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Unveiling of Borlaug Statue Highlights Fight Over Biotechnology

Large-scale farming and agribusiness, derisively dubbed Big Ag by critics, look to polish their image this week with a Statuary Hall ceremony for a hero in the field and a screening of a documentary about young farmers and ranchers.

On Tuesday, top lawmakers, including Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, plan to attend the installation of a bronze statue of plant scientist Norman E. Borlaug. Borlaug is hailed as the father of the 1960s “Green Revolution” that improved crop production in Mexico and Asia.

He is credited with saving an estimated billion lives through his intense focus on hybridization and high use of fertilizers and pesticides for crop management. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for decades of work.

In his later years, Borlaug was a defender of biotechnology as a tool to speed development of sturdier and more prolific food crops. Borlaug, an Iowa native, died in Texas in 2009 at the age of 95. Tuesday would have been his 100th birthday.

Borlaug’s statute will take the spot of Samuel J. Kirkwood, a 19th-century Iowa governor, U.S. senator and Interior secretary under President James Garfield. Kirkwood moves down the hall to take over the site occupied by the statute of Iowa’s James Harlan, a U.S. senator and Interior secretary under President Andrew Jackson. Because each state is allowed to contribute no more than two statues to the Capitol, Harlan will head back to the Hawkeye State.

Borlaug “was a passionate believer in biotechnology and a passionate devotee of science,” said Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation begun by Borlaug. Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, said Borlaug took to heart an inscription in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences building that describes science as the “pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.”

The foundation underscored that connection to biotechnology last year, when it awarded its $250,000 food prize to three pioneers in the scientific field.

Then there’s the second part of the image improvement campaign. On Wednesday, the documentary “Farmland” will be shown at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The film by Oscar and Emmy winner James Moll focuses on six farmers and ranchers and the challenges they face in making a go in agriculture.

The film got early exposure last month at the Department of Agriculture’s annual outlook forum. A trailer of the film played several times at the massive gathering that draws an international crowd in agriculture and related fields. The documentary, financed by the private U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, is being touted as conventional agriculture’s response to critical films such as “King Corn” and “Food, Inc.”

The film and the Borlaug ceremony come as political and public relations skirmishes between biotech supporters and biotech opponents intensify. A coalition led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, tired of pouring in millions to stop state-level efforts to require some form of mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients, is scouting congressional members to introduce federal legislation to override such efforts. The coalition is circulating draft legislation that would override any state GMO-labeling laws.

Just Label It, an alliance of the organic food industry, non-GMO farmers, environmentalists and others, is fighting the food makers with a message that consumers have a right to as much information as possible about the food they choose to eat.

Scott Faber, Just Label It’s executive director and the governmental affairs vice president at the Environmental Working Group, said there is no question Borlaug’s drive to raise crop yields in the United States and elsewhere has succeeded.

“Clearly, the green revolution helped reduce hunger around the globe. [However], those increased yields come at a steep price for the environment. If we are truly interested in feeding the world as Borlaug sought to do, we would not be diverting 40 percent of our food to fuel, wasting so much of our food in the field and our homes,” Faber said, referring in part to a federal production mandate for ethanol made largely from corn also used as animal feed.

The USDA’s recent call for suggestions on ways organic and genetically modified crops can coexist highlighted a divide between the two production methods. Major farm and biotech organizations say there’s no problem, while organic growers cite at least 400 instances of pollen drift from GMO crops to organic crops that potentially affected the market value of the non-GMO crops.

Borlaug was no stranger to critics, who cited runoff from increased pesticide and fertilizer use and the shift from farms based on growing several types of food crops to larger operations that only plant one kind of GMO or conventional crop.

The Center for Food Safety, which frequently challenges the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration on food issues, views Borlaug’s legacy negatively.

“The Green Revolution model [that] began primarily in India in the late ‘60s … has been replicated throughout developing countries, yet hunger and malnutrition persist,”said Debbie Barker, the center’s international programs director. “In sum, the model replaces diverse crops with mono crops and requires farmers to purchase commercial seeds, known as high-yielding varieties, and requisite inputs such as pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.”

However, Borlaug did not see his work as a panacea for the world’s hungry, warning that a growing world population and water shortages threatened to outstrip gains in crop productivity.

Borlaug said some environmentalists’ concerns were valid and could be addressed through science and technology.

But he dismissed others as elitists who had never experienced the crushing desperation of hunger or calculated the global environmental costs of putting marginal acres into food production with low-yield crops.

Borlaug co-authored a 2008 letter to presidential candidate Barack Obama that called for a comprehensive agriculture research plan and adequate budgets to address climate change, protection of the environment and other obstacles to feeding the world.

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