Blessings and Challenges: Science Holds The Key Thanksgiving
News Nov 30, 2009
Thanksgiving is a time to count our blessings. Remembering good fortune is especially important in harder times. Among my blessings has been the opportunity to work for causes in which I believe and in the company of dedicated friends and colleagues.
I have had the chance to do so at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, an institution with potential great benefit to the world. I also was part of an effort to encourage Congress to create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture. It is not surprising that, when the new NIFA was formed, the leaders of the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked Roger Beachy, the founding president of the Danforth Center, to serve as its founding director. The opportunity for Roger and for the nation is immense. I can think of no one better fitted for this challenge. Done correctly, NIFA can help with innumerable challenges, three of which are of particular note.
First, America must continue to lead the world in agriculture by innovating more rapidly than others, some with more favorable climates and cheaper labor and land. We need increased productivity with fewer inputs, lower costs and new value added. Science is a necessary component of innovation and success, and many others chase this goal. For 20 years, China and India have doubled global agricultural research. Our nation starts with many assets and should not toss away our lead.
The second challenge is ancient: better nutrition and, in many places, hunger and starvation. These are scourges that have plagued humankind since life began. Tonight, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry and perhaps 16,000 children will die of causes related to hunger and malnutrition.
The third challenge is relatively new: preserving and enhancing the environment so our grandchildren inherit a livable earth. This challenge is especially important, even though throughout time we humans have been changing the environment that sustains us, usually for the worse.
So the ancient challenge and the new - feeding the world and saving the environment - really are singular. We must produce enough food, energy and other products in a way that is indefinitely sustainable.
Norman Borlaug, the "Father of the Green Revolution" and an inspiration to all who believe in the importance of plant science, died on Sept. 12 at age 95. Using vision, scientific talent, very hard work and great persistence, he led the way to tripling the world production of major cereal grains, wheat, corn and rice and increased the production of soybeans.
It was an amazing advance that is unprecedented in human history. The Green Revolution ended periodic famines in China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. It is estimated that between 1 billion and 1.5 billion people would have died of starvation over the last 50 years were it not for Dr. Borlaug's efforts. In addition, the Green Revolution saved the world from environmental disaster. Without it, hungry people would have destroyed rain and temperate forests, parks and wetlands to produce what food they could.
Success led many to assume nutritious, delicious, safe and affordable food was unlimited - but we humans never completely fix problems. The Green Revolution is only a couple of generations old, but food prices are rising again; this year, 30 nations experienced hunger riots. World population has more than doubled. Urbanization eats into farmland. Calamity awaits.
An agricultural revolution to provide what's needed on land able to produce for generations is a tough but noble goal. Our modern scientific and technological tools are allies.
We must quickly work individually and collectively to make agriculture more productive and sustainable. My passion - fundamental research - can enlarge understanding of how plants and livestock work at the molecular and cellular levels (and how they can be modified to supply food, fuel and other products, while preserving our environment).
Science alone cannot meet all challenges, but first-rate science is critical, nonetheless. The time to act is now.