You would think that the person accredited with saving more humans lives than any other individual throughout the age of man would be a household name. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the Kardashians who do next to nothing are more recognizable than humanitarians like Nelson Mandela. This is not shock a by any means, especially when you look at who’s running the White House. This ignorance is something we must deal with, but we don’t have to be partake in it. Today, I’d like to talk about an American agronomist, who worked tirelessly to ensure future generations had enough to eat. He believed that food was a right to all, and that your origin of birth shouldn’t determine your access to food. With this stern mindset, he set off to secure our global food supply by enhancing agricultural production. His arch nemesis; the rust fungi from the order Pucciniales.
n the face of rapid population growth, feeding Earth’s people is no easy task. In fact, with our number reaching 10 billion in the year 2050, we will need to produce more food in the next four decades than all the farmers have harvested in the past 8,000 years! Norman always realized this issue and studied agricultural processes to stabilize and boost crop yield. Through his studies in agronomy and plant pathology, he came up with several ways to enhance crop management throughout the world.
Norman was not a conformist at all and was willing to challenge crop misconceptions. Before his time, it was accepted that seeds must be stored for period of time before being sowed. The storing time was thought to allow more nutrients to penetrate the seed coat, thus boosting germination rates. This was however a fallacy, and Norman did away with this agricultural malpractice. His well-roundedness in many biological disciplines allowed him to take on the food crisis from multiple angles.
Using his knowledge in geography and climate science, he realized that instead of the standard, four seasons temperate North America and Europe experience, countries closer to the equator have just two seasons, dry and a wet. With this, he implemented two growing seasons in Mexico, essentially doubling wheat production in just one year. Norman recognized that he could grow wheat in the central highland village of Chapingo in the summer, with the area remaining wet and cooler as a result of being positioned higher in elevation. Seeds were then driven to the Yaqui Valley, where they would germinate and yield another crop of wheat during the regular growing season.
The most troublesome issue was most certainly the parasitic rust fungi that all too easily ruins crops around the world to this day. Airborne spores of rust fungi from nearly 7,000 species float around in hopes of landing on a suitable host. When they do land on a plant they can infect, hyphae burst though the spore’s wall and invade the plant tissue. Digestive enzymes are released and go to work. The growing fungus then ingests the carbohydrate rich slurry within the plant’s tissues, which can then be allocated to reproductive structures, ultimately leading to the production of more spores. Usually the plant doesn’t die from the parasite, but crop yield as well as the plants overall fitness becomes greatly reduced.
The vast majority of spores don’t land directly on the plant it can infect. Instead, most rust spores end up on the forest floor, or crop soil. A pool of rust spores accumulates on the soil surface, and for this reason, lower lying plants usually don’t have a good track record with these fungi. Norman’s great work was how he reduced rusts infectivity. The wheat we’ve grown for thousands of years have been selected to produce copious amounts of the grains we consume. For this reason, the grains located at the top make the plant top heavy and topple over. Also known as wheat lodging, when the plant touches the ground, there’s a great chance it picks up rust spores.
Norman understood this mechanism of infectivity, so instead of trying to come up with fungicides that could negatively interact with the mycorrhizal community, he yet again came at the issue from a creative angle. He and his team selected strains of wheat with a stunted stem growth. They crossed several wheat strains and eventually produced a strain of dwarf wheat that was studier, and more resistant to toppling over in the wind. Because the stem was stunted, more plant resources were allocated to the grains we consume, so not only was this strain more resistant to the fungus, but actually became more nutritious.
In addition to doubling the growing season in places closer to the equator and developing dwarf strains of wheat, he enhanced crop production by utilizing genetically dissimilar strains of different crops. Multiline varieties are much more disease resistant than using genetically identical individuals. The devastating impacts of growing identical plant clones is ever present in the Panama disease banana crisis we see today. By having an extensive grip on many biological disciplines, Norman was able to approach crop issues from ingenious angles. He never stopped trying to ensure enough food was being grown to feed future generations. It is estimated that he has saved 1 billion people from starvation, and with his recognized efforts, Norman was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He’s a true inspiration of mine, exemplifying how hard work can accomplish the most gallant goals.
Norman Borlaug 1914 – 2009.
It’s his birthday the 25th of this month.