Tropical Agriculture Gets Attention
At a meeting in Turrialba,
Costa Rica, members of CATIE's
Board of Directors listen
to a presentation by Francisco
Mesen, head of CATIE's Plantation
years ago, then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace proposed the
creation of an inter-American institution for tropical agriculture that would
benefit all American countries by conducting research and training personnel.
The idea quickly took root in Turrialba, Costa Rica, and is now the
internationally recognized Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education
Center, or CATIE (KAH-tee-ay), for short.
Later this month, about 100 invited scientists and policymakers will gather
in Turrialba for the first of the Henry A. Wallace Conference Series,
cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and CATIE.
"This conference series will provide a forum for high-level discussion
of strategies in science and technology for tropical agriculture. It will build
on CATIE's strengths as a regional leader in research and education
activities," says Agricultural Research
Service (ARS) Administrator Floyd Horn, who currently serves on CATIE's
board of directors.
Cocoa beans in a cacao pod.
Ferreira, director general of CATIE, says, "There are policy issues in
agriculture, forestry, environment, and other areas that affect the whole
region, so there is a move to integrate Central America on these issues. The
conferences will foster interchange between scientists in North, Central, and
South America and between scientists and decisionmakers.
"It's also an opportunity for CATIE to markedly enhance our
contributions to research and higher education in our region," notes
Invited speakers are leaders in their fields, and participants are selected for their potential to translate knowledge gained at the conference into benefits for their individual countries. They come from the public and private sectors to develop coalitions in the tropical agricultural region.
Nobel laureate Norman E. Borlaug will open the conference as keynote speaker
(see sidebar below), and Francisco Reifschneider, director of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), will give an overview of
the effect of globalization on agricultural research. Other speakers include
ARS national program leaders and directors of some of the 17 international
agricultural research centers affiliated with CGIAR.
In addition to addressing issues related to globalization, the conference
will develop strategies for rural development in Latin America and the
Caribbean and for adding value to agricultural production in the region.
Ferreira says the price of coffeean important crop to Latin American
farmers and U.S. consumershas been declining dramatically. Conferees will
discuss ways to counteract this, such as producing quality coffee for niche
markets and diversifying production to other crops that would turn a profit in
global markets. Coffee can be grown along with high-value timber, for example,
or with tropical fruits that could be sold as concentrates or jams.
"It's a matter of changing the way in which coffee farms are managed to add value," Ferreira says.
Produce While Conserving and Conserve While Producing
The challenge for CATIE in its day-to-day operation and for the conference
series is to devise new ways to increase tropical agricultural production to
feed a growing global population while conserving the world's natural resources
and the environment. Thus, CATIE's mission statement: "Produce while
conserving, and conserve while producing."
In addition to a dozen Latin American countries, the United States, Canada,
10 European countries, and Japan contribute to the support of CATIE, and many
collaborate on research and/or education projects. The center has a compact
staff of about 120 professionals, including 40 with doctorates and 50 with
master's degrees. And the center is strengthening its ties throughout the
"CATIE plays a very important role in education, training, extension,
and research activities in Latin America," says Horn. "This center is
one of our key partners as we pursue mutual collaborative interests in the
"USDA has a strong interest in supporting professional development
efforts in Latin America," Horn notes. "We recognize that the
strength of our future research partnerships depends, in large part, on
training and capacity-building programs provided by CATIE and other institutes
of higher education in the region."
Recently, says Ferreira, CATIE and the University of Idaho initiated a joint
doctoral program for training U.S. citizens in tropical agriculture and natural
resource management under CATIE's graduate program. The National Science
Foundation is underwriting the doctoral program.
Cacao is one product of tropical agriculture of great importance to the U.S.
chocolate industry, which reaps about $8.6 billion annually in U.S. sales. The
industry has been involved with CATIE and its world-class cacao germplasm
collection for years, and the American Cocoa Research Institute recently
strengthened this relationship by becoming an affiliated member institute.
That's because fungal diseases like witches broom and frosty pod rot are
devastating cacao crops in Central and South America. Frosty pod reduces
productivity to less than half in Central America, says Ferreira.
"The chocolate manufacturers are worried about fungal diseases and
insect pests," says Raymond Schnell, research geneticist at ARS'
Subtropical Horticulture Research Unit in Miami, Florida.
With funding from the chocolate giant M&M Mars, Inc., Schnell
collaborates with CATIE and centers in Brazil, Trinidad, and Ecuador to find
the genetic markers for disease resistance against these income-robbing fungi.
(See "Food of the
Gods: Cacao and Marker-Assisted Selection," Agricultural
Research, August 2001, pp. 1011.)
Knowing where the resistance genes are located on the chromosomes will
enable geneticists worldwide to select resistant varieties or move the target
genes into current varieties with known agronomic traits.
In addition to cacao, CATIE maintains a large germplasm collection of
coffee, tropical fruits, and horticultural produce. "We have gotten quite
a bit of germplasm from CATIE and they from us," says Schnell. "It's
a very well-run institute. We're fortunate to have it."By Judy
McBride, formerly with ARS.
Feeding the World
Some might say that Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner in
1970 and respected agricultural scientist, was destined for greatness.
For evidence, they might point to the name of his hometown in Iowa: Cresco.
In Spanish, crezco, pronounced similarly to Cresco, means "I
grow." Indeed, Borlaug's entire life and research have been about growing.
He is recognized the world over as the father of the "Green
Revolution," a term that refers to marked increases in cereal-grain
production that began in the late 1960s.
"Back in the late thirties and early forties, I didn't have any idea that my work would have the impact that was achieved by the so-called Green Revolution," Borlaug said from Texas A&M University in College Station, where he gives special lectures and has a building named in his honor. "I didn't have any intentions of going into international agriculture. My education and work was originally in forestry with the U.S. Forest Service."
month's inaugural Henry A. Wallace Inter-American Scientific Conference Series
at CATIE, in Turrialba, Costa Rica, an international body of scientists and
agricultural policymakers will hear the Nobel laureate talk about his views on
research and food technology. As time marches along in this young millennium,
improving food technology is vital to a world populated by more than 6 billion
people and growing by 80 million each year. He is in favor of harnessing
biotechnology to help address the world's food shortages.
ARS and CATIE are excited to have at their conference this distinguished
scientist, who has a lengthy list of honors, accomplishments, and work
experience. The first major assignment of Borlaug's professional career took
him to Mexico, where he organized and directed the Cooperative Wheat Research
and Production Program. That was part of an initiative linking the Mexican
government with the Rockefeller Foundation. There, Borlaug oversaw foundation
research in genetics, breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil
science, and cereal technology.
It was his work in Mexico that began Borlaug's humanitarian goal of feeding
the world's indigent. While predictions of an overpopulated world with little
food to eat entered the mainstreamboosted by the 1968 best-seller The
Population BombBorlaug helped feed the poor through his research on
dwarf wheat varieties that resisted pathogens and pests while yielding two to
three times more grain than regular wheat.
From those innovations, wheat production in various countries skyrocketed.
Yields rose from 4.6 million tons to 8.4 million in Pakistan between 1965 and
1970. India's totals for the same period rose from 12.3 million to 20 million.
India has recently harvested more than 73.5 million tons of wheat.
From that work, the Rockefeller Foundation and Mexico began the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). While investigating
crop and plant problems there is a top priority, Borlaug used new funds to help
create a highly productive internship. At last count, more than 1,900 young
scientists from 16 different countries had worked with CIMMYT.
Today, Borlaug is a distinguished professor with many involvements. Through
the Carter Center's Global 2000 program, Borlaug and former U.S. President
Jimmy Carter work together to help more than an estimated 4 million small-scale
farmers in 11 sub-Saharan countries improve food production. After all these
years, his work is still creciendo (growing).By Lupe
Chavez, formerly with ARS.
"Tropical Agriculture Gets Attention" was published in the February 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.