by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
Orville Vogel’s story is so epic, you could think of it as a founding myth for the research across Washington State University’s labs, greenhouses, and fields.
You may know the tale, but it doesn’t get old: In the middle of the last century, Vogel developed a short wheat plant that could produce twice the grain of its taller, conventional brethren. Fifteen years later, the Indian government, peering over the brink of a mass famine, ordered 18,000 tons of wheat seed that Norman Borlaug had bred from Vogel’s discovery. Combined with irrigation and fertilizers, the dwarf wheat tripled India’s production inside a decade. The country, which had been living “ship-to-mouth” on U.S. aid, was feeding itself.
Iterations of the story can include Vogel’s humble roots as a Nebraska farm kid. Or Borlaug winning the Nobel Prize for the “Green Revolution” and repeatedly crediting Vogel for his contribution, which Borlaug said, “changed our entire concept of wheat yield potentials.”
Vogel himself chalked it up to a good mix of luck, hard work, and zeal. “To plant things and make it grow full blast,” he said near the end of his years, when I visited him in Lacey, Washington, for the Spokesman-Review. “That’s exciting.”
Like a full belly, the story is straightforward, satisfying, and true.
It’s the sequel that grows complicated. Fertilizers and other farm chemicals central to the Green Revolution are now blamed for a variety of public health and environmental problems. India still has plenty of food, but not everyone gets it. One-third of its people are hungry; half its children are malnourished.
Meanwhile, India’s population—and the world’s—has more than doubled. By the middle of this century, it is expected to reach 9 billion.
Then, having doubled ten times in 10,000 years, the world’s population may actually start to drop. The human population boom will be over.
But for the next four decades, we need to grow more food, and as things stand now, agricultural productivity has leveled off and in some cases started to decline. We need to grow it with more limited resources like land and fossil fuels, and in more environmentally conscious ways, protecting soil, water, public health, and an atmosphere that farm inputs are helping warm.
“The challenge also is not just production,” says Oumarou Badini (’94 MS,’97 PhD), a native of Burkina Faso and associate director for West and Central Africa in WSU’s International Research and Development office. “It’s how you can produce smartly so that you don’t deteriorate what you have today and then jeopardize what you have next month. We have to take into account all these elements.”
And we need to get food to those who need it, or at least help them get it or grow it.
“Right now, there are 7 billion people in the world,” says Ralph Coolman, International Research and Development’s associate director for community collaborations. “One billion of those are undernourished or malnourished in some way that has nothing to do with food production. The world produces enough food. But they don’t have access to it for a wide variety of reasons.”
Badini and Coolman are among scores of WSU staff, faculty, and alumni who, directly or indirectly, are addressing the new millennium’s food challenge. The range of their expertise is fitting for such a massive, thorny problem and its many prisms of economic development, education, environmental sustainability, equal rights, technology, philanthropy, culture, and politics.
In fact, there are so many people tackling the problem, from so many directions, that it’s sometimes easy to forget they’re talking about food, let alone the hopeful, inspiring act of breeding a seed, planting it, and making it grow full blast.
In 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich published his bestseller, The Population Bomb, and famously proclaimed, “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Civilization had lost; widespread famine was imminent.
Four years later, the book was joined by The Limits to Growth, which took a similarly dim but more systemic view by weighing not only population but declining resources and the effects of environmental pollution and degradation.
It was a heady time for environmentalism. Andrew Ford, a WSU professor of environmental science, had a front-row seat, earning a PhD under then-Dartmouth College professor and Limits co-author Dennis L. Meadows.
To this day, says Ford, the book is the best study of how the exponential growth of people and resource use can overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity, leading to a collapse.
As he sees it, “The food problem is embedded in a system that also has a resources problem and an environmental problem.”
Here’s how the limits shake out. The globe, he explains, has only a certain amount of potentially arable land. Indeed, in the past five decades, arable land has grown by less than one-tenth.
Plant yields, says Ford, are ultimately fixed, as are non-renewable resources like oil and gas. So too is the ability of the environment to absorb, dissipate, or otherwise rend harmless things like reactive nitrogen from heavy fertilization and carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning.
Combined with a growing population, he says, “we’re on a path toward an overshoot of our limits and a difficult collapse that we wouldn’t like.”
Ford compares the situation to the French story of a pond with a single lily plant that doubles in size each day. Unchecked, it would cover the pond in 30 days, choking off the pond’s other life forms. For a long time, the plant seems small; people decide not to take action until it covers half the pond. But that moment doesn’t come until the 29th day, leaving only one day to save the pond. And if the pond watchers decide to double the size of the pond, that only gives them one more day to solve the problem.
“The lesson of exponential growth,” says Ford, “is it appears like you have huge resources forever, until you get one doubling time away from the limit. And if that doubling time is 20 years, pow, you’ve got two decades to solve the problem.”
The solution, he says, is “don’t keep trying to grow... It’s to slow down. And the answers are not on the production side—how to produce more food, or how to produce more oil. It’s to be more efficient in how we use energy or resources.”
But Ford’s concern has been voiced before, to where we might be suffering a sort of limits fatigue. Thomas Robert Malthus back in 1798 proclaimed the human population grows faster than its ability to support itself, making famine or disease or some such “misery or vice” inevitable.
The world has certainly seen its share of famines since, but humanity has continued to grow as ingenuity and technology pushed the population limit higher, if only temporarily. New farmlands opened up in America, Argentina, Australia, and elsewhere. Europe embraced New World crops like corn and the potato. Tractors replaced horses; land once used for animal feed could now be used for human food.
Fertilizers improved, starting with bones from old battlefields, then bird droppings from the South American and South African coasts, nitrate mines, and the nitrogen pulled from the air by the Haber-Bosch process. At last, nitrogen fertilizer was so abundant and popular that plants were getting too big and falling down, which is where Vogel and Borlaug came in. And when Ehrlich wrote, “I don’t see how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980,” Borlaug saw to it that it did.
This ability of technology to come to the rescue, says Jeffrey LaFrance, a professor in the School of Economic Sciences, is “the technological fix argument against The Limits to Growth.”
“There can be no doubt that eventually we’re going to run out of extractable and usable petroleum,” LaFrance says. “We’re not making it fast enough not to run out.”
But as the cost of one technology rises, it creates a market for a replacement. If gas truly becomes too expensive, says LaFrance, coal can be converted to diesel fuel.
Yet new technologies bring their own problems. Ford notes how the perceived limit of Malthus’s day was the rising volume of horse droppings in the streets of London, which were forecasted to reach knee height. Then came the automobile.
“And what are the automobiles doing?” asks Ford. “They are putting into the atmosphere a variety of pollutants. And the one that is most serious in people’s mind right now is CO2. So the cars that ‘proved Malthus wrong’ are producing the primary greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, the fundamental environmental challenge of this century. So I would say Malthus was right to warn us.”
Back in the ’60s, when Kulvinder Gill was growing up on a farm in northern India’s state of Punjab, farmers would plant a mix of wheat and chickpea.
“The logic there was if it rains a lot, then you’ll harvest wheat and a little bit of chickpea,” says Gill. “And if it didn’t rain much, you’d harvest more chickpea and less wheat. Then people usually just ground them together and that’s what they made roti, or flatbread, with. So the yields were nothing.”
Then came fertilizers and new varieties.
“The next thing you know,” says Gill, “the yields were so high that no one grew the mixtures anymore.”
At the time, Gill and his two brothers would cut half an acre in a day. They used sickles. The heat would approach 100°F. Gill had found his calling.
“I never wanted to work with anything,” he says, “but wheat.”
It’s a fitting remark for the holder of WSU’s O.A. Vogel Chair in Wheat Breeding and Genetics. Gill is now focusing genetic research to bring Vogel’s brand of success to wheat that can grow in less fertile and more arid conditions.
Vogel found his wheat varieties by cross-breeding, a process involving multiple generations and a lot of time. Gill can mutate thousands of plants, using a powerful chemical like ethyl methanesulfonate to change the plant’s DNA and subsequent traits. He can then identify an ideal plant to breed into popular varieties.
In a very direct way, he’s trying to improve on a shortcoming of the Vogel wheat, a lack of the hormone gibberellin. As a result, says Gill, “everything shrunk.” The reduced height kept the plant from falling over, but it also had smaller roots.
Gill would like to find a plant with more roots, firmly anchoring it in the soil and letting it get more moisture. He’s also looking for a longer coleoptile, the hollow sheath surrounding the plant’s early stem, so it can be planted deeper in drought-prone soils. He has at his disposal a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Gates Foundation, and while he tells them the work will take more than three years, he’s bullish on the technology.
“I think there is a lot of potential with all the research we’re doing in genomics to deliver,” he says. “And then we may see yet another Green Revolution, where we double the yield again.”
If there will truly be a second Green Revolution, it will be in the face of pressure to make it green in an environmental sense.
“It’s widely acknowledged that there were too many social and environmental problems resulting from the intensive high-input ag approaches often promoted during the Green Revolution,” says Jerry Glover (’97 BS Soil Science, ’98 BA Philosophy, ’01 PhD Soil Science). “USAID and the international research centers now focus much more on soil and water resources and social impacts of agricultural development.”
Glover is an agroecologist, adapting broader ecological principles to crop production and focusing on techniques that stand to save and restore degraded and marginal landscapes.
The product of a Colorado farm, he came to his three WSU degrees by way of Skagit Valley Community College, where he studied landscape design and plant science while living in a ’54 Chevy camper. There he read a paper by WSU soil scientist and organic farming pioneer John Reganold, who became his doctoral advisor.
“Agriculture integrates so many of the different elements of being a human: the social, political, economic, our interactions with the natural world, and so on,” he says. “It was a fairly short, fast trip from discovering soil science to becoming devoted to agriculture and the implications for humanity.”
While at WSU, Glover had a fellowship at The Land Institute, a Salina, Kansas, nonprofit working on perennial crops that could marry stable prairie ecology with the grain yields of annual crops. Glover studied a tall grass meadow that had been mowed for hay for nearly a century. It had no inputs like nitrogen fertilizer. As might be expected, the harvested grassland’s soil was healthier than either conventional or organic ground. Moreover, the meadow owner was harvesting more nitrogen in the grass hay than he was from the high-input wheat field where he applied high levels of nitrogen fertilizer to maintain adequate yields. In the grassland, Glover saw “a model for a truly sustainable type of agriculture” and a reaffirmation of The Land Institute’s vision.
Glover is now on leave from the institute as an international agriculture research advisor working with USAID. The journal Nature has called him one of the “five crop researchers who could change the world.” National Geographic has called him a visionary “emerging explorer.”
Writing last year in the journal Science, Glover and Reganold called for a focus on perennial grain research similar to that underway on biofuels. Unlike conventional grains, which have been planted annually for most of agriculture’s 10,000 years, perennial grains could be planted every few years, using less fertilizer, herbicide, and fuel, and causing far less erosion. With roots as long as 12 feet, they could build soil, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, find more water, and use more of the nitrates that can pollute drinking water and create marine “dead zones.”
The grains, which they predicted could be a reality in 20 years, would be particularly helpful in the world’s marginal soils that support half the world’s population.
After Jahi Chappell got an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, he helped make body wash for Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company. The work didn’t quite meet his standard for improving the lives of others.
But he did take to heart the engineer’s concept of the “rate-limiting step,” the slowest part of a reaction that in turn determines the reaction’s overall speed. As he turned his attention to ecology and the challenge of feeding the world, he realized a lot more than food was involved in food security.
“The constriction point is not technical solutions,” says Chappell, an assistant professor of environmental science and justice at WSU Vancouver. “It’s political feasibility and political will. That’s quickly obvious when you look right now. A couple people have responded to the question of, ‘How do we feed 9 billion people?’ with, ‘How do we feed 6 billion people?’ Because we have enough food now but we have around a billion people who are malnourished right now. That clearly is not just a problem of supply.”
To be sure, he says, food production in some cases will be important, even paramount.
“But in the majority of cases,” he says, “there are a lot of other factors, like how much of the food dollar farmers recover, which would help a lot of farmers in terms of their own food security. And actually a slight majority of the people who are malnourished are farmers or rural inhabitants.”
Most of the people in rural sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers. Many lack adequate roads and access to markets.
“If you raise production but don’t have infrastructure,” says Chappell, “that’s not going to help farmers very much, even in a very economic, market-focused way.”
Raising the status of women has also been shown to have a huge impact on malnutrition. As their incomes rise, they’re more likely than men to spend it on their family than themselves, says Chappell.
“When women have education, have better nutrition, have better political power, they tend to take care of the family better,” he says. “So women’s education and health is very strongly tied to infant health, and not surprisingly.”
An even larger reform would ensure everyone the right to food. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Among those rights: acceptable, accessible, available, and adequate food.
“Some people say it’s the most basic right —the right to food,” says Chappell. “All other rights, the right to enjoy life, flow from the ability to nourish yourself.”
President Bill Clinton signed the covenant but the United States remains among a handful of nations that have failed to ratify it. At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, the United States fell short of saying the right to food is an actual right, calling it instead “a goal or aspiration.”
Chappell argues that, if only in economic terms, food security is a public good.
“We have less sick days, we’re less likely to get ill, there’s more productivity, there’s all these wonderful things that flow to all of us from being healthy and well fed.”
In Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s fourth-largest city and the subject of Chappell’s University of Michigan dissertation, the government in 1993 made healthy, high-quality food a right of its citizens. It helped farmers get into the city to sell food, rented them spaces in areas of heavy foot traffic, and encouraged them to form cooperatives to share the burden of going to market. The government also subsidized school lunches and meals in designated “Popular Restaurants.”
The number of starving children dropped by more than half.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment, underscoring a point Chappell made in the online science magazine Seed while debating food security with Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist at Wellesley College. Paarlberg argued that the majority of hunger stems from inadequate food production. Chappell said it stems more from poverty and a lack of access to food, for social and economic reasons.
The key issue, Chappell wrote, “is how we choose to approach and engage those we nominally wish to help.”
Last year, the journal Science devoted an issue to the “unprecedented challenge” of feeding 9 billion. In one of several pieces, Oxford ecologist Charles Godfray and colleagues cited studies saying world food production needs to increase as much as two-fold by 2050. Many of their recommendations will sound familiar: tackle poverty itself, empower women, stress sustainable systems. They mentioned the promise of genomic research, including the increased sophistication of genetically modified crops, the increased demand that rising standards of living will have, and the need to save the 30 to 40 percent of food lost to waste.
Almost in passing, they noted that the best way to improve food production is “highly site-specific.” WSU International Research and Development workers know that about as well as anybody, having worked around the world with some of the poorest farmers.
“I can go into any village that we’ve worked in a number of years and ask them right off what they’d like, what they need from development,” says Director Chris Pannkuk (’92 MS Soils, ’94 PhD Soil Physics). “I can guarantee water, fertilizer, and improved seed will be on that list as well as a health clinic and a school and things like that.”
Such prescriptions, he says, are the traditional development model for a number of places, and manage to capture “the low-hanging fruit.”
“Sometimes it’s enough to do that,” he says, “but in many cases what you want are tools that are not prescriptive, that the villagers will actually recommend to themselves once they’ve had a chance to articulate or talk to whoever is going to supply the inputs.”
It’s a participatory approach, and goes a long way to identify skills, resources, leadership, and potential.
Limits can be just as important a consideration as assets. A subsistence farmer making $2 a day—the norm for the farmers the office works with—can’t suddenly invest in expensive seed or a suite of inputs.
“They have very little that they can lose,” says Coolman, associate director for community collaborations. “So getting them to try and make new changes, getting them to adopt new technologies, is challenging, because they’re living on the edge. They know that what they do provides at least some minimum standard for their family. A change, while it could provide return, also has more risk than with me changing what I do in my garden at home.”
Starting in 2009, Colleen Taugher, a project associate in the office, was part of a team that wandered around rural Kazakhstan asking farmers about the issues they faced. An hour from Almaty, the largest city, she found a dairy farmer living off the grid “out in the steppes.”
Having no electricity, he had no way of keeping his milk cool before it could be transported to market.
“He was mostly only able to produce for his own family,” says Taugher, “and in many cases he was dumping milk on the ground because there was no way to keep it.”
The solution: Convert a shipping container into a cold storage unit powered by solar panels. Now the farmer can chill milk immediately and have it picked up every few days by a passing dairy truck.
“He increased his income by $2,000 a month,” says Taugher. “That’s major.”
Taugher has seen similar small-scale, appropriate technologies help shepherds irrigate gardens, introducing vegetables into a diet of mostly meat. And when a solar-powered well went in near Taraz, a woman could stop watering 300 sheep by lowering and raising a bucket.
“She was so tired that when you talked to her, she would keep leaning on things,” says Taugher. “She was just physically ruined from it.”
The international office currently has $30 million in projects, making it one of the more substantial university-based international development operations in the country. But it generally doesn’t have funding to return to an area and measure its impact or make refinements. This makes a community’s participation, no matter how good the idea, particularly important.
As a Peace Corps worker in Sierra Leone, Pannkuk saw women threshing rice with their feet. So when he saw a bicycle-powered thresher at a Food and Agriculture Organization conference, he got one and brought it to the village.
“You probably should have talked to the women,” he was told. He then was made to understand that the rice harvest was a communal experience for them, and while they were threshing, they were also talking with each other while the men looked after the children.
The bicycle-powered thresher, says Pannkuk, disappeared.
More recently, in Afghanistan, Pannkuk was part of a six-month effort to survey farmers and suggest a way for them to come back from a devastating drought. He later recommended planting nurseries and fruit trees.
“They listened to me very nice sitting around this mulberry tree, saying, ‘That’s a good idea, Mr. Chris, but really what we need are animals. That’s the first thing we lost.’”
It’s as if Pannkuk was embodying Chappell’s remark, that the key food security issue “is how we choose to approach and engage those we nominally wish to help.” Pannkuk had found those he wanted to help, and needed to close a last mile that was psychic and cultural, as well as physical.
Pannkuk argued to the villagers that most lost their fruit trees and replacing them would benefit the community. After a difficult week of discussion, he caved on the animals, but got the farmers to agree to producing forage, conducting variety trials, artificially inseminating cows, and setting up women’s groups formed to make cheese.
“I thought this was the most difficult week after working months and months on this,” says Pannkuk. “I told them straight up but they said, ‘Oh, but Mr. Chris you were a very good arguer. You argued right down to the last, you know. You’re probably very good at buying carpets.’”
Pannkuk’s experience is a new version of the Vogel story, writ small enough for a village. A group of people in the developing world, living on the brink of existence, need help. From across the miles, a scientist, brimming with knowledge and technology, visits the problem and helps forge not one solution, but several solutions.
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