Green Giant

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. So why is a small cadre of activists bent on tarnishing his legacy?

But activists have lodged vociferous opposition to the commercialization of these crops. Their demands range from moratoriums to outright bans on the technology. Food First's Mittal calls biotech crops "weapons." The Sierra Club's Carmen classifies them as poisons. Mae-Wan Ho, geneticist and biophysicist at the Open University near London, says they're "worse than nuclear weapons or radioactive wastes."

Americans and much of the world have been consuming genetically modified (GM) crops since their introduction in 1995. Globally, farmers have devoted more than 109 million acres to biotech crops. More than 70 percent of processed foods in the United States contain at least some genetically modified ingredients.

But critics say these crops pose unacceptable risks to the environment and human health, including threats to biodiversity in agricultural areas, the potential for uncontrollable "super weeds" and the risk of toxins and allergens in the food supply. Precious few studies have lent credence to these claims, and the ones that have are inconclusive. In addition, no reported cases from health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked so much as a headache or a rash to genetically modified foods.

Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.

On the other hand, several studies have concluded that biotech foods are safe, most notably a massive survey released last year by the European Union, a continent generally hostile to GM foods. This 15-year, $64 million survey encompassing 81 separate research projects not only concluded that biotech crops posed no new risks to human health and the environment, but the more precise technology and intensified regulatory scrutiny incumbent in them "probably make them safer than conventional plant breeding."

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and scientific panels appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy have all concluded that current biotech crops are safe.

"We need this. This serves a useful purpose," Borlaug says, rapping the table with a pen. "What's happened more and more, from my point of view, for the last seven or eight years since all of this biotechnology has been coming on, is that the gene for common sense and judgment has been eroded all to hell and it doesn't function anymore." Borlaug believes opposition to biotechnology stems more from fervent anti-corporate ideology than concern for human health or the environment.

Just as they did earlier with agrochemical farming controversies, Borlaug's critics have brought the biotech issue to sub-Saharan Africa to complicate his work. In Africa, Borlaug is working with former president and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter through the Sasakawa Africa Association to spread modern agricultural technologies among small farmers in a region where yields are among the lowest in the world.

Last September, starving people in Zambia looted storage sheds filled with thousands of tons of U.S. corn donated to help alleviate southern Africa's worst food crisis in a decade. Some 14 million people in six countries are threatened with starvation, 2.3 million in Zambia alone. But Zambia's people won't be receiving the food aid. On October 29, after concerted lobbying by biotech opponents, the Zambian government rejected the food aid and padlocked it in warehouses when it was discovered the shipment had been blended with genetically modified corn.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa reportedly referred to the food as poison, and the United Nations reports that many people have been reduced to eating leaves. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Zambians who believed GM corn makes people sterile and even causes AIDS. "Please give us the food," pleaded an elderly man in a Los Angeles Times report. "We don't care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway."

GM opponents in the United States support the decision of the Zambian government, alleging the United States is at fault in the crisis for "dumping" the GM blended corn, using it as an economic cudgel. "Some speculate that maybe they sent it over there in order to contaminate their food supply," says Neil Carmen of the Sierra Club. Anuradha Mittal of Food First says the U.S. move was nothing more than an attempt to find new markets for American agribusiness, though she doesn't say exactly how food aid would accomplish this.

"I absolutely agree and support their decision 100 percent," says Candace Boheme of Austin-based Say No to GMOs regarding the Zambian government's rejection. When asked if she would maintain her support in the face of thousands of deaths from starvation, Boheme replies, "Absolutely. I would like to see people get healthy food. There is uncontaminated corn available, and it's not being offered...It's morally reprehensible that they are not being offered an alternative...It's like giving a starving Jew some pork. There's absolutely no sensitivity in that."

For all the impact that Norman Borlaug has had around the globe, it's perhaps most troubling to the people of Iowa that this farm boy from Cresco isn't a household name, but they're working to change that. Iowa Public Television recently produced a half-hour documentary titled Out of Iowa: Borlaug and the Green Revolution. It aired October 16, a day designated as the first Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize Day. Utilizing a $5 million private donation, the city of Des Moines will restore the Des Moines Public Library as a "World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in honor of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug."
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