Agronomy and Horticulture, Department of


Document Type


Date of this Version



Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (2020) 44(1): 3–6

doi: 10.1080/21683565.2019.1648359


Copyright © 2020, Taylor and Francis. Used by permission


I admit to being a slow learner. Graduate school training in agronomy at the University of California, Davis and in plant breeding at Cornell University provided me with top-quality opportunities to acquire the tools for crop improvement, plus the contacts to join professionals at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. As a young scientist dedicated to building on successes of the Green Revolution, I was convinced that genetic changes would solve global hunger. This had been amply demonstrated with the yield increases of wheat in Mexico and India, and with rice in Southeast Asia. Should this success not be extended to small farmers everywhere? In the late 1960s we were excited with the demonstration that opaque-2 maize hybrids, uncovered at Purdue University and developed by the Colombian Institute for Agriculture (ICA) and Rockefeller Foundation in Colombia, could substantially contribute to reducing malnutrition in children. Young people’s diets depended on this dominant cereal deficient in two key amino acids, lysine and tryptophan, and the new maize was higher in both essential elements. It was disheartening to learn that people were not interested in a floury-type maize that could not be easily turned into the classical arepas important in the Colombian diet. New hybrids languished in the breeder’s seed banks. I was still convinced that we were doing things right, but there was a nagging feeling that our breeding programs may have not been doing the right things! The excellent training at Cornell had provided me with an effective hammer, but perhaps I was spending too much time searching for nails? It became clear that malnutrition was the right challenge, but that solutions would not come from plant breeding alone. And it was obvious that problems are more complex, and my hammer was only one among many tools.