December 29, 2016

Watching Grass Grow

Why is it, do you think, that this is used as a pejorative term?  Lately, I have taken enormous pleasure from watching growth.

Corn Field
Firstly, some plants, transformed seven naked palm trees plus a small patch of lawn into a mini tropical paradise.  Then the amazing wet season in forest and valley made the Sierras glow luxuriant blue-green.  Still later, our neighbour’s dusty, litter-strewn weed patch, was ploughed, two massive tractors enacting a Pas de Deux in Quickstep rhythm. Lying fallow for a month, the field spat back a tangle of vines and native plants, a nesting haven for local and migratory birds. But to their chagrin, this re-growth was already designated an abundant green manure crop, ploughed once more so that its nitrogen seeped into the soil, chicks, eggs and all.

Finally, a job that took no time at all, corn was sown in neat furrows.  Flocks of scavengers swooped to clean up caterpillars and bugs.  Now, inch by rapid inch, thousands of plants aspire to, as the song goes, being ‘as high as an elephant’s eye’ and, from my office window, I watch grass grow.

The world’s greatest watcher of grass growing may well have been Nobel laureate,  Norman Borlaug who died recently aged 95.  They called him the Father of the Green Revolution because his research into high-yielding grasses and grains saved an estimated billion people world-wide from malnutrition-related death. There are those in the environmental movement who say this was a bad thing.  But they are the folk who look at stats rather than the names of the dying, considering the carbon footprint of a billion on this fragile earth rather than the trauma of starving to death.

GM food is also a controversial, worrying issue. We know now that a high carbon footprint is being boosted by plasma screen TVs, energy guzzling automobiles such as Hummers, cattle that end up in billions of burgers wolfed down daily and clothes dryers now the norm in condos (bring back poles stuck through windows and use the SUN for heaven’s sake!).

But back to Borlaug.  Highly decorated with the top medals and awards from all over the world, he had a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota. He worked in an agricultural research position in Mexico, developing semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. He shared that knowledge throughout Mexico, Pakistan, and India, Mexico becoming a net exporter of wheat by 1963. His methods of plant raising were labeled ‘The Green Revolution’ and spread to all continents.

Borlaug’s university education was inspired by his Grandad whose motto was,  ‘You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on!’  but Borlaug failed the entrance exam to Minnesota Uni, instead attending the school’s newly created two-year General College and later moving into their forestry program. He was also a champion wrestler and believed that this discipline gave him toughness and stamina.

To finance his studies, Borlaug worked as a waiter, a researcher and a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps, assisting the unemployed on U.S. federal projects way back in 1935 when he was around 21. There he saw starvation.  He was inspired to turn his studies to solving that problem and later learned about the plant disease rust, a parasitic fungus that feeds on phyto-nutrients, in wheat, oat, and barley crops. He returned to University for post-graduate research eventually gaining a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942.  Married for 69 years to a girl he met as they were both working as waiters to support their college funds, he spent all his life traveling the world researching materials and plants, always with international, peaceful aims.  Even during the war, his military requested discoveries were of use to mankind in general, such as developing a saltwater resistant glue, canteen disinfectants, malaria prevention and much more.

He moved to Mexico City to head a new program as a geneticist and plant pathologist in 1944.  Twenty years later he became director of the International Wheat Improvement Program at El Batán, Texcoco, ( Mexico City), funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Mexican government. He bred high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat strains and wheat production soared in Mexico to export levels even though initially in the central highlands village of Chapingo near Texcoco, (where the problems with rust and poor soil were most prevalent) native farmers were hostile, fearing crop-losses.

The book, “The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger” tells the full story of how he and the team bred disease resistant wheat cultivars, making more than 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. He also used the two growing seasons of the highlands and the Yaqui Valley research station near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora proving that  seeds did not need a rest period after harvesting, in order to store energy for germination before being planted.  He doubled the wheat season, the plants adapting surprisingly well to the change in sunlight hours.

The development of disease resistant strains was a complex process involving cross-breeding and back-crossing of many genetic lines almost achieving the aims by confusing the pathogens and continually monitoring the results and replacing vulnerable lines with others.  Borlaug also bred a shorter stemmed wheat by crossing one developed by Orville Vogel (ahhh, so THAT’S where the bread brand ‘Vogel’ got its inspiration!) with his cultivars suited to the tropics.

It is a fascinating process (yes, REALLY) and Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 initially thinking some wag was pulling his leg.  His work is important as high yields and resistance prevent the constant deforestation needed to beat disease-infected farmland.

Whatever your view on genetic modification of food-stuffs, the wider issues of first-world monoculture, land reform in the third world, sustainability and the profits in agri-business in the USA – and these are complex and controversial areas for another forum – Borlaug’s own motivation was to prevent starvation to cope with the world’s spiraling population.

Borlaug said of his critics

‘If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.’

Perhaps the next step for The Green Revolution is to look at the Australian concept of ‘Permaculture’ and see how this measures up, being a system that directly opposes monoculture, plant patenting and GM, each field being designed carefully with plants, animals and trees in support of one another in a robust balance that combats climate change without compromise.

Borlaug, having spent most of his life productively watching more grass grow than the average Joe, died of the effects of lymphoma at the age of 95, on September 12, 2009, in his Dallas home.

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Comments

  1. I discovered your homepage by coincidence.
    Very interesting posts and well written.
    I will put your site on my blogroll.
    :-)

    • Thanks Henery! I hope you enjoy the site and articles – please also stay in touch with what you think and your ideas too! We really are all in this together!

  2. Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!