Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Agricultural Research for the Public Good


Left Behind by the Green Revolution

Norman Borlaug succeeded at something that no one had done before—applying wide area adaptation for a specific trait in a specific crop for yield enhancement. This worked beyond all expectations in field trials conducted in environments that favored the expression of the new genetic material, which in this case had been developed from a type of semidwarf wheat native to Japan. Of course, wide area adaptation must be put in perspective as per the trait, farmer, crop genetics, and environment in which such a package is intended to be used.

The more traditional “local adaptation” typically happens in a farmer’s fields. In these and other microenvironments, wheat such as Borlaug developed, or other new wheats, can be tested and, if successful, bred locally for such situations. This has been exactly the type of applied “bread and butter” work done by national program scientists and local seed companies. However, this specialized knowledge for each area of the country and a given crop is being lost, as is the ability of national program scientists to conduct multilocation trials.

The work that Borlaug did, all conducted in the public arena for the public good, is all that more important to replicate today.

This loss of talent and support has eroded not because of the work of Borlaug, but because of consolidation of the agricultural research entities into four large agricultural/pharmaceutical companies. No more are there local seed companies; no more is there a robust plant breeding community in the public sector; no longer is there a focused effort on the “public good” of agriculture. Losing this publicly supported pool of expertise is especially a concern when local needs do not align with those of commercial providers.

This is true for India, Mexico, the United States, and Canada—and one can keep on going.

Consequently, the work that Borlaug did, all conducted in the public arena for the public good, is all that more important to replicate today. Science and farming are two ends of the same rope, and while one continues to be privatized, the other cannot benefit. Thus, improving farmers’ education and “infrastructure,” however little this seems to be defined, will not keep a given farming sector free from globalized pressures or a shortage of public-minded and public-based extension agents.

The separation of plant breeding—which Marci R. Baranski’s book classifies as a capital-intensive technological approach—from farming speaks of a divorce that simply should not come to pass. Instead, depending on trait, genotypes, environment, and famers’ needs, they should be brought closer together to ensure that what is developed serves those in need, not just those who have the currency and farming practices that are compatible with commercial agriculture.

Visiting Scholar, Nicholas School of the Environment

Duke University

Cite this Article

“Agricultural Research for the Public Good.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 1 (Fall 2023).

Vol. XL, No. 1, Fall 2023