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Commentary: Food for all: a tough order, but a noble goal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2008 - Thanksgiving 2008, in the midst of an economic downturn, reminds us to remember our many blessings. Among mine has been the opportunity to work in company with dedicated friends and colleagues for causes in which I believe. I will mention two.

  • The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is dedicated to improving the human lot through plant science.
  • The National Institute for Food and Agriculture, recently created by Congress, will, if properly implemented, fund similar research throughout the nation.

These two institutions will address three important challenges.
The first is to continue America's leadership in agriculture by providing the knowledge to help innovate more rapidly. We need increased productivity with fewer inputs, lower costs and new value-added products. Science is a necessary component of innovation. This goal is not ours alone. Other countries pursue it as well. We start with many assets and should not toss away our lead.

The second challenge is ancient: The need for better nutrition and, in many places, the relief of hunger and starvation - scourges that have plagued humankind since our beginnings. Tonight, 900 million people will go to bed hungry and today perhaps 16,000 children will die of causes related to hunger and malnutrition.

The third challenge, preserving and enhancing the environment so that our grandchildren will inherit a livable earth, is relatively new, even though we humans have always altered the environment that sustains us, usually for the worse. But today it is critical. Past environmental disasters have been local. Other parts of the globe could go on as before. No longer. We are now 6.5 billion on one spaceship earth. So many people with nearly unlimited technological power threaten our whole planet all at once.

The ancient challenge and the new - feeding the world and saving the environment - call for a single response: to produce enough food, energy and other products in a way that is indefinitely sustainable.

The Green Revolution of the 1960s and '70s provides an example of science advancing both causes. Norman Borlaug and his colleagues ended the famines that had plagued Asia, Latin America and the Middle East for centuries. Science tripled crop yields thereby saving from starvation more than 1 billion people and preserving the environment. If not for this amazing increase in productivity, there would be little room left today for anything but growing food. Humans would be destroying forests, wetlands and parks.

The success of the Green Revolution led many to assume that the supply of nutritious, safe and affordable food was unlimited - but good things do not last forever. The Green Revolution is only a couple of generations old, but food prices are rising; this year, 30 nations experienced hunger riots.

The reasons are clear. World population has more than doubled. The Chinese and Indians want more and better food for their people and livestock. Urbanization eats into farmland. We produce renewable bio-fuels on lands that grow food. Production costs are up. We use too much water and fertilizer. Danger lurks.

We need an evergreen agricultural revolution that meets our needs while preserving our soil and water.

Fortunately, we can do something, for our modern scientific and technological tools are to the tools of our ancestors, what a spaceship to the moon is to our own two feet. We can go farther faster than ever before. America has not been using these new tools effectively. The incoming administration has an opportunity to appoint an outstanding leader for the new NIFA and to fund the new agency. It should do so.

We have favorable winds at our back as people worldwide recognize both the challenges and the power of science to help meet them. If the new administration succeeds in implementing a strong National Institute for Food and Agriculture, we will have another reason to give thanks.

Dr. William H. Danforth is chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, one of the largest independent research institutes devoted to plant science and agricultural biotechnology. The article is adapted from the William Henry Hatch Memorial Lecture at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. 

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