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Borlaug’s dream is being realized

by Joan Conrow

Photo courtesy of Flickr/International Maize and
Wheat Improvement Center
(CIMMYT

Dr. Norman Borlaug, whose scientific research sparked a “green revolution” in agriculture that saved millions of lives, was prescient. 

Groundbreaking research that he envisioned nearly 50 years ago is finally coming to fruition as scientists announce new advances in their efforts to develop plants that can create their own sources of fertilizer.

Borlaug alluded to this work in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1970 in recognition of a life dedicated to feeding the world’s hungry population:

In my dream I see green, vigorous, high-yielding fields of wheat, rice, maize, sorghums, and millets, which are obtaining, free of expense, 100 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare from nodule-forming, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These mutant strains of Rhizobium cerealis were developed in 1990 by a massive mutation breeding program with strains of Rhizobium sp. obtained from roots of legumes and other nodule-bearing plants. This scientific discovery has revolutionized agricultural production for the hundreds of millions of humble farmers throughout the world; for they now receive much of the needed fertilizer for their crops directly from these little wondrous microbes that are taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it without cost in the roots of cereals, from which it is transformed into grain...

Then I wake up and become disillusioned to find that mutation genetics programs are still engaged mostly in such minutiae as putting beards on wheat plants and taking off the hairs.

If we are to capitalize fully on the past biological accomplishments and realize the prospective accomplishments, as exemplified in my dream, there must be far greater investments in research and education in the future than in the past.

Investments have been made into that type of research in recent years, and the results are very promising. 

In this video by Robert Hazen of the Alliance for Science, scientists from the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) project discuss how they are using genetic engineering to transfer the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes (peas and beans) into cereal crops. Their work could help small-holder farmers in Africa and elsewhere realize higher yields, without the use of expensive fertilizers. It could also reduce the world’s overall use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers, which contribute substantially to both carbon emissions and environmental pollution.

Harvard University researcher Daniel Nocera is taking a different approach. He and his team presented their work on “a ‘bionic’ leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertilizer in the very soil where crops are grown” at an April 3 session of the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), according to an ACS press release.

As the release noted:

For this application, Nocera's team has designed a system in which Xanthobacter bacteria fix hydrogen from the artificial leaf and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make a bioplastic that the bacteria store inside themselves as fuel.

"I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic," Nocera says. "Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilizing crops."

Nocera's lab has analyzed the amount of ammonia the system produces. But the real proof is in the radishes. The researchers have used their approach to grow five crop cycles. The vegetables receiving the bionic-leaf-derived fertilizer weigh 150 percent more than the control crops. The next step, Nocera says, is to boost throughput so that one day, farmers in India or sub-Saharan Africa can produce their own fertilizer.

Nocera also shared his work at a press conference that can be viewed here.

Research by ENSA scientists and Nocera is helping to make Borlaug’s dream a reality. Yet advancements in agricultural science continue to meet resistance from groups that oppose the use of modern technology to address food production challenges, just as they did in Borlaug’s time.

Borlaug addressed this dynamic in his acceptance speech, and his words remain true today: 

Some critics have said that the green revolution has created more problems than it has solved. This I cannot accept, for I believe it is far better for mankind to be struggling with new problems caused by abundance rather than with the old problem of famine. 

For the underprivileged billions in the forgotten world, hunger has been a constant companion, and starvation has all too often lurked in the nearby shadows. To millions of these unfortunates, who have long lived in despair, the green revolution seems like a miracle that has generated new hope for the future.

I want to reiterate emphatically that there now are available materials and techniques of great potential value for expanding the green revolution into additional fields of agriculture. But to convert these potential values into actual values requires scientific and organizational leadership. Where are those leaders? Where are the leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership, and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular? There are not enough of them now; therefore we must try to identify and develop them in our educational systems and we must utilize them in our campaigns for food production. 

The green revolution is a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into Utopia. None are more keenly aware of its limitations than those who started it and fought for its success. But there has been solid accomplishment, as I have already shown by concrete examples. I have also tried to indicate the various opportunities for capitalizing more fully on the new materials that were produced and the new methods that were devised. And, above all, I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that further progress depends on intelligent, integrated, and persistent effort by government leaders, statesmen, tradesmen, scientists, educators, and communication agencies, including the press, radio, and television.

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