We Could Use Borlaug's Wisdom Today

This Business of Farming

What would the great ag scientist say about today's food elitists?

Published on: March 25, 2014

Today is Ag Day, and, more importantly, the 100th anniversary of Dr. Norman Borlaug's birthday.  We are mighty fortunate to live in a nation that makes agriculture a priority, a nation built on land and livestock and machinery and productivity, and most important, farmers. That's the story of U.S. agriculture, and it's one to be celebrated.

Trouble is, that story doesn't have an ending, because ag's job is never complete. Agriculture is all about food and the altruistic desire to see that everyone in the world gets fed – all the time. Yet, hunger still stalks the planet; 25,000 people die of hunger every day and nearly 1 billion go to bed hungry.

Norman Borlaug in 2003
Norman Borlaug in 2003

That's the kind of statistic that kept Borlaug up at night. It's why he made stamping out hunger his life's work. Starting in 1945 he began developing high yielding wheat, saving a million lives in the process. He moved on to India and China, sparking what's now known as the green revolution. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize before it was all said and done. You can read a brilliant overview of his impact at the IFDC blog, here.

I was privileged to see him speak at a World Food Program meeting in St. Louis in 2003 (photo). Before he left this world in 2009 he was rightly known as the man who saved a billion lives.

He did all that with sound science. And I just wonder, if he were alive today, what Dr. Borlaug would think of the food elitists who have trashed science for the sake of selling more burritos and cereal to a bewildered public.

Consider the non-GMO restaurant chains now trying to convincing consumers that the food U.S. farmers provide every day, based on sound science-based biotechnology, is somehow less than adequate, or worse, unsafe. When you label something you imply that the alternative is unsafe. That's marketing 101.

Consider the massive burrito chain Chipotle; its website says the company only uses "naturally raised" pigs living out on pastures where they can display their "natural tendencies," which is all fine and dandy if you've got rich consumers who can pay the higher price. But what about the millions of hungry poor people in the world, living on a dollar a day? Could they afford the Chipotle way? How many millions would starve if the world's food retailers all went off the rails to source happy chickens and pigs raised on pastures? How many buildings would we need to raze in the world's cities just to create pastures for these animals?

Hey Chipotle, why don't you take the millions you spent on the anti-agriculture satire "Farmed and Dangerous" and give it to a hunger relief program instead?

Rush to reformulate

Consider the growing throngs of food companies rushing to reformulate perfectly safe and nutritious products without GM crops, despite the fact everyone in those marketing departments is well aware there is no safety or nutrition issue with conventionally-grown GM commodities. General Mills is now making its Cheerios cereal with the "no GMO" label, at higher cost, even as its own website tell consumers GMO foods are perfectly safe. And, oats, the prime ingredient in Cheerios, is not made with GMO seed.

Confused yet?

What would Borlaug say to the mass media that report these new labels or formulations but neglects to report that so far, Americans just aren't buying it? In fact, the new, non-GMO version of Cheerios is not moving the sales needle significantly for General Mills.

As Forbes reports, "…these developments aren’t being reported anywhere other than in FoodBusinessNews.net, which broke the story. The silence that has greeted them is quite a contrast to the enthusiastic echo chamber that was created by legions of news media, from the food trades and way beyond, that last month hailed General Mills’ decision to begin offering its classic Cheerios cereal in mostly-non-GMO form."

Bear in mind, there was no hue and cry to reformulate Cheerios into a costlier non-GM version. And a General Mills spokesperson said there are no plans to reformulate any other product for non-GMO going forward.

So, by going to all that trouble with the non-GMO Cheerios label, isn't General Mills sending us a message? Isn't it saying non-GMO cereal must be better or safer for you?

What kind of mixed messages are food companies sending to consumers?

Every conceivable science-based food organization, including the United Nations World Health Organization, has declared biotechnology perfectly safe. We've been eating this food for nearly two decades. Do food companies know something that the scientists don't?

Well, yes. They know that it's safer to follow than lead. Follow their customers' whims and fears, no matter how absurd or expensive. Follow the shrill and loud voices of the extremists even if most consumers don't buy that bunk.

Follow, instead of showing some leadership by spending some of your impressive marketing budgets to help educate families about the safety of modern food practices.

Consider how GMO technology could revolutionize nutrition among the world's hungriest populations, with golden rice, a biotech version of the crop loaded with vitamin A, an essential item in a child's diet. Food companies should demand that it become a mainstream option in their food ingredient lineup.

Why aren't they?

If Dr. Borlaug were here today he'd certainly cast a harsh light on the marketing madness going on right now among restaurants and food companies.

The folks in agriculture must carry his torch forward, and there's no better time than on Ag Day, 2014.

All is not lost. Some people do 'get it.' Check out this funny, honest and inspiring short film on Borlaug's life. What's amazing is that this tribute to the greatest Ag scientist to ever live is narrated by Penn and Teller, the famous comedic/illusionist team. It's rare to find pop cultural Hollywood types who actually understand biotechnology. They even have the nerve to call out the Greenpeace wing nuts.

Enjoy, and thank a farmer today. Despite the misinformation in the mainstream media those farm families are out there every day and making the spirit of Dr. Borlaug mighty proud.