One of the great things about working on “food” is that it’s such a huge and various subject.
This past week I was lucky enough to be one of 700 people from 56 different countries attending the Borlaug100 conference in Obregón, Mexico. In fact, I was privileged to be one of the 25 presenters.
Borlaug and his team developed and, just as important, promoted the varieties of wheat that led to the Green Revolution.
The institution where he did most of his work, CIMMYT (pronounced simit), the Centro de Investigaciones por el Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo (the Center for Research to Improve Corn and Wheat), officially founded in 1966 following the joint efforts of the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation to raise crop productivity in Mexico.
What? might say many of you who read this blog regularly? and where? and why?
The trigger for the conference was the 100th anniversary of Borlaug’s birth. He shared the starring role, though, appropriately, with wheat. On the first day, the field day, 16 large buses took us out to the trial plots in groups of 50 each.
Small plots of wheat in ear stretched off toward the circling mountains of the horizon. Each was neatly named, often with a brief history. Some contained varieties of durum wheat, the wheat used for pasta and noodles. Most, though, were dedicated to bread wheat.
Of all the amazing plants on our planet, wheat is one of the more amazing. If you know nothing about wheat, here is a beginner’s guide to wheat evolution, conference proceedings on early wheat, and websites of a selection of places now doing research on wheat.
The ancestors of present day wheat grew abundantly in the Fertile Crescent over 10,000 years ago. They don’t look very promising as food. The seeds are protected by long spikes and layers of coatings that have to be removed. As this threshing is done, they lodge in the skin and the dust prickles the throat. The seeds are tiny and hard, the most difficult of all the raw materials that humans process into food.
Yet our ancestors managed to turn them into bread and pottage and gruel and all kinds of dishes, the names of which are scarcely remembered today. And over the centuries they increased the yield of a plant that had not produced many seeds.
And in the last few generations, wheat yield has soared. Land that used to yield 1-1/2 tons per hectare (a hectare is about the size of the inside of an athletic track or of a soccer field) has now doubled, tripled, and quadrupled to 5, 6 or even 7 or 8 tons a hectare.
We looked at precision machinery for big farmers selling for thousands of dollars and precision machinery for small ones selling for less than $50.
We gazed at the small blimp for taking photographs of the plots.
One of the young researchers expertly manipulated a drone equipped with four cameras up to a couple of hundred feet, flew it over the plots for fifteen minutes.
And then brought it down to a gentle landing on a piece of plastic to prevent it becoming gummed up with red dust.
And the whole history of wheat was encapsulated in these plots from Triticum monococcum, the archaic wheat from Turkey.
It’s being interbred with modern wheats and was quite the star of the show.
The Wheat Breeders
Norm Borlaug was a wheat breeder. I’d never really thought about wheat breeders before, even though I grew up on a farm where wheat was one of the major crops, and even though I’ve spent the past years working on Cuisine and Empire in which wheat crops up time and again.
Yet there have been generations upon generations of wheat breeders, something like thirty thousand generations. These breeders have gone into the fields of standing wheat. They have watched for thirty or forty characteristics, stem, color, disease, leaf shape and size, grains, and so on as the plants developed. They have spoken to them like children, thought of them like humans.
I was lucky to sit next to Marla Barnett on the bus out to the fields. She turned out to be the wheat breeder for the Midwestern operation of Limagrain.
Limagrain, one of the world’s really, really big seed companies, fourth in the world actually, started out after World War II as a cooperative of French farmers eager for better seed.
Limagrain has now taken over Vilmorin, which you may have heard of a supplier of vegetable seeds. Vilmorin is one of the world’s most venerable seed companies founded in 1743 by the seed supplier to Louis XV. In the late nineteenth century Vilmorin was a leader in moving Europe to better varieties of wheat.*
Marla patiently explained the business of wheat breeding to me, a total neophyte. She talked about her 10,000 plots, about the employee who did nothing but keep the records on these plots, about the genetic tests and the tests for milling quality, about the two years it took to produce enough seed from a promising new strain to sell on the market.
Wheat breeders work for universities in the big wheat-growing states and countries; they work for seed companies; and they work for independent research centers such as CIMMYT (see the link to some of these places above).
Someone in our group compared breeding wheat to horse breeding. You can take all the measurements, run all the genetic tests, but in the end, and having narrowed the candidates down to a few, the best breeders go with their instincts.
Borlaug, several people mentioned, had been one of these good breeders. So had some of the other CIMMYT people, including Sanjaya Rajaram, raised in India, with a Ph.D. from Sydney, and now a naturalized Mexican citizen. He holds the record for breeding the greatest number of varieties of rice in the world: 500 varieties released in 51 countries over the past three decade, planted on more than 60 million hectares.
At first, as I met wheat breeder after wheat breeder, I was taken aback by their global presence. And as I talked to them more, I realized that they all know each other, they all circulate through the same universities, the same research centers, the same conferences. They exchange information about drought resistant varieties, about varieties with greater or lesser amounts of straw, and about the ongoing struggle against diseases and pests, a struggle that was already old when the Biblical plagues of Egypt struck.
It’s tough work, in remote field locations, with your wife left at home to raise the family half a country or half a world away.
Half a day in the field had me and many of the other attendees exhausted with standing in the 100 degree heat, the dust, and the extreme dryness.
Although there are now a good few women wheat breeders, the stories that were told of life as a wheat breeder reminded me of my undergraduate days in geology: hard-working days, beer and beef in the evening.
And that’s not such a bad analogy it occurs to me, as these breeders and the farmers they work with are providing the raw materials for our food just as miners and oil men are providing metals and fuel.
And just to top it off, there were the stories of going into Aleppo, Syria to get the ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) seeds and genetic materials to safe housing in Morocco and Lebanon.
Then it was on to the conference proper held in the lovely surroundings of the campus of La Salle University with its large reflecting pools and covered ‘corredors’ for open air dining.
Media and ambassadors, farmers and breeders, ministers of agriculture from India, China, and elsewhere, graduate students and retired professors packed the very fine conference hall.
Some sessions were easy for everyone to understand, such as the memorials to Borlaug, the conversation between Sir Gordon Conway and Howard Buffet.
Another of these was my own presentation on “Wheat: The Grain at the Center of Civilization.” I believe it will be up on the CIMMYT website in a couple of days. In the meantime, here’s a blog post about my talk on the intertwined history of wheat and civilization from the University of Missouri.
Others stretched me to the limit. Wolfgang Pfeiffer on high-zinc wheat, Tony Fischer on closing the gap between best-practice wheat-growing and ordinary farm practice, Robert Herdt on the details of population growth and projected increase in wheat yield, Graham Farquhar on climate change, and Ian King on increasing the genetic diversity of wheat by breeding with close relatives such as rye, Thinopyrum, Aegilops, and other kinds of Triticum.
I have to say I found the technical papers even more fascinating than the more general ones because they opened my eyes to the amount of sheer intelligence and hard work dedicated to wheat. I wished I could have stayed for the third day but, with only a couple of flights a day and an extra charter, transport in and out of Obregón was difficult.
And when my head could take nothing more on wheat there were a hundred and fifty poster sessions outside the hall from Kazakhstan and Ethiopia, from northern Nigeria and Tunisia, from India and Chile, from Pakistan and Bhutan.
The Place: Obregón, Sonora, Mexico
And why in Obregón? It’s actually a story that appeals to the romantic in me. Obregón’s a frontier town in the Sonora Desert between the coast and the US border, a flat plain called the Yaqui Valley after the Yaquis who lived there. It was founded in 1901 when irrigation channels bringing water from a reservoir in the circling mountains and a railroad turned this area one of the breadbaskets of Mexico.
Even now it’s a town of only 120,000 people. Driving out to the airport, my taxi driver, Ramón Andujo Carrillo, drove me through the Zona Norte of the town where the big wheat growers have their houses.
Taking me to the airport, he slowed down so that I could snap the irrigation canal that has turned this valley in Mexico into one of its premier breadbaskets.
Silo after silo that bordered the road and railroad that led to the port.
Originally CIMMYT was based just outside Mexico City, where its headquarters still are. There wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.
Borlaug had the idea that if he could find a place where wheat could be planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, he could breed twice a year instead of just once, thereby doubling the pace of the work. Obregón (the Yaqui valley on the map below) was that place.
Obregón turned out to have a second advantage. It’s apparently representative in climate and soil of about 40% of the wheat-growing areas in the world, making strains of wheat developed there widely usable world-wide.
And why is this romantic? or perhaps better significant?
Because we are so used to thinking that all the action in world history takes place in the big capitals. Of course it doesn’t. It was in this remote spot that the work that saved so very many lives was carried out.
To many of the experts who attended, the field plots were one more set to add to the many they had visited around the world, the talks were the latest wrinkle on technical problems in wheat breeding or the most recent effort to put numbers on population growth, wheat yields and acreage, and climate change.
To me, even though I grew up on a wheat farm and have spent years on a food history in which wheat plays a starring role, it was an entry point into a whole new world that had been previously completely out of sight.
So thank you to Tom Lumpkin, Director of CIMMYT, and Hans-Joachim Braun for including me, to Sanjaya Rajaram for introducing me (and expertly catching me as I nearly ended my talk with an ignominious fall from the podium), to Jennie Nelson Gray, Program Manager for the Global Wheat Program for thinking of me in the first place, to all the staff of CIMMYT for flawless organization, and to Rob Paarlberg, Derek Byerlee, and Susan McCouch for acting as interpreters for this neophyte in the world of wheat.
* Vilmorin has been in the wheat business a long time. As a background to my Powerpoint slides I used an illustration from Les meilleurs blés (the best wheats) this gorgeous book of late nineteenth century wheat varieties published by Vilmorin. Thanks to Mark Nesbit and Delwen Samuel for the link and for so much else interesting on wheat, particularly on its early history.