Skip navigation Harvest of hunger

POSTED SEP 19, 2002


1. Putting food on the table

2. A need to breed

3. Competing, or meeting?




Starving Sudanese children wait for a meager portion of food. Congressman Frank R. Wolf Sudan photos.



Does the emphasis on genetic engineering siphon money, research talent and even genes from plant breeders?


What are we gonna eat tonight?
That may be a nightmare question for a working homemaker, but it's even more vital for those of us who like to eat (a category that includes Why Filers).

gaunt mothers and malnourished children sit on the ground, bowls before them, waiting for food. The multitudes seem to stretch on forever More specifically, as the world population rises by 80 million each year, we wonder if enough effort is going into breeding new varieties of plants, the foundation of all agriculture. The need for new varieties grows from continual changes in climate, diseases and insects.

Traditionally, farmers made the new strains by selecting and planting seed from their best plants. Eventually, plant breeders built on that background using sophisticated versions of the same essential strategy -- crossbreeding plants to mix their genes, then testing plants with the new traits, then finally offering the varieties to farmers.

Plant breeding may be the oldest science. Indeed, primitive plant breeding was essential to the invention of agriculture, which, in turn, allowed the flowering of civilization -- and the other sciences.

But now, even though it's harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere, most people don't give plant breeding a second thought. And that's despite the disturbing news from the Food and Agriculture Organization that per-person grain production peaked during the 1980s, then fell during the 1990s.

multi-colored and varied-in-shape ears of corn
Latin American maize from the Germplasm Enhancement for Maize (GEM) project. Researchers working for the project hope to combine exotic germplasm, like the corn seen here, with domestic lines. Photo by Keith Weller, Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Little extra land is available for cropping, so increasing the yield per hectare is the only way to improve production. And increasing yield depends on new plants and new agricultural techniques that produce more tonnage per hectare, resist pests and diseases, and grow in poor soil or dry conditions.

drooping leaves of a corn plant have irregular holes eaten through most of the leaves. And that is the job of plant breeders.

The fall army worms savaged these leaves at the CIMMYT plot. © David Tenenbaum

A disappearing breed
In the United States, declining interest in plant breeding is "very definitely a problem," says Major Goodman, a professor of agronomy and corn specialist at North Carolina State University. "The evidence is that the number of people trained in corn (maize to readers outside the United States) breeding is now inadequate to fill the jobs, and it's going to get worse over the next couple of years because so few people are training to be plant breeders."

It's partly a matter of money, says Goodman. After a retirement, most major research institutions want "to only hire people who can support themselves on federal grants. At the moment plant breeding is essentially not supported by any federal grant agencies," in distinct contrast to molecular biology and genetic engineering.

graph shows rise in production up to 80's, then slight decline in the 90's World cereal (grain plus soybean) production peaked during the 1980s. Will the downward trend continue? UN Food and Agriculture Organization

"There has been a decline in funding for applied research in the public sector, including crop breeding," says William Tracy, a University of Wisconsin-Madison agronomy professor who is chair of the maize crop germplasm committee, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on issues concerning its collection of corn germplasm (reproductive material). "The current funding models run two to three years, but a plant breeding program tends to need decades."

Eating? Thank a plant breeder...
Yet while a world that's hungry for food is, by necessity, a world that's hungry for plant breeders, the focus among funders, media and scientists alike is on genetic engineering -- the movement of genes among organisms in the laboratory.

Enthusiasts -- many working at companies that do genetic engineering -- say the technology could feed the world. And genetically modified (GM) seeds have caught on fast. The Times of London reported on Jan. 24, 2002 that global plantings of GM crops reached 52.6 million hectares, or 130 million acres, up 19 per cent over 2000.

man holds ear of corn A corn breeder at CIMMYT looks for disease at a test plot in the humid tropics of Mexico. © David Tenenbaum

But will this help us eat? GM seed producers in the United States have not concentrated on new strains of rice that grow in dry years or corn that has a higher yield. Instead, the biotech biz grinds out crops that make insecticide or resist herbicide.

These are not, critics say, traits that will feed the world.

The issue we're discussing is different from the cautions we often hear about genetically engineered crops -- that they are dangerous to the environment or to human health. (As we write, the Zambian government is refusing to distribute thousands of tons of U.S.-supplied, genetically modified corn. Zambia says the grain endangers the health of its famine-wracked population.)

The question we are raising may be seldom heard, but it's monumentally important:
Is the emphasis on genetic engineering stealing money, research talent and genes from plant breeders?




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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.