Top Scientists Point to Research Past, Present and FutureBy Jim De Quattro
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 consequences."
"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.