Analysis: The Viking In The Wheat Field
Susan Dworkin, author of Viking in the Wheat Field, the United Nations projects there will be “9 billion people on Earth by 2050 who will need a 75 percent increase in food. ” She goes on to say that “… twenty-five thousand people diebecause of starvation every day. ” Forty years ago there were plant breeders, such as Bent Skovmand, who foresaw this problem and worked tirelessly to prevent starvation from overtaking the world. He accomplished this by not only researching and breeding a more productive wheat with hybrid vigor but also by establishing a world-renouned seed bank where the seeds of as many crop varieties as possible could be stored before they disappeared. Skovmand’s purpose was to “save the world, one seed at a time” as he gathered seeds that were resistant to pests and disease and could hold up under extreme heat and drought.
Bent Skovmand, a young Danish scientist with a brand new doctrate in Plant Pathology from the University of Minnesota, was hired by Glenn Anderson, the deputy director of the wheat program, and Norman Borlaug, who ran the wheat half of the Mexican Agricultural Program. He was chosen to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico to perform research, wheat breeding, and improve genetic resources. Skovmand is considered one of the scientific heirs of Dr. Borlaug who developed the simidwarf wheats of the “Green Revolution” and was winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for the development of new kinds of wheat that were crossed and planted successfully in countries such as Mexico, India, Pakistan, and Turkey where there was widespread hunger. The“Green Revolution” introduced new concepts in farming and brought about the world’s introduction to modern agriculture.
Skovmand’s first job at CIMMYT was basic wheat breeding for which he conducted experiments, grew promising plants, took field notes, and selected plants for breeding improvement. Following his post-doctrate years, he worked in CIMMYT’s program to breed triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye. It is also one of the world’s oldest genically modified crops. Triticale, however, was never widely accepted as a food crop because it must be mixed with other things to make a bread that Americans will like. Its promary use is as a transporter crop, that is, it can be used as an intermediate stop-off platform where traits from wheat and rye can be mixed and remixed to retain their desired traits. In the mid-1970’s, Skovmand was on the CIMMYT team that created a series of wheat crosses which produced a group of sixty-two varieties called “the Veery Sisters” and a second group called the Bobwhite Sisters.”
In breeding the Veery Sisters, the CIMMYT team used Triticale as transporter when it transferred the 1B-1R translocation from the European winter wheats into CIMMYT’s spring wheat. This gave the spring wheats resistance to stem rust, yellow or stripe rust, and powdery mildew while leaving yields stable. Triticale was the vehicle that made it all possible “… from the first matings in Germany to winter wheat in Russia to spring wheats from Mexico to fields all over the world.”
Quite unexpectedly, CIMMYT transferred Skovmand to Turkey in 1984. He found himself in wheat’s “center of origin,” the Middle East, where wheat had first been domesticated. During his time there, two important American collectors of wheat varieties were working on their collections. Skovmand knew of the importance of these collections and how they could affect the future of wheat breeding. He stayed in touch with these men and made a personal plan to ensure that their collections, when duplicated, would be stored at CIMMYT.
Skovmand’s job in Turkey was to make it into a center for the production and improvement of winter wheat. (Winter wheat is sown and germinates in the fall. It needs up to six weeks’ exposure to cold weather to achieve vernalization which keeps it from flowering during a chance winter warm spell. ) (Spring wheat grows from germination to harvest without a break. ) It predominates in areas where there is no winter freeze. There is also facultative wheat which likes some exposure to cold but not so much ice and snow and will survive the winter above ground. Skovmand searched for the widest range of germplasm. Close to 40 countries contributed and he set up “yield trials” for in-country training and he had day-to-day-, face-to-face tours of farmers’ lives.
In 1987, while still in Turkey, Skovmand learned that new technology allowed scientists to look inside the seed and add nutrition to a crop instead of replacing the nutrients lost in the soil. Another new innovation was the personal computer which raised the possibility of cataloging and accessing information about wheat. Along with these innovations came the news that President Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts would eliminate international travel. The government was unwilling to fund agricultural research because of overproduction. Since there had been changes in American patent laws, Skovmand realized that the provate sector would now be funding research and there would be a tremendous brain drain on the public sector from companies like Monsanto. He came to the conclusion that the safety net of the future depended on the preservation of genetic resources. His idea was for a seed banker to find, save, and sort out the genetic diversity of the world’s wheat supply and to have it safely in the public domain, beyond the reach of patents and proprietary rights. Then it would be secure and freely available.
Only a few people were concerned about the loss of genetic resources, among them were American plant collector, Jack Harlan, and Russian botanist, Nikolai Vavilov who collected 380,000 examples of more than 2,500 species while discovering amazing diversity in wheat. Vavilov believed that the areas of greatest biodiversity in the world were collected around “centers of origin,” for wheat, this meant the “Fertile Crescent” area of the Middle East. In these areas could be found the original wild relatives from which the crop had been domesticated.
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Susan Dworkin, author of Viking in the Wheat Field, the United Nations projects there will be “9 billion people on Earth by 2050 who will need a 75 percent increase […]