for Southern Crop Improvement, named in my honor. I applaud the Board of Regents, the State of Texas and the United States Department of Agriculture for collectively making the needs and dreams of research scientists involved in various phases of biotechnology, genetic engineering research, and plant and forest tree breeding, become realities.
The last few days of this century are a fitting time to see this fine facility in operation. It is an effective base from which to expand an aggressive inter-disciplinary team effort to utilize the new methods and tools of biotechnology, combining them with the proven skills of conventional genetics-plant breeding to produce new and better commercial varieties and hybrids of our crop and forest species; thereby enabling farmers, ranchers and foresters to meet the rapidly growing demand for food and fiber during the first three decades of the next century, and achieving this with minimum negative impact on the environment.
Biotechnology, genetic engineering innovations over the past 25 years – including tissue culture, gene splicing, recombinant DNA, and transgenic engineering – have opened new horizons to control human, animal and plant diseases and pests, as well as to further improve the productivity of crop and domestic animal species. These new methods and techniques have been widely accepted and are being used commercially for developing improved strains of bacteria and yeast by both western European countries and the USA, for the production of pharmaceuticals and improvements in fermentation – for wine, beer, and production of enzymes, e.g. chymosin for cheese production and several other enzymes used in food processing.
During the 1999 crop season approximately 50 percent of the USA soybean area was sown to varieties carrying tolerance to Round-up. About 25 percent of the area sown to corn is used for hybrids carrying the Bt gene. Similarly about 25 percent of the area sown to cotton is devoted to varieties containing the Bt gene.
The spread of these transgenic varieties has outpaced the ability to inform and assure the urban consumers, especially in Europe, of the safety of food harvested from these varieties. Although their safety was approved under the guidelines and regulations for safety of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Agency (FDA), there has been a backlash by the European Union Countries (EU). They threaten to embargo the importation of US soybeans, corn and cotton seed/oil and to restrict or prohibit the use of transgenics in food processing. This confusion and confrontation could have been averted with proper education of the general public and consumers. The private sector corporations in the vanguard of developing and commercializing transgenic varieties and hybrids have neglected informing adequately the public consumers and urbanites of the benefit vs risks of the new technology. This neglect has been confused unduly by the well financed, very effective anti-science and anti- technology propaganda of the extremists in the environmental movement, the neo-Luddites. It indicates clearly the USA also has a huge job on its hands to update the functional knowledge and understanding about the complexities and importance of the new biotechnology and transgenic engineering for the biology teachers of grade schools, high schools, community colleges and junior colleges. This re-education must be done as expeditiously as possible, and it appears to me Texas A&M has an important role to play in clarifying the doubts about the importance and safety/risks of the new technologies.
The recent startling developments of the cloning of Dolly (the lamb), Jeanie (the female calf) and Second Chance (the male calf) has been frightening and unethical to some people, and others have labeled them as “playing God” technologies. The appearance of the “mad cow” disease in Europe has also contributed to the anti-science backlash in some European countries.
Unless the faulty communication is corrected promptly it will seriously set back the use of biotechnology and transgenic engineering.
I have great faith in the use of transgenic engineering to help solve many problems. From the time I was a graduate student, 60 years ago, I have dreamed that some day it would become possible to transfer the gene or genes from rice, that makes that plant immune to the rust fungi, (Puccinia spp) to wheat, oats, barley, rye, maize and many species of grasses. All the important cereal grain species except rice are damaged by two or more species of Puccinia. With new transgenic engineering this transfer can now become reality . I also dream that the unique genes that control leaven bread making properties in wheat will be transferred to rice, maize, sorghum, rye, barley, oats and triticale, and that genes for cold tolerance can be transferred from winter wheat to maize.
It’s a different world. What were many impossible genetic dreams two decades ago are now, because of the new transgenic engineering technologies, on the verge of becoming realities.”