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Food For Thought

Norman Borlaug is not one to mince his words. "Global defence spending amounts to $900 billion a year; over one-third of this is accounted for by the US," said the renowned agronomist, before adding, "You cannot build peace on empty stomachs."

Dr Borlaug, whose discoveries sparked the green revolution in India, Pakistan and elsewhere — an achievement for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 — was delivering the 22nd Coromandel lecture, organised by Murugappa Group company Coromandel Fertilisers, to a packed audience at the IARI Auditorium at New Delhi on March 16 2005.

Global food security was the theme of Dr Borlaug's lecture, titled 'From the Green to the Gene Revolution: A 21st Century Challenge', and his passion for the subject shone through. "There are 800 million hungry people on earth, as many as 400 million in Asia alone," said Dr Borlaug, who has been honoured with more than 40 doctorate degrees and numerous awards by governments, academic institutions and citizens' groups from around the world.

The facts of global farming are alarming: there is limited potential for land expansion for cultivation; just 17 per cent of cultivable land produces 90 per cent of world's food harvest; 85 per cent of future growth in food production must come from lands already under production. "We will have to double the world food supply by 2050," said Dr Borlaug, before articulating the threats faced by various crops from large-scale diseases that could affect millions of hectares of land under cultivation.

The threat facing wheat crops is imminent, warned Dr Borlaug. If this threat is not addressed on a high priority, "we could end up eating rice bread". Dr. Borlaug supported the use of chemical fertilisers since it helps in improving crop yields and added that, while genetically modified crops may not be the right solution at all times, the technology ought to be applied selectively.

Dr Borlaug recommended a multidisciplinary research focus to increase yields and production. In his opinion, the trigger for the green revolution - shuttle breeding and multi-location international testing that produced the broadly adapted Mexican wheat — continues to be relevant for our times. The 92-year-old Dr Borlaug said his dream is to "transfer rice immunity to cereals such as wheat, maize, sorghum and barley, and transfer bread-wheat proteins (gliadin and glutenin) to other cereals, especially rice and maize".

Preceding the lecture was an introduction by MS Swaminathan, the agronomist whose own contribution to the green revolution was immense. Besides Dr Swaminathan, who lauded the Murugappa Group's commitment in organising the lecture, the audience also comprised S Nagarajan, the director of IARI, and Rattan Lal, professor of soil science at Ohio University. Dr Nagarajan and Dr Lal received awards from Dr Borlaug.

Dr Bharat Ram, the former chairman of Coromandel Fertilisers, and MM Rao, a former director of the company, were praised for their efforts.


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