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Yield Curves and Population Growth: What’s Driving Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program

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By Ed Runge
Texas A&M University

Last year's class of Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars at the World Food Prize

Last year’s class of Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars at the World Food Prize

Corn, wheat and rice are the world’s three most important staple crops.  Corn provides more calories in the developed world while wheat and rice provide more calories in the developing world.

These facts are simple to state, but they carry sweeping implications for the future of mankind.

Thanks to advanced breeding techniques, genetic modifications, and agronomic improvements, corn yields are growing faster than the world population growth rate of about 1.25 percent per year. That’s on top of the enormous improvements in corn yields that were produced during the better part of the 20th century.

Wheat and rice, however, are another story.  During the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the yields of these two crops roughly doubled.  But in more recent years productivity improvements in these crops have stagnated, in part because of limited research investment.  Worldwide wheat and rice yields are growing at about 0.9 percent.

Those mathematical relationships are putting millions of people in the developing world – perhaps hundreds of millions — on a collision course with hunger. Wheat is the staple food for a little more than a third of the world’s population of about 7.1 billion; it provides more calories and protein in the world’s diet than any other crop. Rice is eaten by more than 3 billion people – almost half of humanity — every day.

Meanwhile, hunger already affects more than 870 million people worldwide, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.  Almost all of them are in developing countries.  And world population is expected to grow by 2.4 billion by 2050 – with almost all of that growth taking place in the developing world.

These are the bald facts that led the late Dr. Norman Borlaug to ask Monsanto executives to establish a program to boost research into breeding wheat and rice.  The program, which I am privileged to direct, is administered by Texas AgriLife Research, a research agency that is part of The Texas A&M University System.  The story of how Dr. Borlaug lobbied Monsanto executives to start it is a colorful one, told by Dr. Ted Crosbie in another blog post in this series.

Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program (MBBISP) is named, fittingly, after the greatest wheat and rice breeders of the 20th century.  Dr. Borlaug, of course, was the Iowa farm boy whose pioneering work in wheat breeding is credited with having saved up to a billion people from starvation.  A winner of the Nobel Prize, he also founded the World Food Prize, which in 1996 was won by Henry Beachell.  A farm boy himself, from Nebraska, Beachell is often called the co-father of the Green Revolution for his work with rice.

Monsanto not only named its program for the best, it designed it to be the best, in my view. I believe it is no exaggeration to say there is nothing to equal it in all of agriculture.

One reason is the funding, which is extremely generous.   Monsanto, the sole sponsor, provided $10 million for the first five years, which ran from 2009 through 2013, and in June 2013, committed $3 million more for the next three years.  The result is that students receive $200,000 to $300,000 in support for the two to three years it takes them to complete their Ph.D.’s – enough not only to cover tuition and stipend at the best public research universities in the developed world, but also to travel to and conduct research in a developing country.  Experiential learning in both the developed and developing world is actually a requirement of the program.  It’s also one of the program’s most distinctive features. Then there is leadership training, which is designed to make the students more effective in their careers, and travel to the annual World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, which enables them to meet international figures in global agriculture, as well as one another.

It adds up to an extraordinary package, to which Monsanto attaches absolutely no strings of its own.  To the contrary, after funding the students’ education, the company then urges them to put that investment to work in the public sector.

Given this design, I don’t think it’s surprising that the competition for admission into the program is so strong.  Applications are judged by an independent panel representing some of the world’s most distinguished scientific leaders in rice and wheat breeding.  The applications are evaluated not only by the merit of the students, but by the accomplishments of their sponsoring professor, the Ph.D. proposal they submit with their application, and the collaborating institution and scientist identified in their Ph.D. proposal.  Collaboration with CGIAR centers is welcome.  CGIAR, which is based in France and gets its name from the acronym for Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, is a global research partnership for a food-secure future.

The program admits about a dozen students each year, with this year’s crop bringing the total to 64 – 40 men and 24 women, 37 working with wheat and 27 with rice.  The students come from 25 different countries across the globe.

I’m lucky enough to get to know all the students in the program, and I know they are an enormously talented and motivated group.  And Dr. Borlaug, with whom I worked for 25 years and who was my friend and collaborator, would be thrilled to know that all these brilliant young minds are being trained and focused on increasing the yields of two crops so vital to the future of humanity.  I know Dr. Beachell, with whom I also collaborated for decades, would be delighted as well.

Because I have no doubt: These students are going to achieve remarkable things.

Ed Runge is director of Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program and Professor and Billie B. Turner Chair in Production Agronomy (Retired) at Texas A&M University.

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