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Advances in Biotechnology Will Save Lives

By Jimmy Carter

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

The world faces a sobering future. Today, as we meet in St. Louis, the world population will grow by 230,000 people. In 30 years we'll have to more than double the amount of arable land to continue the present trend of just maintaining what is often a starvation level of food for people, particularly in the Third World.

To meet the acreage required we'd have to destroy twice as much as the total rainforest that exists today. There are now 6 million square miles of land in cultivation, about the same size as South America, and each year an area the size of Missouri loses all of the topsoil that it ever had. The world faces a terrible future unless dramatic things are continued in improving the production of food and fiber and other needs of the human being.

The Danforth Plant Science Center will be a continuation of these remarkable developments because those involved in agriculture have continued a multifaceted exploration for a better life. The recent developments in space with the Hubble telescope, the remarkable developments in electronics with the Internet, e-mail and with computers are important and dramatic. But none of them approaches the progress that has been and is being made in the plant sciences.

I grew up on a farm. I still operate a farm. It's been in our family since 1833. I grew up during the Depression years.

In 1935 the average farmer in Georgia who produced peanuts, which is our major crop, planted his field, turned it twice with a drag harrow, cultivated an average of seven times, plowed up his peanuts, shook every peanut plant by hand to get the dirt out, stacked it on stack poles, waited eight weeks, dried the peanuts, took them to market. The gross income per acre was $7.

Because of the advances in plant sciences, we now have increased the average income of a good farmer's peanuts to $1,800 or so. We used to produce about a third of a ton of peanuts per acre. Now our best farmers produce three tons of peanuts per acre. There are improvements in the quality of the plants themselves and the seeds. But a key breakthrough was learning not to cultivate peanuts. It was a simple discovery brought about by plant genetics and also by close working relationships among scientists, extension workers and the farmers in the field.

We grew cotton on our farm, too. When I went to the White House I still had a cotton gin, a heavy investment, the biggest financial investment I ever made. At that time cotton was disappearing from Georgia because of boll weevils and boll worms. Every time farmers planted cotton, they would have to dust or spray their fields at least 20 times during the growing season with very powerful chemicals to control the boll worms and boll weevils. Nowadays you can buy cotton seed that produce a plant that is immune to boll weevils and boll worms. Cotton has come back into our state.

These kinds of things have changed my life as a relatively affluent, very influential, safe and secure American citizen. The rest of the world, though, suffers from the greatest form of discrimination that exists - discrimination by rich people against poor people.

This discrimination is not deliberate. It's because we don't understand, we don't comprehend, we don't involve ourselves. We're not aware of the needs and sufferings, the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the poor people, particularly those who live in the developing world.

Under the direction of Dr. Norman Borlaug (a 1970 Nobel laureate), we have embarked on a program in Africa among small farmers whose average acreage is two acres. Because of Dr. Borlaug and advanced techniques, those farmers are quite often quadrupling their production of basic food grains - wheat, corn, sorghum, millet, rice - transforming the quality of their lives.

Under Borlaug's direction they go in and use some simple technology. First, they have the latest strains or species of corn for that particular elevation and latitude. They plant in contour rows so the soil will not wash away. They use a moderate amount of fertilizer just to maintain the soil and the proper kind of pesticides.

Next year, instead of slashing and burning another two acres with enormous expenditure of human effort, they go back to the same two acres, which can remain in production as long as the farm where Rosalynn and I still make a major part of our living.

What a profound transformation.

You can tell that, as a farmer who grew up in a rural area during the Depression years, as a former president who now has projects in 35 different nations in Africa, I'm overwhelmed with the advantages of genetic improvement of plants and other organisms, but a serious problem has arisen.

There are misguided and ill-advised and sincere people who believe that all crops on Earth should be grown without any soil or chemicals or genetically improved plants being used. They even protest the simple use of fertilizers to maintain the productivity of a field.

They don't realize that a field in the developing world, if not fertilized, will have to be abandoned and another similar area will have to be slashed and burned. There is a momentous decision to be made within the next six months derived from the 1972 global environmental conferenceb in Rio de Janeiro. And there's a powerful lobby that has evolved to prevent the importation of any genetically modified organisms. This would almost totally prohibit, in those countries, any of the advantages I have described to you. It's not just a minor problem. It is perhaps the most serious problem that the Danforth Plant Science Center and the products of its research face in the future.

The people at Monsanto know all about this. The people at Merck knew all about this. The people at American Home Products knew all about this. The news media people know. I have used my own limited influence to try to instruct the world that these advantages or advances in science are crucial to the well-being of the people on Earth. So far, to little avail.

I read a recent statement by Prince Charles in England: "Genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone." I think Prince Charles would have been better off if he had forgone the use of other advances like cell phones, but he's well-meaning and sincere, and his voice is not alone in England.

In Great Britain, we have a very serious problem, less of a problem in Germany and equivocation in France. But we are facing the prospect of closed doors in the most needy and less educated nations in the world. That's a very important responsibility. The advances that come to my farm and to those in North Dakota and in Missouri from the Danforth Plant Science Center will be accepted. Others fear them. The testing of new developments will be conducted by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of American farmers. That's a very good test site for a new discovery.

This is an extraordinary partnership that has been formed. The potential benefits that will come from this center are indescribable. But this center cannot just be devoted to scientific research, as important as it is. I see some additional responsibilities, which I hope will be seriously considered.

* One is to provide a neutral ground within which competitive American corporations can come and retain their independence, retain the advantages of their own in-house discoveries, their patents. But they should also share with each other basic research, perhaps even culminating in discoveries so they can be used more widely and so the prices can be reduced. I hope they also can be generous in the allocation of plant materials where they are needed most.

* The second major responsibility of this center would be to bring together in a more harmonious way basic research, the extension service and individual farmers. In Georgia this is a fairly good relationship. I'm sure it is in Missouri as well. But in most places on Earth it's not.

* Another very important function of this center will be to assure that scientists in the Third World, particularly in the small nations, are brought here to learn the rudiments of agricultural advances.

* Another very important responsibility of this center will be to counteract the ill-advised attacks on genetic improvements themselves. I would hope this plant science center here would take on itself the responsibility for promulgating as widely as possible accurate information about the advantages of plant science discoveries.

And, of course, the most important responsibility, perhaps, is to evolve ways to control weeds, to make plants impervious to insect attack and to increase yields. That's very important, but it is also important to protect wetlands, rainforests, to reduce erosion, to feed hungry people and to preserve the health of little children whom we will never know, but whose lives and well-being will depend on the people here.

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