Julie Borlaug continues family mission to eradicate hunger and poverty

By for CAES News

The elemental message communicated by Julie Borlaug during the 2020 D.W. Brooks Lecture on Nov. 10 was that no child should be born into a world with hunger and famine.

Borlaug is vice president of external relations for Inari Agriculture, a seed company using data and biological science to transform plant breeding, and granddaughter of renowned American agronomist Norman Borlaug, who led global initiatives that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production referred to as the Green Revolution.

Borlaug was the keynote speaker at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ virtual D.W. Brooks Lecture and Awards celebration. Five of the college’s most innovative and dedicated faculty members were recognized with the D.W. Brooks Faculty Awards for Excellence, the college's highest honor.

Gregory Colson, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, received the D.W. Brooks Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has developed hands-on experiments and games for his classes to reinforce the material and give students a tangible experience to complement his teachings on economic theory.

Esther van der Knaap, a professor in the Department of Horticulture and Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics, received the D.W. Brooks Faculty Award for Excellence in Research. She has spent much of her career working to understand the genetic shifts that have occurred between ancestral, wild tomato varieties and modern, cultivated tomatoes.

Tim Coolong, a professor in the Department of Horticulture, received the D.W. Brooks Faculty Award for Excellence in Extension. Coolong conducts vegetable field research and has worked on a broad variety of topics, from germplasm evaluation to food safety in vegetables to hemp production. He earned his bachelor's degree in 2000, his master's degree in 2003 and his doctoral degree in 2007, all from UGA's Department of Horticulture.

Phillip Edwards, a UGA Cooperative Extension county coordinator and Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in Irwin County, received the D.W. Brooks Faculty Award for Excellence in Public Service Extension. Edwards has conducted 139 applied research trials resulting in more than 50 state or national presentations and posters. He earned his bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from UGA in 1984.

Bob Kemerait, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, received the D.W. Brooks Faculty Award for Excellence in Global Programs. He has been a leader in U.S. Agency for International Development-funded projects to improve peanut production among small-scale farmers in Guyana, Haiti and the Philippines and recently received a Fulbright award to work with faculty and farmers in the northern Philippines.

“We are delighted to honor these exceptional faculty members,” said Joe West, interim dean and director of CAES. “Each of them brings unique skills that strengthen our discoveries and dissemination of scholarly work through education and outreach programs. They exemplify the quality we strive for as a land-grant college.”

This year’s award winners were recognized preceding the D.W. Brooks Lecture.

Communication is the key to innovation

During the lecture, Borlaug said that, to change the discussion in agriculture, it is important to foster acceptance of all of the innovation available, both in developing countries and developed nations.

“My grandfather was part of the team that started the Green Revolution. I am asking for a different revolution — a change in the way agriculture is understood and accepted,” said Borlaug, who has developed agricultural partnerships between public, private and philanthropic groups to expand the mission her grandfather embraced. “My grandfather was a warrior against hunger, a mentor, a farmer, but first and foremost, a scientist. He believed that fear of  change was the greatest barrier to progress, and his view of science is that it had to be used in battle against hunger.”

Borlaug said it is crucial for technology and innovation in agriculture to be accepted and embraced, from the simplest innovations to the most complex.

“In smallholder farmers, mostly female, I have seen firsthand the positive impact of innovation and technology in agriculture. And I am not talking about the highest form of technology. I am talking about the transfer of basic information and technology,” said Borlaug. “We need technology transfer equality. Farmers anywhere in the world deserve the right to have safe technologies.”

Borlaug said that communication is key to the acceptance of innovation.

“We have had huge changes in agriculture that have not been accepted because we haven’t communicated in a way the general public can understand. Why should the consumer care?” she said.

Much of the negative public opinion regarding agriculture has been driven by misconceptions and mistakes that have been made along the way, both things that need to be addressed if the industry is to move forward in a meaningful, effective way.

“If you look at my grandfather’s success in the Green Revolution and the agriculture industry, they have made huge strides in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. They also used a lot of fertilizer, but they did it to avert famine. … One thing the industry did in that case, is they self-corrected. Yes, there might have been consequences that weren’t intended, but we always self-correct and we want to do better,” Borlaug said.

Part of that strategy to do better is to stop doing “business as usual” in agriculture, she added.

“We need to stop talking about yields and … we need to start talking about gene editing and biofortification. We need to talk about how we empower farmers and give them a choice in how they farm. … We need to talk about how we save water. … We need to be honest with ourselves and with the public about what we are doing,” she said. “We also need to stop talking about the short term, the next 10 years, and start talking about the next 100 years.”

From advanced weather information systems to drones and smartphones, technology has already begun to revolutionize agriculture.

“Farmers in the field can take a picture of wheat rust and upload it, then it goes to CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym), those scientists look at it online and decide if it is UG99. If it is, they can mark it and continue to have information about where it has spread and where it is going,” said Borlaug, referring to a type of wheat stem rust that is present in wheat fields in several countries in Africa and the Middle East. The disease is predicted to spread rapidly through these regions and possibly further afield, potentially causing a wheat production disaster that would affect food security worldwide.

In order to make technology work to end hunger and poverty, a new generation of leaders need to be welcomed into the industry.

“You students need to be given a seat at the table and we need to accept your innovative and out-of-the-box ideas. We need to mentor you but also learn from you,” Borlaug said. “We want to be a catalyst and provide support and belief in the next generation, to give them a seat at the table and a platform for their ideas.”

For a video of Borlaug’s full address and for more information about the legacy of D.W. Brooks, visit dwbrooks.caes.uga.edu.

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