The Famine Fighter
Perry Gustafson beileves we can win the battle against world hunger.
By Charles E. Reineke and Melody Kroll, Photo by Rob Hill.

Perry Gustafson portraitThe Foodand Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently made headlines after, citing a change in methodology, it revised downward its 2010 estimate of the world’s hungry from one billion to 868 million. That so many struggle to feed themselves in a world awash in food is, by any measure, unacceptable. But the new number does at least offer hope that we are making progress.

Optimism was certainly in evidence at England’s University of Nottingham in February, where a group of globe trotting wheat breeders had assembled to dedicate a new tool in the fight against famine. The University of Nottingham has made a point of deploying its considerable resources toward tackling global food insecurity, and on this day faculty and guests were cutting the ribbon on a $1.6 million greenhouse complex.

They weren’t just there, however, to celebrate the new “glasshouse,” as the British call it. They were also applauding a lifetime of achievement by the famine-fighting scientist from the University of Missouri for whom it was to be named.

The Perry Gustafson Glasshouse Complex will be a key part of the university’s program using crop cytogenetics and gene introgression — disciplines that analyze the number and structure of chromosomes in food plants — to explore previously untapped reservoirs of genetic variation in wild species of cereals. Wheat, Gustafson’s signature cereal, will be front and center in their efforts, says Ian King, professor of cereal genomics at Nottingham.

“A lot of the work that we do involves crossing ancestral species with wheat so you can transfer important traits like disease resistance, heat tolerance, and such, from distant relatives of wheat into wheat,” says King. “Perry has been one of the leaders in the field for the last 40 years, and has had a major impact on training students throughout the world.”

King says plants developed using upwards of £10 million ($15.2 million) in research funding will likely find their way into the 10,000 square-foot facility — “The truth is you can’t do experiments if you haven’t got the room to grow your plants,” he says — and that these new cereals are desperately needed.

“A lot of it is aimed at food security in regard to feeding the growing world population, which is going up to 9 billion,” says King. “According to the FAO, we’re going to need to increase up to 60 percent to 70 percent more food … just to maintain our present levels.” The decision to name such a facility for Gustafson, he adds, was easy. From Europe and Asia, to the Americas and Australia, pretty much everyone, everywhere owes an intellectual debt to him.

“Take China, for example,” says King. “Most of their top people learned in his lab. He’s also had a big influence in India. If you look at the people who are working [today], many have come through his lab, most of them in fact. I don’t want to sound too big headed, but he’s like one of the ‘gods,’ as it were, in the field.”

Peter Raven, the renowned botanist who for four decades led the Missouri Botanical Garden, echoes King’s assessment. Gustafson, he says, is the kind of scientist who makes other scientists, and scientists-to-be, better researchers.

“Perry is one of those people who always does it personally, and with concern; always encourages people and always helps them to understand that they can do better tha ought to be to one another.”

Raven pauses, then asks: Did you hear the story of the woman who had dinner dates on successive nights with Gladstone and Disraeli? “Someone asked her, “How was it to be the dinner companion of such notable people?” She said, “When I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Mr. Gladstone, at the end of the meeting I felt I had been privileged to have had dinner with one of the very most accomplished people in whole world. After I had dinner with Mr. Disraeli, I felt that I must be one of the most accomplished people in the whole world.’ Isn’t that a beautiful quotation? That’s kind of what Perry is like.”

 

True to form,

Gustafson’s speech at the ceremony hardly mentioned his own accomplishments. He instead spent his turn at the podium crediting mentors and colleagues who just happened to be giants in plant genetics — among them MU’s Ernie and Lottie Sears, the husband and wife team of wheat geneticists who created leaf- and stem-rust fungus resistance in domesticated wheat, and Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning “father of the Green Revolution.” Gustafson next made a point of recognizing the critical contributions made by his long-time research associate, Kathleen Ross Dahlman, who made the trip to England for the occasion.

Finally, he took a moment to remind those gathered exactly why they were there in the first place.

“There is no greater human concern than alleviating hunger and want in this world,” Gustafson said, adding that only growing more grain will make that happen. “Wheat and rice are the two largest crops in the world for direct food consumption by people. Wheat currently supplies some 660 million tons per year, and that figure will need to be increased to over 1 billion tons in the next 40 years.”

Group in agriculture greenhouse

Wheat in Glass Houses

Left to right: Chris Gustafson, Perry Gustafson, Ian King and U.K wheat breeder Bill Angus in the Gustafson Glasshouse Complex.

Back in his MU office, a modest space buried deep within the bowels of the sprawling Agriculture Building, Gustafson, now an emeritus professor, invites a visitor to settle in on an exceedingly well-worn orange and red couch. He moved here from his lab in Curtis Hall after retiring from 30 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in 2011.

The room says much about the man. Affixed to the door outside, just above his nameplate, is a “No Farmers No Food” bumper sticker. The interior is crammed with books, filing cabinets, research-related ephemera Gustafson has collected over the years, among them Sears’ typewriter and his collection of wheat chromosomal variants. There are awards Gustafson has received from around the world, including three medals bestowed upon him by grateful institutions in Poland. (“I showed up. I listened. I worked with them. I drank beer with them,” Gustafson says when asked why he was so honored.) There are also photos, lots of them: Gustafson with green revolutionary Norman Borlaug; he and Theodosius Dobzhansky, the great Russian scientist whose experiments showed how genetic variation was the key driver in natural selection; Gustafson with Ledyard Stebbins, himself a colossal figure in plant evolutionary biology; a candid shot of Ernie and Lottie Sears; and an image depicting Gustafson’s Colorado State University roommate, Ronald McLean, posing with his stepfather, Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart, on graduation day in Fort Collins.

Gustafson spent his childhood just down the road from CSU, at least in so far as distances are measured on Colorado’s High Plains. The family’s farm near Greeley has been run by a Gustafson since it was homesteaded in the 1870s.

“Growing up on a farm is the same wherever you go,” Gustafson recalls. “Up at five, feed the cattle, eat breakfast, then out in the field working until noon, eat lunch, and then back out until six. Then you feed the cattle at night. It’s still there, same way it was when I left, except no cattle anymore.”

The cattle may be gone, but Gustafson hasn’t forgotten the role they played in his education. Back in the 1950s it wasn’t common for farm kids to seek a college education. For those who did, meeting expenses was a challenge. There were fewer aid programs, and no subsidized loans.

Gustafson’s father recommended the four-legged approach to building education equity. “When we were really little, if I remember correctly, we got a pig,” he says. “It was our responsibility to feed and raise that pig and sell it. Dad always supplied the feed. But we bought the animals after the first one. That was our college fund. If we didn’t feed them and sell them, we didn’t get any money.”

While livestock paid for college, they didn’t hold much academic interest for Gustafson. Instead he became an agronomy major, drawn to plant genetics and the excitement generated by wheat-breeding expert Byrd Curtis.

Curtis, now an emeritus professor at CSU, was an early champion of using germplasm — reproductive cells that confer hereditary traits — to develop new strains of cereal crops, most notably wheat. He later became the head of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, CIMMYT, the Mexico City-based organization most famous for partnering with Norman Borlaug to boost food-crop production in the developing world.

Gustafson was a standout student, a natural candidate for graduate study. But he wanted a break from learning to feed the planet. His plan, in so far as there was one, consisted of pursuing that uniquely Coloradan rite of passage known as tending bar in a ski resort. Unfortunately, Gustafson says, the local draft board had something else in mind: “You go to graduate school and we’ll leave you alone. You don’t, then you’re going to Vietnam,” he recalls board members telling him.

Thus did Gustafson find himself in his car heading to the only-slightly-less exotic — and far more welcoming — campus of the University of California-Davis. It wasn’t Aspen, but Davis had its consolations. “I’d never been to California,” Gustafson says. “I’d never seen the ocean. It was close to skiing. It was close to wine country.”

Soon he was immersed in a research environment far more intoxicating than ski slopes or viticulture. Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ledyard Stebbins, the great evolutionary biologists, both served on the UC-Davis faculty at the time. For a graduate student like Gustafson it was akin to a rookie-league prospect finding himself at spring training with Gehrig and Ruth.

“Dobzhansky was the greatest animal evolutionist since Darwin, and Ledyard Stebbins was the best plant evolutionist since Darwin,” Gustafson says. “They thought, lived, and breathed evolution. It was quite an amazing time to be there. They were it, the best in the world.

“Stebbins was on my thesis committee, and I’d meet with Dobzhansky once a week. He was someone I could talk to for hours.”

 

At UC Davis,

Gustafson laid the foundation for the work that would consume the next four decades of his life — creating crosses between cereal plant species that boosted advantageous traits in the resulting hybrid. Under the direction of Calvin Qualset and Stebbins, he began working with a wheat and rye cross called triticale, a hybrid first identified in the latter part of the 19th century.

Group in agriculture greenhouse

partners in food production

Top: Gustafson with Jesse Dubin, retired CIMMYT scientist and Gustafson’s life-long friend, during a 2012 teaching trip to CIMMYT wheat fields in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico. The two scientists have been making the trip to Sonora each spring since 1969. Above:Perry Gustafson with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Norman Borlaug in Gustafson’s MU office.

Rye is a robust grain that adapts well to various soil types, tolerates drought, is resistant to cold, has few diseases and doesn’t require a lot of chemical inputs. Wheat, on the other hand, is much more fickle.

Productive challenges notwithstanding, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world, providing no less than 20 percent of the daily protein for 4.5 billion people. Combining rye’s robustness with wheat’s food friendliness could revolutionize human agriculture by providing a stable source of nutrition for hundreds of millions. But helping triticale live up to its potential has been difficult.

Because almost all of the early wheat and rye crosses were incapable of reproducing, plant breeders quickly realized that only laboratory interventions could make the triticale commercially viable. Work in the early- to mid-1900s focused on expanding the number of the plant’s chromosome sets to allow reproduction. That line of investigation got a big boost by the discovery of colchicine, a naturally derived chemical that allowed scientists to artificially “double” chromosomes in embryonic wheat and rye cells.

The initial triticales were made from rye and a variety of bread wheat, combining six sets of chromosomes from the wheat and two from the rye. These “octoploid” hybrids showed promise, but produced grain that was less-wheat-like than hoped. In 1948, MU’s Joseph O’Mara used durum wheat’s four sets of chromosomes to combine with rye’s two. The resulting “hexapolid” triticale, the world’s first, showed greater commercial potential and has been the focus of triticale researchers ever since.

At UC-Davis, Gustafson was part of a cadre of international researchers who were using these “primary” triticale hybrids as a genetic base for building new, more commercially viable crops. Scientists at Canada’s University of Manitoba were among the world leaders in this effort and, after earning his degree in 1972, Gustafson moved north to join them.

Much of his job involved fieldwork with CIMMYT on investigations funded by the Canadian government. “We would plant in May in Canada and harvest in September,” Gustafson says, “[then] plant in October in Mexico and harvest in April.”

Not only did the trips to Mexico provide a welcome respite from Winnipeg’s bitter cold, they also provided an opportunity to work with Norman Borlaug, whom Gustafson had first met back at UC-Davis. “He’s the reason I got into international agriculture and why I’m still working on practical wheat problems,” Gustafson says. “He influenced my perspective on what a person could do, and why you should do it. I was inspired by his massive workload — he never stopped — and his dedication to feeding people. To give you an example, several years ago the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service wanted me to go to Bangladesh and work on a project. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’

“Two weeks later, I got a telephone call. Not ‘Hi, this is Norm,’ but, ‘Why the hell aren’t you going to Bangladesh?’

“Hi Norm,” I said.

“Get on the plane. They need your help.”

And off Gustafson went.

Back in the late 1970s, however, Gustafson’s world was more circumscribed, his duties as a global plant-science emissary more limited. That began to change in 1981.

 

Ernie Sears,

the wheat geneticist stationed at MU, was retiring, and the USDA-ARS was looking for a wheat specialist to fill his position. No one, of course, thought this was even remotely possible, least of all Gustafson.

Sears, who died in 1991, was a legend. Along with his wife Lottie, herself a renowned cytogeneticist, the Harvard-educated Sears had, in the 1950s, transferred a gene for resistance to leaf rust disease from a wild grass species into the wheat variety Chinese Spring — science’s first example of chromosomal engineering. Sears and Lottie also produced a series of wheat lines called aneuploids to analyze individual chromosomes for useful genes. And Lottie was instrumental in the genetic mapping of Arabidopsis thaliana, the model plant championed by MU’s George Rédei.

“Ernie basically saved the US wheat industry in the 1950s,” says Gustafson. “How many people here at MU know the impact he had on the world’s wheat production, and still does? You don’t go anywhere in the world where they don’t mention Sears. His impact, I’d say, was beyond Borlaug’s or at least equal.”

Still, Gustafson took the USDA-ARS job, determined to make his own mark in his own way. “Fill Ernie’s shoes? Absolutely impossible. It’s an ego trip to think you’ve replaced someone like him. Even if your ego says you can, you can’t. Nobody will ever replace Borlaug either.”

“All of us working in wheat today owe our careers to Ernie and Lottie Sears,” he continues. “They were a team, and their contributions were equal in many ways. No one has, or will, be able to fill their shoes. All of us just try and fill our own shoes.”

From his new home in Curtis Hall, Gustafson quickly began to do just that. Working with Kathleen Ross Dahlman, he set about using the data amassed by Sears and others to bring greater variability into wheat: “I thought, ‘Let’s see how we can manipulate genes from other species into wheat, for utilization in wheat improvement.’”

From the beginning this meant involving others, particularly students. “My students spent a lot of time asking, ‘Once we get the gene in there, what can we do with it? Is it going to work? Is it going to express? If it doesn’t express, why?’” A recent example involved aluminum tolerance. Some 40 percent of the arable land in the world is acidic, explains Gustafson, containing toxic levels of aluminum. Plant scientists thought that once they had identified the rye gene that codes for aluminum tolerance, introducing it into wheat would be a cinch. It hasn’t been.

“It’s proving to be far more complicated than we thought from the genetic level, but the gene from rye expresses itself in a wheat background. For example, the most aluminum-tolerant wheat is tolerant to about 32 parts per million of aluminum. No wheat in the past 70 years has shown any more tolerance. But CIMMYT has ryes that are tolerant to 200 parts per million of aluminum. So we said, “If we put that gene into wheat, we should raise wheat’s tolerance level.’ And it did.

“The United States produces about 60 million tons of wheat a year on average. We consume about 30 million tons, or about 90,000 tons a day. If someone says, we should raise the acid tolerance of wheat so we can produce more wheat, the wheat industry will say ‘What for?’ [But] our project was designed for the farmers of the world, the farmers of Bangladesh and Peru, as well as the farmers in the US.”

Gustafson’s planet-wide ambitions are not just window-dressing. Since the early 1980s, he has worked as a consultant for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (UN-IAEA). The agency devotes a portion of its budget to work with the FAO, and has enlisted Gustafson’s help on projects across the globe. A barley project in Peru was among those that made a lasting impression.

In the mid-1990s, Gustafson says, the high price of transporting imported grain to the Peruvian highlands meant the local population struggled to feed itself. Gustafson noticed there were some 2000 hectares (around 5,000 acres) of barley grown, but the variety, introduced by the Spanish in centuries earlier, was prone to falling over and husked, making it unfit for human consumption. Peruvian scientists and Gustafson nevertheless saw potential: “We thought, ‘Let’s do a mutation project to create a new genetic variation, because mutation work is fairly cheap.’”

“About three years later,” he says, “the UN-IAEA came up with a barley that was 20 centimeters shorter, two weeks earlier, had a naked kernel and, except for being earlier and shorter, it looked identical to the variety the local farmers were using.”

This last bit was important, he says, so farmers didn’t feel like we were “pushing something new on them.” Today, Gustafson reckons, there are about 200,000 hectares of edible barley cultivated in the highlands.

An earlier project in Poland, he adds, led to a lifetime of involvement — and those medals on his office walls. “That’s where I started getting interested in acid soil, because Poland’s got a lot of acid soils. I gave lectures and brought visiting scientists over and had students come over. They bought me a lot of beer, but they obviously thought I needed something else.”

“This was in the 1970s. Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. They were happy that someone came over, expressed an interest in what they were doing and was willing to sit down with them — to talk to them, walk in the fields with them and go back and see them a second time. Whether it’s Poland or Romania or Mexico, the inclination is to go in there and tell farmers what to do. That’s a mistake. Like Borlaug, I don’t want people to work for me. I want people to work with me.”

 

During a

phone conversation from her home in California, Ross Dahlman says such sentiments show why Nottingham University’s King, and others around the globe, hold Gustafson in such esteem. The key, she says, is his skill at connecting the academic researchers, applied scientists, breeders and farmers in the field. “He is a great team builder,” Ross Dahlman says. “He knows how to pull people together, and he knows who’s doing good work.”

This also extends to students. “He is a person who takes great pride in his students’ successes,” she says. “He promotes their work by sharing it with other people and allowing them to participate in a lot of interactions with other scientists. He really was a true mentor to his students.”

For his part, Gustafson says this support for the new-generation scientists — perhaps the next Sears, Dobzhansky, Stebbins, and Borlaug — is what he’s most proud of. “I never have and never will evaluate my own science,” he says. “Training people around the world, I’d like to think that was a far more valuable contribution than my publications.”

Valedictory thoughts aside, don’t suggest to Gustafson that he’s finished. Yes, his travel schedule is slightly lighter. But he’s still, as Borlaug would have insisted, hauling himself off to places where people need help, chiefly through his continued affiliation with CIMMYT. Why keep it up? Because, he says, there are hungry people to feed.

“As humans, we all have a role in attempting to make changes,” Gustafson says. “I believe that we are capable of producing enough food to feed 9 billion people on the same amount of land currently under production.” The real question, he adds, is ‘Will we?’

“I think my personal role is to keep teaching farmers in developing countries how to produce more, and telling anyone who will listen that improving the world’s infrastructure is as important as producing more food. Like everyone, every scientist has his or her own opinion. But we all are responsible for making our voices heard on such an important problem facing humanity.”

Reader Comments

Mitch wrote on July 16, 2013

If Deaton or the people running his plush Institute for University Leadership and International Development had any brains they would hire Mr. Gustafson to lead the food security part of the Institute's mission statement. Is there anyone else more qualified with more global connections - I doubt it.

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