DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- At some point most journalists eventually step back and realize they've witnessed history. In the mid-1980s I did a number of stories about the beginnings of biotechnology.
The research for those articles took me into the labs and offices of a handful of the scientists at the forefront of a genetic revolution. I recall the passion of Monsanto's Howard Schneiderman and Ernest Jaworski when they explained a future to me that included plants that would be protected from the inside out. From his laboratory at Washington University, Roger Beachy introduced me to the possibilities of genetically protecting crops like cassava from the ravages of disease in order to feed a hungry world.
Students today still learn about plant pioneers like Luther Burbank, who developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants -- including the famed Idaho potato. They study how the peanut and soybean fields of today are linked to early efforts of George Washington Carver. These plant botanists and geneticists became popular heroes as the public clamored for varietal innovations that would extend seasons, increase yield and expand uses for agricultural crops.
Who are today's plant heroes? Over the next few days you have the chance to read a number of stories we are calling "Scientists Behind the Seed." The purpose behind writing this series was to meet some of today's top plant innovators. There are admittedly many and this ongoing series is but a snapshot.
However, sometimes agricultural journalists become so focused on explaining the process of implementing a new technology that we forget about the people behind it. We hope these articles will give readers a better sense of those working today to support the food and energy needs of an expanding global population.
In many ways, these modern-day Burbanks and Carvers have a more complicated charge. They are in a race to increase crop productivity through improved plant genetics and pest-management solutions in an era of heightened awareness.
Innovation is influenced by consumer acceptance combined with increased regulatory pressures and the need for environmental sustainability -- all the while maintaining a profitable bottom line.
At the same time, public research dollars for these kinds of projects have declined, with private companies shouldering more of the investment. The need for both remains, maintains Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer and a recent winner of the 2013 World Food Prize for his part in developing modern agriculture biotechnology.
"Without the backdrop of scientific innovation that comes from public and private investment in agricultural research, getting higher crop yields is like trying to play the lottery without buying a ticket. It just isn't going to happen," said Fraley.
"People just don't appreciate how much (plant) breeding has changed," he added. "Once we were able to sequence all the genes in the corn and soybean plant, the information available began allowing us to breed better and faster and smarter. That's really going to produce dramatic yield gains in these crops."
Whether you agree with the science or not, it is important to understand it. Join us as we meet four modern plant pioneers and a snapshot of their contributions to agriculture.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.firstname.lastname@example.org
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