Celebrating Norman Borlaug: He Was Always Ahead of His Time

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — Mar 30, 2023
Twenty years ago, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug wrote about agricultural biotechnology – its promise, importance, over-regulation, and the mindless opposition to it from activists. His words ring true today.
Congressional medal

Agronomist and plant breeder extraordinaire Norman Borlaug, often described as “The Father of the Green Revolution,” was an inspiration to many of us involved in inception of the late 20th Century's “biotechnology revolution.” As well as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and innumerable other honors, Norman was a loyal friend and mentor and a tireless antagonist of the anti-science movement that seems ever to be with us.

On the occasion of what would have been Norman’s 109th birthday last week, I re-read the Foreword he wrote 20 years ago for “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution,” , coauthored by Gregory Conko and me.  (It was selected by Barron's as one of the Best Books of 2004.) 

Norman's words have aged well; in fact, the propagation of misinformation and disinformation via social media have worsened the problems that he described.  Below are some excerpts from that Foreword.  (I would also note that he was one of the co-founders of the American Council on Science and Health, and he mentions ACSH in it.)

“From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.7 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland – an increase of more than 150 percent.  Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation – with losses of pristine wilderness a hundred times greater than all the losses to urban and suburban expansion.

“Today, we confront a similar problem: feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people in the coming quarter of a century.  The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to meet this challenge.  The new biotechnology can help us to do things that we could not do before, and to do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way.  The crucial question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology.  Extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in the regulatory agencies are more than eager to help.”

“If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly forty years.

"For a decade, the United States has produced ever-larger quantities of gene-spliced, insect-resistant corn that yields as much or more than the best traditional hybrids but with far less need for chemical pesticides.  No negative health or environmental effects have been observed.  Yet there is an immensely strong, rabid anti-biotech lobby, especially in Europe, where activists have convinced many governments to thwart new approvals and have opposed the use of gene-spliced corn and soybeans as food aid in famine-stricken parts of Africa and Asia.”

“Tragically, [biotechnology] is not an isolated case.  There are many other examples of overreaction and resistance to technology.  The American Council on Science and Health has documented a series of twenty cases – including pesticides on cranberries in 1959, and Alar on Pacific coast apples in 1989 – in which scare stories trumpeted by the media became widely known and accepted but later were shown to be of little or no consequence.  The resistance to gene splicing is yet another sordid episode in this larger anti-technology, junk-science movement.

“In spite of the many powerful and precise new tools and the greater health and well-being that science and technology have offered us, our society has become overly risk-averse… We must be more rational about our approach to risks.  We need to think in broader terms, recognizing, for example, that the world cannot feed all its 6.3 billion people from organic farms or power all its cities and industries by wind and solar energy.

“Although we must be prudent in assessing new technologies, these assessments must not be based on overly conservative – or overtly inaccurate – assumptions or be swayed by the anti-business, anti-establishment, anti-globalization agenda of a few activists, or by the self-interest of bureaucrats.  They must be based on good science and good sense.  It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge.  It tells us not only what we know but what we don’t know.  It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty may be.”

Thank you, Norman.  We remember your wisdom, warmth, and generosity.  You are greatly missed.

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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