This quote from the podcast interview with Don Huber is powerful and important.
We were shooting for 400 bushels in 1979 and 1980, and now we’re struggling with 250 bushels.
John: Don, in 1979 you were producing 350-plus bushels of corn per acre in a biological soil ecosystem. Today, growers are struggling to produced 250 bushels of corn. We don’t even have a conversation about growing 350 bushels of corn on a commercial field scale. There are a few notable exceptions, but not on a large-scale production system. What happened with that knowledge? Where did it go? Why was it not adopted on a much broader scale?
Don: We started saying we had too much production. We needed to focus on different things. At our land grant universities, a lot of that research and the long-term commitments that breeding programs require for the expression of that genetic potential was closed out. Materials were just given to the private companies to develop their experiment stations.
The universities were happy to not have that long-term commitment. They could then respond to the political pressures, and their programs started being limited to three to five years—for the competitive grant programs on a federal scale. And most of our breeding programs were funded through the Hatch Program and the Smith-Lever Program, which would give the states a constant amount of money on a formula basis for those long-term agricultural developments, which are the reason why we have success in our agricultural programs. They were built on those long-term, continuous programs that were pretty much abandoned as we started looking at the bells and whistles in science rather than at the end product.
Again, we were producing more than we knew what to do with. I don’t know what we’d do with all the corn that we currently produce if we weren’t producing so much ethanol. I mean, that’s the way to use your crop: find a new market for it. Certainly, population growth is a long way from requiring our current production. We could produce enough food for about fifteen billion people with about 30 percent less land—if we wanted to really do that, if we really needed to do that—with the technology that we had in 1964.
We were shooting for 400 bushels in 1979 and 1980, and now we’re struggling with 250 bushels. But sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel. That part of the system was not considered important, and the resources were fractured. In a breeding program, you don’t just turn it on and off with each little whim or political idea that comes along. It’s a long-term program. When we turned all of that material over to the private companies, their interest was the bottom line. There’s a tremendous amount of material that could be manipulated. But as far as that long-term commitment, there hasn’t been any of that.
Genetic engineering certainly has not improved the long-term effects; you get the idea that we can do it all in a laboratory just by switching this system on or inhibiting this particular system. We forget that it’s still a system—an ecology that has to be managed—if any of it’s going to be of value to us. It’s a thought process that’s involved, as well as the necessity. But also, the desire—the innovation—drops out when you forget that you’re a part of a very dynamic, beautiful system that was all put together—when you start focusing on only one thing. Silver bullets may take care of a varmint, but they don’t provide stability in the system.