Mankind’s ability to keep feeding itself has been assisted by much scientific legwork behind the scenes, with those efforts continuing today in many corners of the world — including an unassuming, metal building in Evans, Colo.
This month, Bill Curran, a scientist with DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred Research Center, and his employees were organizing nearly 60,000 different hybrid corn seeds that will soon be planted across 265 acres in Weld County, and grown under different levels of irrigation.
Those thousands of different seeds — with various genetic makeups to tolerate drought and resist certain insects, weeds and diseases — were being placed on shelves in the same order they’ll be planted in the fields.
Through the growing season, the local researchers will examine each of the varieties, and, with iPads in hand, take note of what’s thriving, what’s dying and everything in between.
And following fall harvest, they’ll do away with the unsuccessful hybrids, and — using models and logarithms developed by the likes of MIT graduates at DuPont Pioneer’s headquarters in Iowa — the company will develop thousands of new genetic combinations for seeds that will be tested next year.
The ultimate goal: For every farmer to one day have a seed that will thrive in their particular soil and in their particular climate, and fight the weeds, insects and diseases specific to their fields.
“We’re not there yet,” Curran said. “But I think we’re getting there.”
A corn guy through and through, the Iowa-native Curran often finds himself navigating to the International Rice Research Institute’s website, of all places.
There, he watches a ticker, continuously counting both the world’s increasing population and the decreasing acres of arable land lost to urbanization — all of which reminds Curran why he journeyed into his profession decades ago.
“We just lost another hectare (of farmground),” he said Wednesday, looking at his computer. “And there goes another one.
“We have to maximize our production somehow.”
Companywide, DuPont Pioneer — an international producer of hybrid seeds — puts out about 100 and 150 new products each year — 132 in 2012, Curran said.
The efforts at the Evans facility will hopefully produce one of the company’s new products about every four or five years, he added. Simply put, it takes a lot of resources to get the typical 2 to 5 percent increase seen each year in corn yields, Curran said, noting that the employees in Evans are a small portion of the approximately 15,000 workers DuPont Pioneer has worldwide.
Like DuPont Pioneer, other giants of the seed industry, universities and government entities are teaming up to improve production in agriculture.
Mike Moore is a research leader with the University of Wyoming’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Powell, where he and others will again use their 200 acres this growing season to explore different timings for irrigating and harvesting and other best-production methods for sugar beets, dry beans, barley, sunflowers and sainfoin.
Specifically this year, they’ll explore kochia’s recently developed resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, and what farmers can do to control the weed.
“We have an advantage in research that farmers don’t; that being that we can try something new and afford to fail,” Moore said. “Because there’s dollars on the line, farmers can’t really afford to make mistakes. “We can, though, and through our trial and error, we can really help farmers maximize production. That’s what we’re really here for; to provide that information they need.
“I’m anxious to see what we learn this year.”
Because of the research done by Moore and others, modern farming practices, when combined with ideal climate and new hybrid corn seeds, can produce nearly 400 bushels per acre, Curran said.
Plant breeding dates back about 10,000 years with the domestication of the first agricultural plants, and was enhanced by Gregor Mendel’s understanding of plant genetics in the 1800s and by countless other scientific breakthroughs in more recent decades.
Today, Curran said he and his fellow researchers at DuPont Pioneer are examining about 10 times more hybrids than they were when he first went to work for the company in 1993.
The work does comes with some controversy.
Opponents claim that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, haven’t been around long enough to be proven safe.
At the same time, though, the World Health Organization states that GMO foods “currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”
Additionally, Curran stresses that the industry in the U.S. is monitored by three federal agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Because GMO seeds have built-in resistance to specific insects, weeds and disease, they reduce the need for farmers to use chemicals, Curran noted, and, therefore, eliminate passes in the field, reducing fuel use.
Production losses in drought now are less significant, too, he added.
The drought years of 1934 and 2012 often draw comparisons.
However, in 1934, the average corn-for-grain yield in Colorado was 6.6 per acre, and in 2012, the average was 133 — a 20-fold increase that can be attributed to the many technological advances in farming, including GMOs and the production methods that have come out of years of research, experts say.
Stressing why such increased production is needed, Curran returns his attention to the ticker on the IRRI’s website.
“We just lost more ground,” he said. “Obviously, something needs to be done.
“So that’s what we’re working on here.”