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​​​​​​​The Corn Blight of 1970: Scientific Credibility in Response to Unexpected Outcomes from Changing Technology​

Jerald Pataky, University of Illinois, IL, USA​

Fifty years ago, the U.S. agricultural community was near panic as southern corn leaf blight appeared suddenly and severely in fields from Florida to Minnesota causing more than $1 billion in lost yield, the greatest economic damage ever from a plant disease on an American row crop. As the result of a series of technological changes in corn, each introduced to solve a spec​ific production problem, America’s most valuable crop was nearly uniformly susceptible in 1970 to a new, toxin-producing race of Helminthosporium maydis. Dam​age from H. maydis race T was largely responsible for decreasing the 1970 average US corn yield by​ 16% as compared to the previous year. But even as the epidemic spread and corn prices rose in the late s​ummer of 1970, a group of vigilant corn pathologists already had completed a set of experiments that identified the cause of the blight and a potential solution. Two years later, after one cycle of seed productio​n, that solution was in place and the average yield of the US corn crop was 10% higher than ever before. The rapid re​sponse to the corn blight of 1970 greatly enhanced the scientific credibility of plant pathologists in the eyes of the agricultural community. The short duration of the epidemic is one of the best examples of our discipline rising to the task of solving growers’ problems. In this talk, Snook Pataky will review the events that led up to the southern corn leaf blight epidemic of 1970 and examine several of the outcomes and lessons learned as they apply to production agriculture and plant pathology today.​​

Keynote prese​ntation at Plant Health 2020.