Take it from a guy who helps feed the world: There’s nothing quite like surveying a field comprising a healthy new crop breed your research team helped create and recalling, years earlier, “when you held all the seed of it in the palm of your hand.”
P. Stephen Baenziger, University of Nebraska-Lincoln small grains breeder, brought his passion about his work to a talk titled “Setting the Stage: Why Agriculture?” Baenziger was the second speaker in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Heuermann Lecture series, which focuses on meeting the world’s growing food and renewable energy needs while sustaining natural resources and the rural communities in which food grows.
Baenziger has been the front lines of that work his entire career, including 25 years at UNL. He inherited and built on a grains-breeding program that has produced wheat breeds now planted on 66 percent of Nebraska wheat acres, as well as in nearby states. He emphasized Thursday, as he has throughout his UNL career, that this work is achieved by a skilled team.
While that success has helped boost income for Nebraska producers — by about $71 million a year, he estimates — Baenziger is even prouder of the fact that UNL’s improvements to wheat are responsible for feeding about 2.7 million people a year. That’s “why I get up every morning and come to work and why I sleep well at night.”
The challenges ahead for agriculture, in Nebraska and around the world, are unprecedented, said Baenziger. He reflected on the last time in human history when the prospect of massive worldwide starvation was staved off by a Green Revolution led by Norman Borlaug and Henry Beachell. Now, 40 years later, with a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2043 — a wealthier population, by the way, that will eat the equivalent of what would feed 12 billion today — agricultural scientists are again racing the clock to help produce enough food.
The Green Revolution’s improvements — synthetic fertilizers and a variety of herbicides and pesticides — likely have improved yields all they can, so future progress will depend mostly on genetic improvements by scientists. That will include transgenic crops, resisted by many consumers, and developing new hybrids.
“For the first time, we’re beginning to really tease apart our breeding systems so we can be more efficient,” Baenziger said.
Baenziger said the world’s recognition of the challenge ahead in feeding itself is leading to a new respect for agriculture, which many have been unwilling to see as real science. In fact, Baenziger said, it’s humans’ “first science,” the one that made all future progress possible.
“I think you’re going to see some of the very best minds coming to agriculture,” he said.
In fact, Baenziger added, Socrates’ words from some 2,500 years ago have never been truer: “No one can be a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat.”
“We can never be complacent. We always have to be prepared for what the future brings,” he said.
Baenziger considers himself an optimist, but even he said he’s not certain the challenges ahead can be met. “We’re asking agriculture to perform at a level that we’ve never seen before.”
But, he added, “failure cannot be an option, unless you’re willing to accept starvation,” Baenziger said.
Heuermann Lectures are made possible through a gift from B. Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips, long-time university supporters with a strong commitment to Nebraska’s production agriculture, natural resources, rural areas and people. Future lectures include former Nebraska Gov. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kerrey, Dec. 12, and Stewart Brand, considered the founder of Earth Day, Jan. 17, 2012.