The Future is Now

Feeding the World's Billions

Published in the November 2010 Issue Published online: Nov 06, 2010 Phillip Nolte, University of Idaho Extension Professor
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I recently came across a list of prominent scientists who passed away during 2009. A number of great men who made notable contributions to physics, medicine and even political science are, sadly, no longer among us. On this list was one man who, for me, stood out from the others because his significant contributions were to agriculture. His name was Dr. Norman Borlaug. Widely hailed as "the Father of the Green Revolution," Borlaug and his team were ultimately responsible for breeding dwarf wheat varieties with improved disease resistance as well as bringing modern growing practices to Mexico.

In the arena of potato science, we had our own champion: Dr. John S. Niederhauser, who was a colleague of Borlaug's in Mexico on the same Rockefeller grant. Niederhauser made significant contributions toward a better understanding of Potato Late Blight and how to combat it-particularly through resistant varieties. Borlaug was instrumental in creating the World Food Prize, established in 1987 to ".honor outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world." John Niederhauser was the recipient of this prestigious prize in 1990. He, too, is gone now, having passed away in 2005.

Borlaug estimated that the use of modern growing techniques on all of the world's land area currently under cultivation could allow our planet to support perhaps 10 billion people. The Earth's human population is projected to reach 7 billion sometime during 2011 and rise to 8 billion by 2025. That 10-billion mark may arrive sometime around 2050 but, naturally, estimates vary. Increased production requirements and "low tech" approaches to food production almost inevitably mean the conversion of more forests and other sensitive, irreplaceable environmental areas into farm land. Are we in need of another "Green Revolution" of some sort in the near future? Could genetic modification provide some answers?

For those of us in the potato industry, the future is now. The "sustainability" movement that so many of us are currently involved in represents the beginnings of what must evolve into an agricultural system that not only produces lots of affordable, nutritious, safe food but also provides America's farms with the tools to remain profitable while lowering risk and maintaining environmental quality. This effort will require the cooperation of all the players in the industry, but some of the most important contributions have and will continue to come from potato scientists.

The Potato Association of America (PAA), which came into being in 1913, represents the "scientific arm" of the industry and is made up of potato scientists from all disciplines-production, breeding and genetics, physiology, crop protection, utilization and marketing , seed certification and extension. PAA will be well represented at the upcoming 2011 Potato Expo in Las Vegas. We'll have a booth and, like last year in Orlando, a poster display. Many of the speakers that you will see making presentations in the breakout sections will also be PAA members.

There is no doubt that science has played and will continue to play a vital role in feeding the world's billions. Potatoes, with their excellent nutritional qualities and efficient use of land area, will also play an important role in mankind's future. As a scientist and member of the PAA, I urge you to attend the PAA presentations, peruse the posters or just stop by the booth to chat. We'll be more than happy to talk potato science with you! Many of you might consider becoming members. We'll have application materials at the booth, but you might also wish to check out our website: