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Nobel Laureate pitches for GM technology

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IN AUGUST COMPANY: Nobel Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug with eminent crop scientist, Dr M. S. Swaminathan, and the Union Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, at the centenary convention of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the Capital. Ramesh Sharma
IN AUGUST COMPANY: Nobel Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug with eminent crop scientist, Dr M. S. Swaminathan, and the Union Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, at the centenary convention of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the Capital. Ramesh Sharma

Our Bureau

New Delhi, March 16

LEGENDARY agricultural scientist and Nobel Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug, on Wednesday made a strong case for adoption of genetically-modified (GM) technologies to enhance agricultural growth in developing countries.

Delivering the Coromandel Lecture instituted by the Murugappa Group at a scientific convention, marking the centenary celebrations of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute here, the 90-year-old Dr Borlaug said he did not favour the use of the term GMOs (genetically-modified organisms).

"Crops have been modified genetically right from the Neolithic age. I would prefer to call the new generation crops transgenic crosses," he said.

What marked these out from the products of conventional breeding was that "the new techniques help us to cross taxonomic lines (across unrelated species), which means I can put a Bt gene from a soil bacteria on to cotton."

Dr Borlaug said his "biotechnology dream" was to transfer the innate immunity of rice to rusts (diseases caused by pathogens of the Puccinia species) to other cereals such as wheat, maize and sorghum.

"Since 1997, per capita production of wheat has been declining because of the emergence of new diseases, such as stem rust. If we can use modern biotechnology tools to transfer rust resistance in rice to wheat, it would make a huge contribution to farmers," he noted.

Similarly, he pointed at the possibility (`dream') of transferring wheat proteins (gliadin and glutenin) that enable making superior dough for leavening bread to other cereals. "You can probably then be eating rice sandwiches," he remarked.

Dr Borlaug said there was to need to double food production by 2050 if hunger were to be banished from the world and the ongoing `gene revolution' can definitely play a part in this. "You cannot build peace on empty stomachs. Only 8 per cent of countries with lower levels of hunger are mired in conflict," he added.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 17, 2005)
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