March 25 is National Agriculture Day; it is also the 100th birthday of Dr. Norma Borlaug. Through dedication and lifelong effort, Borlaug was credited with saving a billion lives and earned the title of the father of the green revolution. His pioneering research dramatically increased agricultural production in the 1950s and 60s and laid the foundation for the biotechnology revolution which has increased food production today and will well into the future. While a statue of Borlaug is being dedicated in Washington this week, there remains today, as there was in his day, criticism of his work and ideas.
“He was good at something most scientists aren’t good at—public relations,” explains Ed Runge, professor at Texas A&M University. “We all need to make connections, and I think Borlaug was superb at that. He could talk to a farmer. He could talk to Indira Gandhi [the third Prime Minister of India]. He could talk to anybody.” Much of the criticism today of biotechnology is because the developers of the technology have not been good at talking with anybody. Dr. Borlaug’s granddaughter, Julie, has the gift of PR and is now leading a pushback against those who oppose biotechnology as the Assistant Director of Partnerships for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. She told me in a recent interview that, “The fear of change is the biggest obstacle to progress.”
She calls for a change in the way biotechnology is explained and presented to the general public, “The arguments we have we used in the past have failed.” She said telling people the world will starve if we don’t adopt biotechnology is ineffective, “Nobody believes it is going to get that bad. Food shortages and mass starvation are not something most people in the developed world have experience with or can identify with.” Furthermore, she said much of the opposition to biotechnology is rooted in a distrust of “big ag.” She noted that people who oppose big corporations producing their food carry iPhones from a big corporation using proprietary technology.
This wife and mother, while well-educated, does not use science to connect with consumers or to confront critics. She believes a more emotional approach is needed. “We need to dumb down and shorten our message,” she said. For example, she says those who oppose biotechnology are opposing woman’s rights. She says that without biotech crops woman in developing countries will continue to spend their days pulling weeds in fields by hand. She points out that by withholding biotechnology from these nations you condemn future generations of women to grinding poverty and back-breaking labor.
She also enjoys talking with mothers who oppose GMO foods. She frames biotechnology in terms they can understand, “I talk about the orange juice in their refrigerator or the bread they feed their kids, and how these could disappear without biotechnology that can develop crops that are resistant to disease.” She also is a fearless crusader against myths and misconceptions about biotechnology, “You just have to walk into Whole Foods to see all kinds of examples of this; things like a sign that reads ‘GMO free salt.'”
While erecting a statue to Dr. Borlaug in the nation’s capitol is nice and appropriate, a better way to celebrate his 100th birthday and honor his legacy is to continue the fight for the cause to which he dedicated his life: improving food production and availability around the world. “My grandfather always believed that investments in the next generation of people would bring solutions to future challenges,” stated Julie Borlaug. Showing how biotechnology can improve life today and for the next generation is a great way to make that kind of investment.
By Gary Truitt