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Visiting scholar addresses sustainablity

KATIE PERALTA | Friday, February 12, 2010

Access to food and clean water is an essential human right, and science and technology have a key role to play in sustainable development.

This loaded message was the theme of a lecture titled “The Fight Against World Hunger: Phase II of the Agricultural Green Revolution,” delivered Tuesday at the Hesburgh Center Auditorium by Reilly Center visiting scholar Margaret Carroll Boardman.

From a family of Notre Dame graduates and daughter of a U.S. diplomat, Boardman lived in a number of different developing countries growing up, one factor that stimulated her interest in sustainable development, she said.

“It’s controversial and complicated,” Boardman said.

Phase II of the Green Revolution, she said, began in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The lecture focused on ways technology can develop agricultural methods that would achieve food security for “the poor and excluded of the world,” a significant goal given the booming world population.

“The world population has exploded as never before in history,” Boardman said. “Most of the expected growth is in developing countries.”

Sustainable development, she said, means something different to everyone. It can mean food protection, technological innovation, protection of the environment and respect for indigenous people, among other definitions. 

“Pope Benedict noted that we can’t solve problems of development in the world without addressing technology,” Boardman said.

Boardman outlined three agricultural systems and methodologies in practice: organic, biotechnological and hybridization.

“The systems are not mutually exclusive in theory, however, in practice they currently are exclusive due to national regulatory systems,” Boardman said.

Hybridization, she said, includes scientists crossing plant genomes to isolate and introduce new traits like height and sun tolerance. 

The first two, organic and biotechnological, however, she said, are the most important agricultural systems in play today.

“Organic farmland has grown tremendously over the past 10 years,” Boardman said.
Although it is growing, she said, organic farmland is still relatively small and occupies only 1 percent of planted acreage in the United States.

“It’s challenging. I have to wonder since I can’t feed myself or my family from my [own organic] garden, how will we feed the [hungry] people of the world?” she said.
Boardman noted the problem of labor shortage as hindering the development of the organic industry.

“If we’re going to do organic gardening, we are going to have to find more labor,” she said.
Pestmanagement, market expansion and sanitary storage are among other hindrances to organic farming, she said.

Biotechnology advancements have, Boardman said, helped farmers around the world develop technology that fortifies crops and fosters a stronger possibility for distribution and consumption. They have been monitored in the United States,  for than 20 years, she said.
Genetically engineered (GE) crops are one such innovation.

“Most of you have been eating genetically engineered food for years,” she said. “GE foods are the fastest to grow in acreage than any other crop in history.”

She said Europeans are much more wary of GE crops than Americans are.

Boardman outlined the biotechnological advancements of a number of countries and continents, including China, Mexico, Brazil — which in 2008 was third largest producer of GE crops — and Africa, where the situation is “very complicated.”

“The population going to soar because of international aid,” she said. “The problem is that aid is not going to teach Africans how to solve their own agricultural problems.”

Boardman pointed to awareness and education as two key factors that will progress sustainable development.

“Lack of understanding can delay the progress of sustainable development,” she said.
The talk was sponsored by two groups focused on global sustainable development, the International Development Research Council and The Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values.