Roger Beachy is chief scientist and director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prior to his 2009 appointment, Beachy was founding president of the Donald Danforth Science Plant Center, which is dedicated to improving the human condition through plant science.
The opportunity to truly transform a scientific field occurs at best once a generation. The recently deceased Norman Borlaug seized one such opportunity. In a career spanning four decades, but especially during the 1960s, Borlaug revolutionized production of wheat, rice, and maize — the staple crops that feed most of the world.
The Nobel Peace Prize was only one among the many honors bestowed on Borlaug for his contributions to the “Green Revolution.” At his death in 2009, he was hailed by developing countries as one of America’s great heroes for his many contributions to global food security. The president and prime minister of India, to offer but one example, called Borlaug’s life and achievement “testimony to the far-reaching contribution that one man’s towering intellect, persistence, and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress.” Today, Borlaug’s insights inform an intense effort to harness the latest scientific advances to the oldest of goals: assuring adequate, nutritious food for all the world’s citizens.
Borlaug’s early work in Mexico aimed to develop and introduce disease-resistant wheat strains. It was so hampered by inadequate resources, poor equipment, and the lack of trained scientists that Borlaug thought seriously about leaving the project. His new idea — to shuttle wheat seeds to new locations where altitude and temperature differences would allow a second growing season — ran afoul of conventional botanical wisdom. But he persevered. Risking his career and reputation, he pursued the new double season regimen. He held fast to a tightly focused agenda, developing new strains with high potential for quick and tangible outcomes, scaled up his work to include many geographic areas and environments, and kept the end goal — reducing hunger by improving wheat yield — fixed firmly in mind.
By 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat harvest was derived from Borlaug’s improved varieties — and the harvest was six times higher than in 1944, when he first began his work there. Mexico had not only become self-sufficient in wheat production, it was a net wheat exporter.
Borlaug’s success in boosting Mexican yields repeated itself over six decades of incredible scientific advances. These saved hundreds of millions throughout the developing world from starvation and malnutrition. His worked touched small- and large-scale farmers alike. It is hard to imagine a staple crop anywhere in the world where Borlaug’s tools, techniques, or actual hands-on research have not led to substantial improvements in production, nutritional quality, or resilience of crops to pests, disease, or adverse climatic conditions.
Borlaug’s sweeping transformation of global plant cultivation is truly a legacy to admire. But for those of us who manage scientific endeavors, he left another enduring legacy: He was not afraid to take risks. He focused on solving large-scale problems with similarly large-scale research, and he worked on projects where the payoff in food security was tangible and immediate.
Borlaug proved that science and technology could improve the well-being of people across the globe. In his last years, he realized that future challenges demanded new tools, new strategies, and new intellect if science is to improve the human condition further. In the agriculture community, we can put this legacy, and this insight, into action.
Adapting Borlaug’s Legacy for a New Era
New challenges make it necessary that we again transform agriculture through science and new technologies. Our food production systems face many challenges that threaten our ability to provide a safe, adequate, and nutritious food supply. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that food production must double by 2050 to meet global demand, even as it faces new threats. Our food supply must adequately address nutritional issues that range from obesity to malnutrition. Additionally, we need to develop processes and technologies that protect our food from microbial contamination.
Even as demand for food grows, competition for the energy needed to produce it increases. The International Energy Outlook 2009, published by the U.S. Department of Energy, projects that total world consumption of marketed energy will increase by 44 percent from 2006 to 2030, most notably in China and India. New renewable energy sources must enter the production chain if we are to assure adequate food supply. Agriculture can play a key role in developing those energy sources.
Agricultural science must respond to these pressures, both to ensure the sustainability of the U.S. food, fuel, and fiber system and to address some of the world’s most intractable problems. In this spirit, Borlaug would have welcomed the National Academy of Sciences’ new report, A New Biology for the 21st Century, as the next great step in harnessing science to solve societal challenges. Its recommendations speak to values he held dear:
--Taking bold, risk-taking approaches to understanding fundamental questions in biology;
--Tackling complex scientific challenges with a laser-tight focus on areas where the “new biology” can offer the most promise of transformative breakthroughs;
--Scaling up research efforts across disciplinary boundaries to match the complexity and magnitude of 21st-century problems;
--Ensuring that our progress in science is measured by tangible impacts on human health, food security, and environmental stewardship.
The New Biology report recognizes the magnitude of these challenges and of the research effort required to meet them. The report explains how future advances will rely upon a more fundamental understanding of plant life itself:
The long-term future of agriculture depends on a deeper understanding of plant growth. Growth — or development — is the path from the genetic instructions stored in the genome to a fully formed organism. Surprisingly little is now known about this path in plants. A genome sequence provides both a list of parts and a resource for plant breeding methods, but does not give the information needed to understand how each gene contributes to the formation and behavior of individual plant cells, how the cells collaborate and communicate to form tissues (such as the vascular system, or the epidermis), and how the tissues function together to form the entire plant.
The report recommends deploying new technologies to help understand how plants grow and thrive, including modeling and simulation tools to visualize growth and development at the cellular and molecular levels. The goal, the report says, is a more efficient approach to developing plant varieties that can be grown sustainably under diverse local conditions. Developing these new tools will make possible new methods and techniques to address problems in health, energy, and environment as well as traditional agriculture.
We take precisely this approach at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We are committed to combating world hunger by developing new crop varieties that can grow and thrive under environmental stress. We will employ every means in the science toolkit to this end; we cannot afford to ignore any scientific field that promises breakthroughs toward global food security. We know that this research will yield collateral health, energy, and environmental benefits. The advances will help American farmers remain competitive in the global agricultural marketplace, even as we reduce the toll from starvation and malnutrition in other countries.
Today’s challenges require more than new ideas and new tools. A new approach to how research is funded and managed, and its successes measured is required. For USDA, that new approach is represented by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), launched by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in late 2009.
In setting up NIFA, USDA turned to colleagues in other U.S. government scientific agencies to identify “best practices” for managing federal grants. Among the lessons we learned and will implement:
--Great transparency and accountability, will inform our grantmaking.
--We shall resolve many problems into a limited and discrete set of issues and tackle their root causes.
--Instead of trying to grow as many narrow, single-issue or single-focus research programs as we can, we shall identify and recruit the best minds — wherever they are — and make sure we retain their services and reward their work.
Now is the time carefully to assess and agree on broad but discrete challenges. By identifying these skillfully and deploying resources effectively, we can help solve large and previously intractable societal problems — climate change, food safety, child nutrition and obesity, food security at home and abroad, abundant and renewable energy — and hold the promise of doing so while preserving and improving our environment, and generating wealth in rural America and the world.
Norman Borlaug applied agricultural science and technology to the challenging issues of his day NIFA aims to honor his legacy by securing equally transformative change. Working with partners in the United States and other nations, we can build on recent scientific discoveries — incredible advances in sequencing plant and animal genomes, for example. We have new and powerful tools — biotechnology, nanotechnology, and large-scale computer simulations — applicable to all types of agriculture. Agriculture is a science and must draw widely from many disciplines and many technologies, but our science portfolio needs to be tightly focused, to leverage other resources, and to prioritize its efforts. With this approach, we can match Norman Borlaug’s remarkable record of improving the health and well-being of our global society.