Inside Salk; Salk Insitute

Insider's View

William R. Brody

In 1968, I remember being scared out of my wits reading the best-selling book by Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb. Professor Ehrlich’s logic was impeccable: he said the global population would double by 2005 (to about 7 billion in actuality) and that the world would run out of food, causing mass starvation and deaths.

When 2005 came, Ehrlich’s predictions on population growth proved remarkably accurate, but not his warnings of global-scale starvation. Where was the food shortage? As it turned out, Ehrlich’s calculations hadn’t factored in important developments in the growth of the food supply that would help food production keep pace with the burgeoning human population.

In fact, what happened was the Green Revolution, a period of dramatic growth in the world food supply kicked off by Norman Borlaug, an American plant biologist who developed strains of wheat that were much higher yielding and disease resistant than the status quo. In addition, the introduction of advanced agricultural practices worldwide provided a tremendous increase in productivity not thought feasible when Ehrlich made his doomsday prediction. Borlaug launched the Green Revolution and was joined in this effort by many other scientists who introduced similar innovations in agriculture production.

Agricultural innovations allowed wheat production to increase from 800 pounds per acre in the 1950s to over 6,000 pounds per acre by the late 1960s. For his work, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize and is credited with saving millions of lives from starvation.

Today, young ecologists are beginning to write books similar to The Population Bomb. Although the world population growth is slowing, so is the growth of agricultural productivity, and climate change is already tipping regions around the world into drought.

We need visionary plant biologists who can develop a much deeper understanding of how plants react to environmental stress and what can be done to protect existing species or create new ones that are more tolerant of heat, drought and disease.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the field of plant biology is seriously underfunded. Yes, I know that getting National Institutes of Health grants is difficult, but for plant biology the scene is even bleaker. NIH typically only funds plant biology grants where there is a link to the understanding of human diseases, while the National Science Foundation budget for plant biology has been woefully inadequate for decades.

Private philanthropy is helpful–the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation teamed with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to fund faculty scholars in plant biology–as was illustrated when Salk professor Joseph Ecker received one of these generous awards. But we need to raise awareness among the general public that funding plant science is just as important as funding cancer research.

We need to kick-start the Second Green Revolution. The well-being of our children and grandchildren will likely depend upon innovations to protect and grow our food sources.