The World Food Prize Foundation

The Borlaug Blog

Making Magic Happen

 
By Mark McLellan
Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, Portland State University

Truly extraordinary magicians--those who capture our attention and spark our sense of wonder-- are a rare breed.  In agriculture, they walk among us, defying the improbable and meeting the impossible head-on. While few of the public recognize their work, we encounter it every day at grocery stores, farmers’ markets and in growers’ fields. I am of course talking about our plant breeders.

Plant breeders, through the extraordinary application of science and infusion of passion, directly address the challenges of feeding growing populations across a world under threat of climate change. Norm Borlaug, who passed 10 years ago, was one of those magicians. People apply many names to Norm: father of the green revolution, leader in agriculture, compassionate feeder of the poor. He was all those things, but at the end of the day, Norm was a plant breeder.

So who are these intrepid scientists we call breeders? The names, of course, would fill a library, among them being - the “Susan Brown”s of Cornell, the “Bhimu Patil”s of Texas A&M, the “Fred Gmitter”s of the University of Florida and on and on …   And like the work of all breeders, theirs draws from a rich history left by prior researchers and explorers whose work laid the foundation of knowledge to which later generations now contribute. These breeders are a curious bunch (smiles all around), for they work in an area of science not known for its huge research grants, thus their rewards are more in the creation of knowledge and literally the creation of solutions -- the next varietal, the next genetic variant — the next apple, onion or orange. 

I once asked Dr. Borlaug to speak before an advisory council of companies. He gladly accepted my invitation.  So here was a Nobel Prize winner and world-renowned agriculturalist addressing the group... But Norm, in his most comfortable self, dove into his passion as a plant breeder and about what was possible and what was needed. He conveyed to the company representatives the enormity of a breeder’s challenges and importance of the breeder’s role in supplying the food system with new options for drought and salt tolerance, yield and quality, shelf life and transport. His talk that day is just as appropriate now that the world is struggling with the realities of climate change and population pressures, and thank God, many are still fighting Norm’s fight.

There are many fronts on that fight. Sometimes I am asked about public versus private plant breeders and my answer is simple — we need both. The role of universities  (where Norm did most of his work) is to train the next generation of breeders through hands-on experiential learning processes. The public breeders are also those that will push into the smaller, less economical breeding areas to answer the needs of specialty crops, organic varieties, and other niches. Occasionally, too, the brilliance and insight of the university breeder leads to breakthroughs in breeding - like the green revolution!  Private corporate breeding brings focus and success to the intensive commercial agriculture needed to preserve today’s biodiversity by producing high yields with lower inputs on current and more challenging growing environments. 

Breeders have a deep appreciation of genetics, of what makes an apple an apple. Consider what a modern human would think of the evolutionary ancestor of the varieties of corn grown commercially today. Would they recognize it as the forerunner to the most widely grown feed grain in the U.S.? Would they realize the role breeders have played, and continue to play, in the story of our food? As we expand our understanding of the basic biological construction of food, breeders will deploy a greater variety of tools to identify and produce foods with attributes that can help feed the world as the climate, and thus our agricultural landscape, changes. 

As a food scientist who had the pleasure of working as director of Florida’s Agricultural Experiment Station, I was privileged to engage with many of these unsung heroes, our breeders. Those referenced above are friends who I know personally, but beyond them, there are hundreds. Their intensity and passion are bound to lead to the discovery of novel solutions to the challenges of feeding the world. They are the ones who make the magic happen. They are our plant breeders.  

08/19/2019 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (4)
Comments
That was very kind of you, so thanks for the recognition! I appreciate how you captured the essence our “curious bunch”, indeed! Just two brief stories to add to the richness of your communication. A few years ago, I spent two weeks at the Punjab Agriculture University in India, and I stayed in the guest house for international visitors, a place frequented by Dr. Borlaug over the many years of his career. There was an attendant-cook working there who took great pride in showing me the guest register and how many times Dr. Borlaug had signed it. He shared with me in even greater pride, though with a touch of sadness, how he had in the very closing days of Norm’s life physically helped him to eat during his last visit to the guest house; though the mind was capable, apparently the body was less able. The gentleman said: “With my own fingers, I fed Dr. Borlaug; I put the food I had made into his mouth. I was feeding the food to a God!” The second story is of a more personal note, but still within the theme of your blog. You may or may not recall that Susan and I were MS students together at Rutgers, under the supervision of Dr. Fred Hough, the Godfather of American Fruit Breeders (and Chinese, Brazilian, Polish, Mexican, Italian, etc. etc.). We spent many weeks, actually months, together walking the rows at Cream Ridge (the RU farm), cutting fruit and taking notes on thousands upon thousands of seedling apples, pears, apricots, peaches, nectarines, etc. for Fred and his breeding partner Catherine Bailey. Fred Hough was to fruit breeding what Norm Borlaug was to agronomic crop breeding, a giant in his time with long lasting impacts throughout the world, and forward into time. I can still recall the twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face when he would see something coming from a cross that was almost where he wanted it to be and he would say “One more generation!”, the motto of every good plant breeder who has ever been in the field. It was truly our privilege to have followed the footsteps of such magicians! So thanks, again, Mark, for the blog, for the kind words, and for sparking some of the memories that we have been honored to possess.

Mark: That was very kind of you, so thanks for the recognition! I appreciate how you captured the essence our “curious bunch”, indeed!

Just two brief stories to add to the richness of your communication. A few years ago, I spent two weeks at the Punjab Agriculture University in India, and I stayed in the guest house for international visitors, a place frequented by Dr. Borlaug over the many years of his career. There was an attendant-cook working there who took great pride in showing me the guest register and how many times Dr. Borlaug had signed it. He shared with me in even greater pride, though with a touch of sadness, how he had in the very closing days of Norm’s life physically helped him to eat during his last visit to the guest house; though the mind was capable, apparently the body was less able. The gentleman said: “With my own fingers, I fed Dr. Borlaug; I put the food I had made into his mouth. I was feeding the food to a God!”

The second story is of a more personal note, but still within the theme of your blog. You may or may not recall that Susan and I were MS students together at Rutgers, under the supervision of Dr. Fred Hough, the Godfather of American Fruit Breeders (and Chinese, Brazilian, Polish, Mexican, Italian, etc. etc.). We spent many weeks, actually months, together walking the rows at Cream Ridge (the RU farm), cutting fruit and taking notes on thousands upon thousands of seedling apples, pears, apricots, peaches, nectarines, etc. for Fred and his breeding partner Catherine Bailey. Fred Hough was to fruit breeding what Norm Borlaug was to agronomic crop breeding, a giant in his time with long lasting impacts throughout the world, and forward into time. I can still recall the twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face when he would see something coming from a cross that was almost where he wanted it to be and he would say “One more generation!”, the motto of every good plant breeder who has ever been in the field. It was truly our privilege to have followed the footsteps of such magicians!

So thanks, again, Mark, for the blog, for the kind words, and for sparking some of the memories that we have been honored to possess.

Fred Gmitter | fgmitter@ufl.edu | 08/19/2019 4:42 PM
Thank you for a great blog. Being included in a piece on Dr. Borlaug and with my colleagues (B. Patil and F. Gmitter) is an honor.

Susan Brown | skb3@cornell.edu | 08/19/2019 3:07 PM
Mark.. I enjoyed reading your blog and what you are saying is so true.

Ed Redfern | ed@eredfern.com | 08/19/2019 12:21 PM
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