In 1999, a terrifying new form of stem rust — discovered in Uganda and named “Ug99” — began turning golden wheat fields into dark, tangled ruins. For decades plant scientists had bred wheat varieties with rust-resistant genes, but against Ug99, they were hopeless. The disease’s spores blew on the wind through Kenya to Iran, heading for India and Pakistan, where fifty million small farmers produce 20 percent of the global wheat supply. Unless stopped, the disease would threaten China, the world’s largest wheat producer and America’s rich wheat fields.
Breeders everywhere began searching seed collections for strains of wheat that were genetically resistant to Ug99. The largest collection was at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, developed by the brilliant Danish scientist Bent Skovmand. For thirty years, Skovmand amassed, multiplied, and documented thousands of wheat varieties. From the parched hillsides of Mexico and the vast central plans of Turkey to the sky-high pastures of Tibet, he trekked the world’s fields to consult with local farmers and discover new strains of wheat. Serving as adviser to dozens of countries, he identified seeds with genes that could resist plagues like Ug99 and environmental disasters such as drought and flooding.
In an era when multinational corporations and governments often jealousy guard breeding patents and information, Skovmand fought to keep his seed bank a center for free, open scientific exchange as a service to breeders and farmers everywhere. Recognizing his extraordinary service to mankind, Time magazine in 1991 said Skovmand had had “more to do with the welfare of the world’s five billion people than many heads of state.”
The Viking in the Wheat Field tells a hidden, but heroic, story of scientists — Skovmand chief among them — for whom increasing the world’s food supply has been nothing less than a life’s calling. Susan Dworkin takes us inside the world of grain breeding, where plant forensics and genetic breakthroughs bump up against politics and bottom lines, and the stakes are nothing less than the security of our food supply. The Viking in the Wheat Field is a story of passion, commitment, and scientific discovery modeled by the life of an extraordinary public servant.
The visionary Danish plant scientist and pioneering seed banker Bent Skovmand found his calling at the University of Minnesota, following in the footsteps of Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for launching the green revolution. Borlaug brought Skovmand to the Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat in Mexico in 1976.
There Skovmand, concerned about the perils of monoculture and global warming and the patenting of plant genetic resources by corporations, began his quest to create what Dworkin calls “agriculture’s public library.” He spearheaded an international effort to collect and preserve as many crop seeds as possible and make them available to farmers the world over.
Skovmand went on to direct Nordgen, which manages the so-called Doomsday Vault, where crop seeds are banked in case of a catastrophe. Dworkin vividly portrays Skovmand and a remarkable group of similarly ardent plant protectors; crisply relates little-known yet compelling, frequently dicey tales of agricultural discovery and rescue; and explains with passion and acuity why it’s so very important to preserve the planet’s plant genetics
“The importance and the urgency of [Skovmand’s] work with protecting the food chain amidst many human and biological challenges makes for a very gripping read. A logical next read after Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”-- Library Journal“In light of the much-publicized rises in food costs and shortages of water for farming, the story that Dworkin tells in The Viking in the Wheat Field is very compelling and very timely.” -- The Futurist“Required reading for students in plant breeding as well as other agricultural sciences. The book is a must read for those who consider working in the international research and development arena.” -- NACTA Journal"The Viking in the Wheat Field goes to the heart of how and why scientists must work across borders and with the public to safeguard against hunger. It is written in exciting and compelling language, and I highly recommend it as essential core reading for students of international development, agricultural policy, plant sciences, agronomy and horticulture. Indeed, it is a valuable contribution to any course that relates to global food production and security."-- Calvin Qualset, Professor of Genetic Resources at UC Davis“An excellent, highly readable book that weaves the story of Bent Skovmand and his numerous contributions to world food security with an accessible history of international agricultural research over the last 60 years. Filled with informative anecdotes about towering figures in the battle against starvation like Norman Borlaug, Henry Wallace, and Nikolai Vavilov. Fascinating!”-- John Snape, Professor, Head of Crop Genetics at John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK"An eye-opening look into the little-known world of gene banks and crop breeding, and a poignant reminder that the real guardians of our food security are not armies or transnational corporations but a handful of tireless scientists who have labored for decades to keep us one step ahead of famine."-- Rowan Jacobson, Author of Fruitless Fall: the Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis"Susan Dworkin has found a delightful way to tell the alarming story of the frailty of the global wheat crop. She leads us expertly and enthusiastically into Bent Skovmand's strange, infrequently penetrated domain of plant breeding and internatonal seed banks, a world in whch unsung scientists search and save exotic plant germplasm to protect the staffs of live against pests, plagues and corporate raiders. As the Viking himself warns in Dworkin's book: 'If the seeds disappear, so could your food. So could you.'-- Peter Pringle, Author of Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto—The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest and The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov
“Dworkin vividly portrays Skovmand and a remarkable group of similarly ardent plant protectors; crisply relates little-known yet compelling, frequently dicey tales of agricultural discovery and rescue; and explains with passion and acuity why it’s so very important to preserve the planet’s plant genetics.”-- Booklist
From the Introduction:
In 1999, at an agricultural field station in Uganda, a scientist noticed something wrong with the wheat. Pox-like sores had erupted on the stems. They sent forth clouds of reddish orange spores. The scientist correctly concluded that this must be a variety of “rust”, wheat’s most intractable plague. A fungus disease, rust hitches invisibly on the winds, blowing across international borders, waiting for a down draft or down pour to wash it out of the sky onto the fields. Sometimes it travels on the fur and paws of animals, on the skin or clothing of people. It arrives without notice and seems eventually to target every variety of wheat.Scientists had not seen a stem rust outbreak for some time. Most kinds of wheat had been imbued by breeders with genes that protected against it. Now suddenly the genes had stopped working. Why? Why were the healthy green fields collapsing, the plants tangled squid-like in a dark, necrotic mass? Samples of the infected wheat were sent to a lab in South Africa. Scientists there confirmed: this was a new rust, a mutation. It would be named for Uganda, where it was first seen, and 1999, when it was first analyzed. Ug99. Under carefully controlled conditions the South African lab deliberately spread the disease on samples of local wheat, all of which were equipped with the established defense genes. The wheats should have been resistant. But the great majority sickened. That was the first and last time UG99 was allowed into South Africa.Scientists from the Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat in Mexico, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT, (pronounced SIM-mitt) got in touch with the head of the Small Grains Division at the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Maryland: We’ve never seen this stem rust before. It’s virulent for almost all varieties. And it’s moving. We have reports that it has reached Kenya.The ARS official alerted her colleague in Aberdeen, Idaho, where the United States keeps its national wheat collection. He collected samples of every kind of wheat grown by American farmers, then sent them to the high-security Cereal Disease Lab at the University of Minnesota, the only lab in this country authorized to handle UG99. There in the dead of winter, when no grain that might be infected was living anywhere in Minnesota, little sacrificial seedlings were doused with UG99. More than eighty per cent of them died. CIMMYT’s Kenya station reported that the original UG99 had mutated again, overcoming yet another resistance gene. And the plague jumped the Red Sea and invaded Yemen. What if UG99 reached India and Pakistan, where 50 million small farmers produce 20% of the global wheat supply? CIMMYT pathologists estimated that 97% of the wheat there would succumb. What if it reached the world’s largest wheat producer, China? Then Turkey, France, Kansas? It looked like almost every wheat in the world would have to be re-bred to beat this plague.And meanwhile, Cyclone Guno hit the Arabian Peninsula, changing the winds and driving Ug99 into Iran. The breeders, trying to organize themselves into a broad international consortium, had to find new sources of resistance to head off the swiftly mutating rust. In the Olympic winter of 2010, it was one of the most important races being run in this hungry world, and losing it was simply not an option, and most of us had no idea it was even happening. How could we, everyday supermarket shoppers, rolling our carts through the bounteous aisles, even dream that something in the wheat fields might be turning against us, that a small group of scientists from all over the world were now desperately hunting for ways to cure a plague that could profoundly impact our daily bread?
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