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Mexico Plant Breeding Conference Focuses on Meeting Food Demands - 2003-08-21

How to feed an ever hungrier world is the question being answered this week in Mexico City at an international symposium of agricultural researchers. The meeting has brought together more than 300 experts on plant breeding from 50 countries.

One principal reason for the gathering is to honor Arnel Hallauer, who has greatly influenced plant breeders worldwide via his teaching, publications and practical advances in the field.

A professor emeritus at Iowa State University, he is looking to technology to lead the way to greater crop yields, but he does not underestimate the difficulties that must be overcome.

"Drought, heat, disease pressures and those few items there, are really the items that have to be addressed to eliminate drastic losses of crops," he explained. "Genetic potential is there, worldwide for higher yields. It's those critical limiting factors. As we have learned in chemistry, if you have 10 different variables and there's one limiting, why the whole compound is not generated. You can't produce it."

This week's International Symposium on Plant Breeding has been organized by the Mexico City-based International Maize and Wheat improvement Center, knows as CIMMYT, and Iowa State University. Its purpose is to assess the state of the art and science of plant breeding and the future prospects for this scientific discipline that has become so important for our hungry world.

Shivaji Pandey, the director of CIMMYTs maize program, says that the science of plant breeding stretches back more than 10,000 years. He says that it is now time for agricultural researchers from around the world to discuss what steps should be taken to ensure the safety of crops.

"So our idea was to take stock of where we come from, where we are going, why are we in trouble, and where are we going to go next to maintain plant breeding and everything," he said.

Plant breeding is both a science and a business. John Schoper of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which produces and supplies seed, is research director for Latin America and Africa maize product development. He explains there is a crucial bridge between the scientific discipline and the private sector, which needs to market and sell the fruits of its ground breaking development.

"We are a company and at the end of the day, we need products to sell. People who develop those products are plant breeders. So there is an interdependency between the public and private sector that will never go away," he said.

Don Duvick is retired senior vice president of research at Pioneer. He is now affiliate professor of Plant Breeding at Iowa State University. Mr. Duvick says today's science can do remarkable things, such as adapt plants not only to promote growth, make them safer to use.

"In many cases, if an insect burrows into a grain of corn for example, various fungi follow, which make toxic substances," he explained. "They call them mica toxins, which are deadly poisons. So obviously if you breed for resistance to insect attack, you make food safer for the people who eat it." Other topics, including conservation, adaptation of crops for different soils, and taking account of varying rainfalls and irrigation availability - all are part of the discussions at this week's conference.

While the world's population continues to grow, its land mass remains the same. Better use of poor soils, adapting to challenging climates, and maximizing crop yields are in all our interests.