By Theodore Crosbie, Ph.D.
Vice President, Global Plant Breeding
I first met Norman Borlaug as a graduate student in Plant Breeding at Iowa State University. My classmates and I dutifully filed into the agronomy auditorium to hear another Thursday seminar that afternoon in 1973.
Our speaker was viewed as a feisty renegade. At the time, some faculty expressed disbelief that Norm Borlaug merited a Nobel Prize.
He hadn’t published a thing in a journal that mattered. Peasants knew of his work instead of the National Academy of Science. It was widely believed that he had been relegated to work in remote areas of Mexico because he couldn’t cut it in either industry or academia. Rumors around his disagreements with Rockefeller Foundation executives were legendary. Many wondered if this was yet another reason he drove a jalopy on dusty Mexican roads.
Frankly, we all wondered why we had to listen to this guy.
We were conditioned to hear lengthy lectures on Statistical and Quantitative Genetics with an occasional discourse on Cytogenetics. We were not prepared for a talk with no slides, full of fire and brimstone, and peppered with stories about economic failure, famine, and political mutiny. Dr. Borlaug gave us a different version of Plant Breeding. “Real breeding,” he called it, and practical science aimed at solving real, not academic and irrelevant problems.
When he was finished, no one knew what to ask so Dr. Borlaug asked the questions. What was Iowa State doing to solve the hunger crisis around the world? How were we turning theory into practice on farms in India? Everyone looked well fed in Iowa. Why were we wasting our time improving yields in the Midwest when people were starving elsewhere in the world? Surely everyone knew that hungry bellies lead to anarchy.
The bell rang, and we went back to our world. Until the next morning that is, when Dr. Borlaug had insisted on meeting with the graduate students.
When it came to my turn, I explained that for my thesis I was studying the inheritance of photosynthetic rate using random inbred lines of corn from Iowa Stiff Stalk Synthetic. No one before or since in any setting has ever grilled me as he did that morning.
“Why are you working on that?”
“Do you really think photosynthesis is limiting yield in a C4 species like corn?”
“Why in the hell are you using taxpayer dollars to work on something that doesn’t matter? And why are you using random lines?”
“Young man, the whole idea in plant breeding is to study what matters in selected lines. It doesn’t matter what happens in lines that you should be throwing away.”
His advice to me was to choose a thesis project that mattered next time, which I did. For a Ph.D., I studied the physiological basis for yield changes in long-term selection programs.
Many years later, he asked me about our exchange over breakfast in the CIMMYT cafeteria. He was pleased to hear that I had taken his advice.
Dr. Borlaug became a role model for many of us after that experience. He had opened our eyes, and he did the same for many people around the world.
It wasn’t that he had a disdain for theory, but turning theory into practice is the essence of plant breeding.
It wasn’t that he didn’t value basic research, but he wanted to see cutting edge science of the day turned into varieties that would solve hunger.
It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the statistical validity associated with random lines, but he wanted to see it taken to the next level to understand whether something was truly limiting yield at an elite germplasm level.
Neither of us knew on that Friday morning in 1973 how much he would ultimately influence Monsanto Plant Breeding through me, but he did and he now knows.
Ted Crosbie is Vice President of Global Plant Breeding of the Monsanto Agricultural Sector. Dr. Crosbie is responsible for seven crops worldwide and is a member of the Monsanto Advisory Committee and the Technology Leadership Team. Monsanto’s Plant Breeding organization is one of the largest breeding efforts in the world with more than 1,000 employees and over 100 sites worldwide in 20 countries. In January 2002, Dr. Crosbie was named a Distinguished Fellow in Science in recognition of his broad strategic impact in Monsanto through scientific leadership.
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