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{July 22, 2004}

If you look inside the latest issue of Scientific American, you’ll see the smiling face of an old high school pal of mine. John and I were cosalutatorians of our class. Our GPAs were a few thousandths of a point apart, so the principal let us both give a speech.

I haven’t seen John since my wedding, but I keep tabs on
what he’s up to. Last I had checked, John was building the Tomato of Tomorrow. Now it looks like he’s moved on to grain. 

John works on the Flax of the Future because he’s a plant geneticist at a biotech company.  A first-rate scientist with a sharp wit and a keen mind, John has no doubt about the value of the work he does. If only the rest of the world felt the same.

Drop the phrase “genetically modified food” at a party sometime, and watch the sparks fly. You’ll hear long tirades about the evils of corporate capitalism, the horror of shaping nature for private profit, and how any grocery store that keeps “Frankenfood” on its shelves is not welcome in this town, thank you very much. Check out the web sites for the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to see what I mean.

Their views are, I believe, horribly mistaken. If put into action, millions of people will die needlessly. Biotech holds the promise of feeding humanity in a way nothing else can. It really is that simple.

When raising concerns about genetically modified food, we forget that human agriculture has always involved designer genes. It’s called breeding. Our ancestors identified plants with traits that they preferred (better taste, bigger fruit, easier harvesting) and tried to make more of them. That’s how they could stop being hunter-gatherers and start building civilization.

Experimenting with nature is what we do. In a very real sense, changing nature is human nature.

That’s one of John’s points: The plant fossil record shows the mark of man’s craftsmanship. To our benefit, I might add.

John’s team is working on a technique called marker-assisted breeding. If successful, it could knock years off new crop development time. It means we won’t need to introduce DNA into plants through bacteria, and blows the objections to transgenic crops out of the water. Markerassisted breeding combines centuriesold farming techniques with modern DNA analysis technology. Sort of like “Green Acres” meets “CSI”.

This idea could save millions of lives, and help us get through humanity’s last growth spurt before world population stabilizes around the year 2050. It won’t happen without the efforts of people like John, the capital provided by his company, and the expectation of profit for investors. As tough as this may be for environmentalists to swallow, capitalism will save humanity. Get over it, Greenpeace.

Scientists aren’t usually considered heroes, but maybe they should be. Some of you may have seen Penn and Teller’s TV series on Showtime. In one of their episodes, they play the card game “Who’s the Greatest Person in the World?”.

Penn picks the first card. It’s the creator of the “Green Revolution”, a series of crops adapted to the needs of developing countries. Penn immediately bets everything he has because he can’t lose. Teller could be
holding a pair of Gandhis or three Mother Teresas. It doesn’t matter. He hasn’t got a chance.

I think Penn is absolutely right. Gandhi and Mother Teresa are way up there on the goodness scale, but the Green Revolution saved millions of lives. Maybe someday, every school child in America will know the name of Norman Borlaug, the scientist who made it happen. Maybe someday they’ll know the names of those who are continuing to fight the good fight.

I’m proud to know the name of one. John, we once shared the podium on an Oklahoma high school stage. If I’d known back then you were going to be involved in something like this, I’d have given you the floor.

It’s been twenty-six years, but better late then never. I’d like to ask everyone in the audience to open up their copies of Scientific American, and turn to page 42. John, here’s the microphone.