The New Seeds, Chapter 2
Throughout the modern history of agriculture, all of the major breakthroughs in agricultural technology originated in the temperate zones.† Even though a great deal of research has been devoted to plantation agriculture in the tropics, the prime beneficiaries have been outsiders, those in the rich countries to whom the commodities are sold.†
New seeds are the product of the first systematic attempt to devise a technology that helps improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people who live in material poverty.
The Engineering Problem
People in the tropics have been forced to make do with an agricultural technology developed in northwestern Europe, the United States or Japan.† It is a technology that is admirably adaptable to the temperate climates but usually poorly suited to the tropics.
The challenge to the designers of the new seeds was to develop cereal varieties that were not only responsive to fertilizer but also adaptable throughout the poor regions of the world.† If the poor countries have the advantage of a great supply of solar energy, they have the disadvantage of a great variation in soil conditions.
In the tropics traditional strains have to fight for survival against weeds and in heavy rains and floods.† This makes for a tall, thin-strewed plant that can keep its head above water when there is flooding and can compete successfully with weeds for its share of sunlight
Traditional strains are not responsive to fertilizer; when it is applied liberally, they become top heavy with grain and fall over, before the grain is ripe.
The Japanese isolated a dwarfing gene, which produced a sturdy, short-strewed wheat capable of carrying a heavy head of grain.
Dr. Orville Vogel incorporated the Japanese dwarf gene into his own local breeding materials.† The resulting variety, called Gaines wheat, produced world-record yields in the irrigated and high-rainfall growing conditions of the Pacific Northwest.
Dr. Norman Borlaugh, Director of the Rockefeller Foundationís wheat-breading program in Mexico, refined Gaines wheat to make it more suitable for use in Mexico.
Dr. Borlaugh was able to produce a dwarf wheat variety that was remarkably adapted to a range of growing conditions.† Because of these amazing results, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations joined forces in 1962 to establish the International Rice Research Institute on land provided by the Philippine government at Los Banos, near Manila.
The result was IR-8, a crossbreeding of rice between strains from Indonesia and Taiwan.† When properly managed, IR-8 has proved easily capable of doubling the yield of most local rices in Asia.† IR-8 is highly adaptable and also matures very early.
Imports of seed rice from the Philippines accelerated the diffusion of the high-yielding dwarf rice, such as the IR-8.† The area planted to high-yielding cereals in Asia in the 1964-65 crop year was estimated at 200 acres, and that largely for experimental and trial purpose.† By 1968-69, 34 million acres were covered.
At the present, less than one seventh of the wheat and rice land in Asia is planted to the new seeds.† Because this land is relatively well irrigated and fertile, it produces a disproportionately large share of the regionís food.† In Africa and Latin America the new seeds are not being used so widely as in Asia.†
Expansion of the area planted to high-yielding wheat is already slowing somewhat in both India and Pakistan as the additional land with suitable water supply diminishes.
Water supply and water control will act as the principal constraints to further spread of high-yielding cereals in the poor countries.
Summary by Luis Munoz