Archive for Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Wheat fields feed more but aren’t as pretty

June 17, 2008

Just a few blocks from my house lays a field of ripening wheat. It's not a big field, as wheat fields go maybe 30, 40 acres. (In my youth I worked for a man who counted his wheat fields in sections, at 640 acres a pop, but that's another story.)

Time was, the magical process of photosynthesis would have turned this wheat to a bright, shimmering gold as it completed its journey to maturity, and eventual harvest.

I grew up in the suburbs of Johnson County, but often spent most of my summers in western Kansas with several aunts and uncles who still lived near the old homestead in Rawlins County. And my first real, paying job was driving a tractor for a farmer there.

I well remember the appearance of those fields. It was often described as a sea of wheat, and that is what it resembled. While the wheat was still green the fields, which often stretched to the horizon, rippled in the wind as does a pond or a lake. And as the grain matured it turned into burnished gold. The color doubtless inspired Katherine Lee Bates, author of "America the Beautiful."

Unfortunately, the "amber waves of grain" that Miss Bates so lovingly described have turned an unattractive tan. The color seems to me to be about the hue of the film that is left behind after a flood.

For this, I guess we can thank Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution that has changed so much of U.S. and world agriculture.

Borlaug, a native of Cresco, Iowa, who trained at the University of Minnesota, took an appointment in 1944 as geneticist and plant pathologist at the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico, a joint effort of the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation. Over time this became the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which continues today to train scientists to address the world's food problems.

Mexican wheat in use at the time had evolved long stems to raise the grain above the grasses that competed with it. But when scientists were able to increase the yield of the long-stemmed wheat, the stems couldn't support the weight of heavier grain heads. Borlaug crossed the Mexican wheats with semi-dwarf Japanese varieties. The new wheat had much higher yields, albeit with shorter stems that don't sway in the wind.

Borlaug's methods and research led to the Green Revolution, which is credited with averting more-or-less regular famines in parts of South America and Asia. Just to give a couple of examples, wheat yields in Pakistan rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million tons in 1970, and in India they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million tons. In1999, India harvested 73.5 million tons of wheat.

The United States has also seen the same changes. Total U.S. production of the 17 most important food, feed and fiber crops in 1960 was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled, to 596 million tons, and that was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960.

Environmentalists have expressed concerns about the effects of the Green Revolution because of its reliance on chemical insecticides, pesticides and fertilizer and its demands for irrigation, but world hunger is still a problem in some places, especially Africa, and it's hard to see what the alternative might have been.

It's true the wheat fields aren't as pretty anymore. But if we've traded the pleasure of looking at golden fields of grain for a partial solution to the problem of feeding a hungry planet, I guess that's not a bad trade.

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