GMO advocate Norman Borlaug commemorated in U.S. Capitol

GMO advocate Norman Borlaug commemorated in U.S. Capitol

When natural industry leaders obtain the level of recognition biotech pioneers receive, the organic movement will have truly arrived.

Both Kermit the Frog and the natural products industry are well aware that it’s not easy being green.

In addition to higher priced raw materials, ambiguous labeling terms (ahem, “natural”), and pressure to manufacture healthy and hyper-palatable foods that compete with Doritos, the organic movement receives little love from government—at least compared with conventional CPGs and monster agri-businesses.

We’ve known this for a while.

Food government agencies (USDA, FDA) have their fair share of revolving door hires from lobbyist groups like The Grocery Manufacturers of America, National Restaurant Association and agricultural biotech companies like Monsanto and DuPont. Plus, despite Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to encourage kids to eat healthier, tomato paste-topped pizza still counts as a serving of vegetables and limitations on junk food marketing to kids remain voluntary.

It is the combination of these suspiciously cozy friendships between agro-industry and congress that drove me to examine a statue that was recently installed in the National Statuary Hall located in the U.S. Capitol building. On Tuesday, March 25th, the seven-foot bronze statue of Norman Borlaug was placed in the National Statuary Hall. Lawmakers including house Speaker John Boehner, California’s Nancy Pelosi and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell attended the statue’s induction.

Who was Norman Borlaug?

I’ll first iterate that he was an exceptional man. Credited as “the man who saved a billion lives” and “the father of the Green Revolution,” Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for his work as a geneticist and plant pathologist. In the 1940s, he developed wheat mutations that adapted crops to different climates—especially in hunger-stricken regions like Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Indeed, his contributions were invaluable to food science and stability. So wherein lies the rub? Not surprisingly, in later life he strongly favored genetic engineering.

“First and foremost, government must establish a regulatory framework to guide the testing and use of genetically modified crops,” wrote Borlaug in his 2000 essay, Agriculture in the 21st Century: Vision for Research and Development. “Let's not tie science's hands through excessively restrictive regulations … Farmers need to be motivated to adopt many of the desired improvements in input use efficiency (irrigation water, fertilizers, crop protection chemicals).” His views don’t sit well with those dedicated to fortifying non-GMO supply chains.

But my intention is not to argue on Borlaug’s ideals or those of non-GMO activists. That conversation is for a different day.

Rather, I hope to illuminate the rhetoric here.

Installing Borlaug’s statue in the U.S. Capitol highlights and reinforces congressional support for a food system that so many disdain. Though Borlaug was an invaluable man who revolutionized food output, his discoveries also primed the United States and other countries to adopt a mono-ag system and (essentially) unbridled use of yield-boosting chemicals and fertilizers.

His laudation of genetically engineered seeds transferred power from farmers who historically saved seeds for subsequent seasons to powerful corporations whose business models rely on hawking one-time-use patented GMO seeds. (To Borlaug’s credit, he realized the shortcomings of this private sector trend. “Cooperation has also been declining among public sector institutions, partially because of the desire to protect proprietary information and partially because of problems of bureaucracy and egocentric behavior,” he later wrote.)

It’s good that Borlaug’s likeness now lives in Washington. But government's celebration of a GMO advocate indirectly dampens their support of the non-GMO movement—a bane for states establishing labeling laws and elected officials proposing federal labeling initiatives.

It's not like there's a shortage of outstanding organic pioneers, either. J.I. Rodale, for example, arguably the “father of organic” and founder of Rodale, Inc, was writing and experimenting with organic agriculture during the expansion of chemical farming in the 1940s and 1950s, according to New Hope Natural Media’s in-house organic expert Jody Mason.

Likewise, in response to rampant agricultural pesticide use, Rachel Carlson inspired millions to advocate for the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Not until organic leaders are immortalized in bronze will we know that the natural industry has friends in high places. Only then, we will have truly arrived. 

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