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Whither the green revolution: vectors in world agriculture

Thomas Lumpkin, director general emeritus of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), challenged the audience at the Land Expo 2020 on Tuesday to think of the earth as a petri dish.

Then, he said, visualize that all the people living on the earth are the inoculants mindlessly consuming all the petri dish’s resources. That, he concluded, is what is happening today as the world’s population of an estimated 7.8 billion people consumes the earth’s resources.

Assuring that all the people on earth have enough for a good life is a challenge that will require global leadership, Lumpkin stated, the kind of leadership that was provided by one of Lumpkin’s heroes, Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug, who was born and raised on a farm in northeast Iowa, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 because of his work developing the so-called Miracle Wheat at CIMMYT’s Mexico research centers. That ushered in the Green Revolution and prevented the starvation deaths of an estimated 1 billion people.

Lumpkin also cited another one of his heroes: Henry Wallace, also an Iowa native and a founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., which made its first commercial hybrid seed corn available in 1926. Wallace went on to serve as secretary of agriculture and vice president in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. He was a candidate for president in 1948, running on the Progressive Party ticket.

Lumpkin outlined how Wallace and his wife drove to Mexico in November 1940 when he was vice president-elect. The poverty and peasant farming techniques in Mexico that Wallace witnessed led to the eventual creation of CIMMYT (an acronym for its name in Spanish), which hired Borlaug to work on developing wheat varieties that were resistant to rust and which were adapted from dwarf varieties of wheat based on the Japanese variety Norin 10.

CIMMYT is now one of 15 independent, nonprofit research centers in the global partnership under the umbrella of CGIAR, formerly known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.

Borlaug’s contributions to staving off famine in India and Pakistan have been widely recognized all over the world, Lumpkin noted. In addition to being named a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Borlaug has been given a raft of high honors by the U.S. government and other countries, including Mexico. In 1986, Borlaug founded the Des Moines, Iowa-based World Food Prize, which awards its top honor in October each year to a person or persons who have increased the quantity and quality of food.

Lumpkin noted that CGIAR’s 10,000 associated researchers continue to improve crop varieties to stave off hunger and malnutrition. A recent example he cited was work to curb maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND) in Africa. The disease is caused by a combination of two viruses.

New varieties of crops that have been improved to resist disease and increase yields by CIMMYT are continuously being developed and sent around the world, Lumpkin stated.

The organization also preserves 150,000 accessions of wheat and 28,000 accessions of corn, many of them ancient varieties, so it can make their diverse genetics available to crop scientists. Many of the accessions, he added, have been developed by small farmers.

All of the resources of CIMMYT and its CGIAR partners will be needed if the world’s farmers are to be able to double agricultural production by the year 2050, Lumpkin concluded, when the world’s population is expected to grow by 2 billion people to 9.7 billion.

More agricultural research will need to be conducted to meet the challenges of population growth. Likewise, climate change also will have to be addressed as it makes for changes in where crops can be grown.

Biotechnology needs to be deployed, including using the CRISPR technology for editing genomes. Genetically-modified crops have done great things, Lumpkin opined, and more needs to be done to prepare crops for the heat, droughts, and floods of climate change and to boost production by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis.

Bio-char produced by the pyrolysis of crop residues can be used to improve soil quality and fertility while helping to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, he noted, and mechanization and soil conservation measures can make crop production more efficient and environmentally friendly.

 A new generation of farmers must be recruited and inspired because the average age of farmers in many developed countries is approaching the age of retirement, Lumpkin asserted.

All of that can be accomplished, he concluded, if the world can quickly produce more Norman Borlaugs and Henry Wallaces.

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