TCS Daily

Prizes and Prices

By Duane D. Freese - October 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Some people use science and technology to save lives. Some people use fear and superstition to get in the way.

Pedro Sanchez of is one of those who save lives. This week, the Cuban-born Sanchez is being awarded the prestigious World Food Prize for his innovations in restoring nutrients to soil so as to make them more productive.

Organic farming enthusiasts should love his method. As Sanchez describes it: "The method works by planting tree seedlings early in the rainy season while the maize is still young. The trees grow very slowly, so they do not compete with the crop. After farmers harvest the maize, they leave the trees to grow during the dry season. At the end of the dry season and before the next planting of maize, farmers cut down the trees, leaving the stems, leaves and roots to decompose and release the accumulated nitrates into the soil."

Ah, ha. Sanchez has developed a way to eliminate the use of artificial fertilizers. So why hasn't the Organic Consumers Organization trumpeted Sanchez's discoveries? Why is there no mention of him winning the World Food Prize on its website?

There's a simple reason. Sanchez' method will save money and will likely be adapted. That gives the organic crowd some pause.

Extending the Revolution

Artificial fertilizers are two to eight times more costly in sub-Saharan Africa, where Sanchez hopes this system of fertilization - one that has worked in Latin America - can be applied. Further, sub-Saharan Africa has fast-growing leguminous trees that collect a lot of nitrogen from the air naturally and can fix the nutrients in the soil. And Sanchez would supplement the nitrates from the trees with others to get the best yield.

In short, Sanchez wants to extend the Green Revolution deep into Africa. That revolution was triggered by 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman E. Borlaug. Borlaug founded the World Food Prize, and the 86-year-old Iowan, whose research on wheat is credited with saving millions of lives, is no friend of knee-jerk organic enthusiasts.

Borlaug earlier this year won the National Academy of Sciences most prestigious award, its Public Welfare Medal. "Dr. Borlaug is universally recognized as a leader of the 'Green Revolution,' developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat strains for cultivation around the world," NAS President Bruce Alberts noted at the time. "Borlaug's lifelong goal is to end hunger through the application of and changes in economic policies and greater understanding among nations. Some credit him with saving more human lives than any other person in history."

Organic enthusiasts have attacked the use of fertilizers, the proper application of which Borlaug, like Sanchez, advocates to improve crop yields. And they have sought to demonize genetic engineering, which Borlaug and many other agronomists view as the best hope for boosting crop yields, conserving land, reducing pesticide use.

By labeling them 'Frankenfoods,' the organic crowd has attempted - with some success, according to polls - to create the impression that genetically engineered foods are dangerous and genetically modified crops are a threat to the environment.

High priced retail sales outfits, such as Patagonia, the sports clothing maker and marketer, have taken up the cry, going after genetically engineered cotton - promising all organic, as if that were a more environmentally friendly way to produce natural fibers.

But the hard fact is that it is not.

Low Yield, High Cost

Borlaug's high-yield revolution enabled the world to feed twice as many people using the same 37 percent land area as was farmed in 1950. Higher yields are critical since world food demand is slated to increase by three times.

Organic farming, meanwhile, produces crop yields 20 percent to 40 percent smaller than conventional farming. As Borlaug noted in penning a Declaration on High-Yield Conservation last April that was co-signed by Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and George McGovern, more primitive methods of agriculture - including many of the practices advocated by organic enthusiasts - would force more land under the plow, to the detriment of the environment.

"We aren't going to feed 6 billion people with organic fertilizer. If we tried to do it, we would level most of our forest and many of those lands would be productive only for a short period of time," Borlaug said.

As Borlaug and most agricultural scientists realize, fertilizer - whatever its source - is energy. And the key, whether it is derived "naturally" from plants or animal waste or plucked "artificially" from the air by man, is to apply the proper amounts with the proper methods.

Genetic engineering of plants so they can more efficiently use the energy, while limiting the use of pesticides as required in both conventional and organic farming, can help do that.

And in that way, it also can help preserve another vital resource of life - water.

Water Wasted

According to the United Nations, 70 percent of the water used by people around the globe is for the growing and the processing of plants for use as food and fiber. It takes more than 100 gallons of water to grow a pound of wheat.

But last year, scientists discovered the "biological Morse code" of plants that controls stomatal pores, through which 95 percent of a plant's water loss occurs. Genetically engineering for that would enable plants to use water resources more efficiently and even enable them to survive severe droughts.

For example, earlier this year, Georgian and Israeli scientists identified genes in cotton plants that are expected to create drought-tolerant varieties that will reduce the need for water in their production - saving potable supplies for future use while reducing costs to farmers.

So, if Patagonia continues its objection to genetically modified cotton, it will come at the expense of thirsty regions of the world. Does it prefer more water for cotton or for people?

Organic simply won't cut it, and wouldn't cut it in the marketplace if not for the scare campaigns against genetically improved plants. This scare campaign serves one primary purpose - and it isn't to save the planet. It is to encourage people to pay a premium price for organic products.

Consumers Reports found in 1997 that organic produce cost 57 percent more than conventionally grown foods. For the average family of four, to live on organics would require that they increase their food bill from $7,000 a year to $11,000.

That should come as no surprise, as it takes a premium price to make up for lower-yields.

So it is no wonder organic advocates don't hype Pedro Sanchez. His scientific approach aimed at producing higher yields takes a swipe at their premium prices. It saves lives, and profits the farmer and consumer alike.



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