TCS Daily

Green Technology

By James K. Glassman - October 30, 2002 12:00 AM

DES MOINES -The chairman of Syngenta, the Swiss-based agricultural firm, said last week that the way to reduce world hunger and preserve the environment is to produce much more food on roughly the same amount of land - and the way to do that is through technology.

The chairman, Heinz Imhof, who is a trained agronomist, spoke here in the middle of Iowa on Friday at a symposium honoring the 2002 winner of the World Food Prize. The $250,000 award goes each year to men and women - mainly agricultural scientists, often from developing countries - who have done the most to reduce hunger and boost the global supply of food.

Imhof praised this year's winner, Pedro Sanchez - who was born in Cuba, emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s and just joined Columbia University's Earth Institute - for finding "ways of vastly improving yields on lands that had suffered dramatic losses of soil nutrients" and for bringing "into cultivation lands considered barren and unsuitable." Sanchez vastly improved rice yields in Peru, increased production in areas thought unusable in Brazil, and developed methods that enhanced crops for small African farmers.

Imhof's presence was a sign that the prize is at last gaining the global attention it deserves. The chairman of the world's largest agrochemical company flew to the United States Thursday after a board meeting in time to make the Friday luncheon speech, then immediately flew back again to Europe.

Syngenta was created after European drug giants Novartis and AstraZeneca spun off their agrochemical and seed businesses. It produces crop-protection products (herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides) as well as seeds and flowers. Syngenta mapped the rice genome, a feat that will eventually lead to rice crops more resistant to disease.

The World Food Prize, funded by Iowa businessman and philanthropist John Ruan, was launched in 1987 with an award to M.S. Swaminathan, who introduced high-yielding wheat and rice to Indian farmers. Ruan shares the same birth year, 1914, as Norman Borlaug, the legendary winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his leadership of the "green revolution" that saved hundreds of millions of people in developing countries from starvation. Borlaug, spry and quick at 88, was present for the prize festivities.

In his speech, Imhof picked up on a theme advanced both by Sanchez and by Borlaug: While food production needs to increase (both because the world's population is rising and because the poor, as they become better off, will be improving their diets), the land available for agriculture will grow only modestly.

As a result, said Imhof, "The best option will be to increase productivity on existing land. This will allow us to avoid the destruction of existing natural habitats and of complex natural ecosystems. It will enable us to help prevent further deforestation and corresponding loss of biodiversity." How? Through "seed and crop protection activities" in which companies like Syngenta are now engaged.

In his own speech on Oct. 15, Borlaug, who received his Ph.D. in 1942 and began helping farmers in Mexico in a Rockefeller Foundation program in 1944, noted that 60 years ago, U.S. farmers produced 56 million metric tons of corn on 31 million hectares (about 77 million acres). In 2000, they produced 252 million metric tons of corn on just 29 million hectares. Yields increased over that period from 1.8 tons per hectare to 8.6 tons per hectare. Incredible.

Now, we are in the midst of what could become a major acceleration of agricultural progress, thanks mainly to biotechnology. "Despite the formidable opposition in certain circles to transgenic crops," said Borlaug, "commercial adoption by farmers of the new varieties has been one of the most rapid cases of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture." Between 1996 and 2001, the area planted commercially to transgenic crops has increased from 1.7 to 52.4 million hectares. Half of U.S. corn and 70 percent of U.S. soybeans come from genetically modified seeds.

Said Imhof in his speech: "Increased yield and productivity can only be the result of a concerted effort by many different actors, including the private sector. Through our seed and crop protection activities, our industry has long been making a significant contribution to increased crop yields and to developing products available for hitherto inhospitable conditions."

He also cited programs that were highlighted at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which is where I met him two months ago. "Technology transfer and public-private partnerships," said Imhof, "can make a real difference in the promotion of sustainable agriculture adapted to local requirements."

He noted that the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture is working, for example, in Mali "to improve the yields of millet, sorghum and cowpeas" and in Kenya "producing insect-resistant maize for small-holder use."

"Access - access to knowledge, to products, to information and technology - is key," Imhof said in his speech. "Knowledge provided by science and technology, including biotechnology and chemistry, but also knowledge provided by land management practices and the expertise of farmers."

Imhof concluded, "The gigantic strides made in agriculture over the past four decades must rank as one of the most striking accomplishments in human history."

Absolutely. But, while Imhof, in his appropriately upbeat speech, did not mention the fact, such accomplishments are now in jeopardy from environmental extremists - "driven," as Borlaug said earlier, "more by a hate of capitalism and globalization than by the actual safety of transgenic plants."

What the world beyond Iowa needs to recognize is that scientists like Sanchez and corporate leaders like Imhof, using both biotech and conventional means, are saving lives and lifting people out of poverty. The World Food Prize advances that recognition, but there's still a long way to go.

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