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Future revolution

Phillips talks Borlaug vision, biotechnology outlook

Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 01:09

Phillips

David Cohen

While one 50-minute class is held at Texas A&M, more than five thousand people will die from hunger and poverty. These people are not statistics, they are not numbers. They are humans.

Ron Phillips, regents professor emeritus and former mcKnight presidential chair in genomics at the University of Minnesota, gave a presentation on Norman Borlaug and the future of the green revolution Tuesday evening. The program focused not only on the legacy left by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Borlaug but also on the future of genomics and crops, which utilize biotechnology.

Borlaug was noted for his humanitarian work, and Phillips said that he was one of his idols. Borlaug used his scientific achievements within agriculture to create a world with less hunger and pain.

“Never think for a minute that we are going to build permanent peace in this world on empty stomachs and human misery,” Philips said, quoting Borlaug. “It won’t happen, and the sooner our leaders at all levels of society reflect on that, the better.”

Borlaug was able to combat human suffering with his research in wheat production. The growing fields of genomics and biotechnology are instrumental in continuing to cultivate new discoveries in agriculture. Phillips, who served as chief scientist for the USDA and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, spoke of how important these advancements are to certain countries in the world.


“I was invited to a meeting of the ministers of agriculture of rice producing countries,” he said. “The minister from Bangladesh made the comment that rice is life. He went on to say that, without rice, there is no life.”

In a world where food is a necessity but not a certainty, improvements in crop production can literally be the difference between life and death. More than two billion acres of biotech crops have been planted since the year 1996. This technology has been implemented in various crops such as corn and cotton. Research has been done to increase drought and flood tolerance in different plants, as well as increasing insect resistance.

Though utilizing biotechnology to increase yield seems to be a straightforward solution, starvation is still a growing problem in a growing world. With a projected population increase of one billion more people in the next 14 years, supplying enough food to sustain this kind of population is an increasing problem, Philips said.

“You could argue we are on a collision course with famine,” he said.

More problems arise when you begin to evaluate the controversy surrounding genetically modified foods. Many new developments are caught up in years of legalistic webs and debates. Most notably is “Golden Rice.”

Golden rice has an increased level of beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. Vitamin A is necessary for humans to retain eyesight. In developing countries, 350,000 children per year go blind and 1,800 children under the age of five die because of Vitamin A deficiencies. The developers of golden rice expect that this rice could save the lives of one million children per year.

Release of this rice, and other developments like it, has been strongly opposed by organizations such as Green peace, Phillips said. He also said there were many concerns that the opposition to biotechnology has raised over the years. Apprehensions for food safety, development of resistance in unwanted pests and plants, corporate control of crops and the environmental effects are a few of the issues that have been discussed.

Dustin Herb, a student working on his master’s degree in plant breeding in genetics, finds that the risks do not offset the benefits.

“I don’t think there’s as much validity in the claims that are against it,” Herb said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the research within agriculture will outweigh any problems with it.”

Sean Thompson, a student pursuing a doctorate in plant breeding, said he found the controversies around bio-tech food to be superficial.

“It’s compounding problem that we as Americans, it’s not something we see or even think about, yet we want to have the argument on their behalf. While we stand here and another 5,000 people have died,” Thompson said.

Phillips said the ultimate solution to these problems lies within the human mind.

“It’s just amazing what the human brain can do,” he said. “The ingenuity and creativity and the application of basic research will have a major impact.”

 

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