Word on Wheat: Speaking Out on the Need for Research

October 2, 2009 Bookmark and Share

Dr. Jim Peterson

Last month, we lost a great leader for the world wheat industry and spokesman for agricultural research, Dr. Norman Borlaug.

As a wheat breeder, Dr. Borlaug’s work and leadership through the Green Revolution saved hundreds of millions of lives. His championship of agriculture technology and work in Africa later in life has saved many millions more. Maybe as important, Borlaug inspired young people throughout the world to dedicate their lives to improving agriculture and food security.

Dr. Borlaug’s leadership will be sorely missed around the world, and there is no one person that can step in and fill his role as spokesman for wheat and world agriculture. Instead, we will need many individuals to step forward and contribute their skills, knowledge, leadership and passion for making a difference through agricultural research and production. We need more and better spokespeople for our work and our industry.

As a U.S. wheat breeder, I am excited by new and vigorous leadership at USDA including Dr. Raj Shah as undersecretary for research, education and extension and Dr. Roger Beachy the President’s nominee to be the first director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Dr. Shah and Dr. Beachy will both bring new energy, passion and credibility to their positions as leaders and spokesmen for agricultural research. New ideas, new priorities and new scientific approaches are needed if we are to effectively attack complex problems facing U.S. agricultural production.

Also needed, though, is new money. Both USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the new NIFA need an infusion of funds if we are to address critical issues ranging from wheat rust diseases to food security in the face of climate change. More money has to come to the table for both competitive grants and core research if we are to keep the agriculture industry productive and profitable. And, we have to be smarter and better coordinated with the money we do have.

In collaboration with NAWG, and with the support of the milling and baking industries, we have lobbied vigorously for wheat industry research priorities with some achievements this appropriations season.

House and Senate conferees decided on $262.482 million for competitive grants through USDA’s new Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, 30 percent more than competitive grants received in the 2009 fiscal year. The conference report also includes $1 million in new funds for Ug99 research at ARS and maintains funding for critical ARS wheat research efforts that had been targeted for cuts or redirections.

Also important has been continued U.S. funding for wheat research at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, through the U.S. Agency for International Development. We have worked to raise awareness of its importance and contributions of CIMMYT to the U.S. wheat industry and promote funding for CIMMYT to address world wheat production issues, including Ug99.

In this time of tight budgets, these are important wins. However, much more is clearly needed in light of a recent report from the United Nations saying we will need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed the 2.3 billion more people who will be on our planet. This is a phenomenal and daunting challenge facing our country and the world.

We have lost our leader and spokesman in Dr. Borlaug. Drs. Shah and Beachy can’t do it alone. We need leaders from throughout the industry to step up, to advocate for wheat and production agriculture and to explain their importance to policy makers and the public.

The world’s food supply is depending on it.

Peterson is a wheat breeder at Oregon State University and the chairman of the National Wheat Improvement Committee. Visit NWIC online at http://cropandsoil.oregonstate.edu/wheat/reports/NWIC/