Top Scientists Point to Research Past,
Present and Future
By Jim De
December 30, 1999
In the special millennium issue of the Agricultural Research Service's monthly
magazine, five of the agency's most renowned scientists speak about the
history, promise and continuing challenges of agricultural science. All five
are in the USDA research agency's Science
Hall of Fame.
Wilson A. Reeves had been with USDA seven years when ARS was created in
1953. "Most of us thought, 'we can do great things here,'" he says in
the December issue of Agricultural Research. During his USDA career from
1946 to 1975, Reeves developed chemicals and techniques for giving cotton
fabrics improved characteristics such as wrinkle and fire resistance.
What if he were just now beginning his career?
"If I was a young scientist," he says, "I would want to get
into biotech. That's a specialization that can really help agriculture."
According to R. James Cook, "What we're doing today in genetic
engineering is quite crude compared to what we'll be able to do when we
understand more about all plant genes, their function, and how they are
expressed." Cook retired in 1998 after 33 years working to introduce
biological control strategies against plant disease and design sustainable
approaches for growing wheat with less tillage.
"High-yield agriculture has long been associated with environmental
devastation," Cook says. "But through genetics and management, we've
moved closer to obtaining these yields with benign environmental
"One exciting outgrowth of agricultural biotechnology," says Lyman
B. Crittenden, "is the development of plants and animals that produce
nontraditional products such as pharmaceuticals and plastics. This may result
in novel products that are cheaper and more environmentally acceptable than
could be produced by other manufacturing methods."
At ARS from 1961 to 1989, Crittenden led development of the first transgenic
chickens, gene engineered to prevent infection by certain virus strains. But,
he cautions, "It is a temptation to adopt new methods just because they
are high-tech, even though they may not have been shown to be better and more
economical than traditional methods."
What's crucial to the successful transfer of new research technology to
farmers? "Local ownership of research programs and local participation in
management," says Walter H. Wischmeier. At USDA from 1940 to 1976, he
created the Universal Soil Loss Equation for predicting soil erosion. The USLE,
used around the world, is a major basis for today's computer models that
estimate how farming affects water quality.
Another technology transfer success was the sterile insect release technique
to suppress insect pests. Edward F. Knipling, with USDA from 1931 to 1973,
pioneered the technique. It led to eradication of the screwworm from the U.S.,
Mexico and parts of Central America. Today it's used worldwide to eradicate
outbreaks of other pests such as Mediterranean fruit flies.
But many challenges remain. For example, says Knipling, "While
virtually all of the major insect pests affecting agriculture are being
controlled on a year-by-year basis, the threat that they pose for agriculture
under the current farm-to-farm management procedure is as great as ever at the
beginning of each crop-growing season."
Instead, Knipling says, the objective should be "to manage the total
populations of major insect pests on an areawide basis. The investment will be
very low, compared with the economic and environmental benefits."
Click here to view
the December issue of Agricultural Research magazine.