The World Food Prize Foundation

1990: Niederhauser

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Dr. John S. Niederhauser


Dr. John S. Niederhauser was honored with the 1990 World Food Prize for his leadership in advancing wider and more effective production of the potato and its resistance to disease. In part due to his accomplishments, the potato currently ranks fourth in consumption among the world's staple foods, after wheat, rice, and maize. Dr. Niederhauser is best known in the scientific community for his research to control the potato late blight pathogen. He earned a Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell in 1943 and taught there before moving to Mexico as a Rockefeller Foundation researcher.

Full Biography

Locating resistance to the disease in a Mexican wild potato species, Dr. Niederhauser and his colleagues assumed a leadership role in breeding for durable resistance in over 14 edible potato varieties from 1952 to 1956. This Mexican germplasm has provided the sources of late blight resistance used in potato breeding programs all over the world.

With stronger and more flexible resistance, potato farmers can now rely less on expensive chemical fungicides. Subsistence farmers especially have been able to grow the potato around the world with more security and less cost. Additionally, lower chemical usage rates have allowed producers to maintain environmental quality. Under Dr. Niederhauser's guidance, Mexico increased its potato production sixfold from 1950 to 1980. The country was able to reduce imports of seed potatoes from 15,000 tons per year in 1957 to complete self-sufficiency by 1962. As a result, per capita consumption of potatoes more than tripled in Mexico, despite concurrent rapid population growth. 

This research led Dr. Niederhauser to advocate breeding for horizontal resistance to plant pathogens, whereby multiple genes confer on the plant more flexibility and stability in withstanding diseases and fungi. Techniques promoting horizontal resistance have been successfully used in developing new potato varieties, and have also had important implications for more efficient production of other food crops in sustainable agriculture. 

Working from Mexico, Dr. Niederhauser cooperated in developing strong national potato programs in other countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, and Turkey. These countries more than doubled their potato acreage while simultaneously doubling or tripling productivity, and total national production increased by four to eight times. As per capita potato consumption in these areas increased by nearly 100 percent over 30 years, families could choose from a wider variety of affordable sources of nutrition.

More than 180 scientists from national programs all over the world came to Mexico to learn potato production technology in the field, working with Dr. Niederhauser and his Mexican colleagues. To better organize international cooperation, he established the Inter-American Potato Program in 1961 and the International Potato Program in 1966 to allow scientists from many countries, to collaborate in solving food production problems. Such strategies became the keystone for the newly created international agricultural research centers. 

These international activities led to Dr. Niederhauser’s co-founding of the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, in 1971. This center is well known for the basic characteristics adopted from Dr. Niederhauser's preceding programs: modest headquarters; cooperation with qualified potato research institutions throughout the world; regionalization of activities to give strength and continuity to national program development; and the maintenance of a potato germplasm bank to provide a global pool of genetic material. In 1978, Dr. Niederhauser similarly launched the Regional Cooperative Potato Program (PRECODEPA), involving programs from Mexico, Central America, Panama, and the Caribbean. PRECODEPA is renowned as a model for regional cooperation in agricultural production and research and may be the most important development strategy for technology transfer since the international agricultural research centers were created in the 1960s. 

For his scientific ingenuity and his ongoing support of global research and cooperation in sustainable agricultural practices, Dr. John S. Niederhauser received the 1990 World Food Prize. With money from the Prize, he and his wife, Ann, established the John and Ann Niederhauser Endowment Fund at the American Phytopathological Society to finance research on potato late blight as well as reward outstanding international service in plant pathology. Since their initial donation in 1990, the fund has more than doubled and serves as a continuing testament to the scientific impact and humanitarian legacy of the Niederhausers.

In addition to being named a World Food Prize Laureate, Dr. Niederhauser has been honored by the governments of Peru, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, and by institutions in Argentina, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the United States, Canada, Russia, and Poland. He received the first World Potato Congress Award in 1993 and a Recognition of Outstanding Contribution from the Global Initiative on Late Blight in 2002.

Dr. John Niederhauser was born on September 27, 1916, and passed away on August 12, 2005. During his nearly 60 years in international agriculture, he became internationally known as "Mr. Potato” for his contributions as a researcher, educator, leader, and cooperator in potato development programs and for his innovations and achievements in providing food to the world. 

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