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Corn Disease Panics Stock Market,
U.S. President


[Source:  Un-Safe Science Web Site]

Synopsis: In 1970 the epidemic spread across the US from south to north as the season progressed. The spread of the disease was published in newspapers. As the seriousness became more obvious, the stock market panicked, farmers saw their profits lost, and President Nixon attempted to quell the panic. For a time it seemed that the 1971 crop would also be destroyed.

Subsequent investigation showed that the sensitivity of the gene had been reported 8 years earlier but no effort had been made to avoid the epidemic. A mere statement that the 1970 epidemic destroyed 15% of the US corn crop will leave readers thinking "so what." This chapter, copied from the book by Jack Doyle, provides a "feel" for the real havoc the epidemic caused. Doyle emphasizes that a single gene introduced to increase corporate profits was responsible. I am making the history of the epidemic, together with Doyle's 1985 prediction of potential for disaster, easily available to the public.

The gene which devastated the US corn crop was confined to only the single corn species. Today, only 15 years after Doyle's prediction, scientists of the Monsanto transnational corporation have placed a single new, artificial gene in many critical plants such as corn, soybeans, cotton, etc. to enhance the company profit. They are prepared to release this same gene in wheat. It is only a matter of time until a new disease develops which will attack all the different species containing that gene. The result will be world starvation.

You, the public, must decide whether to stop Monsanto and other aggressive US capitalists from placing millions of lives, including those of you and your family, at risk. You can do this by demanding your government bring the multinational corporations under control.


ALTERED HARVEST: Agriculture, Genetics, and the Fate of the World's Food Supply
by Jack Doyle

Viking Press, 1985 ISBN0-670-11524-X
Book copy supplied by Dr. Jane Rissler, Union of Concerned Scientists, editor of The Gene Exchange

Chapter 1: IT CAN HAPPEN HERE

The corn fell victim to the epidemic because of a quirk in the technology . . . -National Academy of Sciences, 1972

In the summer of 1968, when the nation was preoccupied with the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and a divisive presidential election campaign, the first signs of trouble went almost unnoticed. Out in the heartland, on a few isolated seed farms in Illinois and Iowa, a mysterious disease was producing "ear rot" on corn plants. At the time, scientists thought the strange disease might be a combination of two familiar diseases called "yellow leaf blight" and "charcoal rot," but they were wrong. Yet only a tiny amount of hybrid corn seed was lost to the new disease that summer, so no alarms were sounded. Whatever it was, the new malady was probably a freak occurrence that would most likely die off over the winter. Diseases like that were one of the "normal" consequences of doing business with nature.

But in 1969, a few farmers and scientists noticed the same problem recurring in Midwestern seed fields and hybrid corn test plots.. One account noted: "In the late summer and early fall of 1969, a few corn fields in southern Iowa began behaving erratically. Ears rotted inside husks. Stalks fell to the ground. Shortly, the same thing happened in isolated fields in Illinois and Indiana." This same scientist noticed that only certain hybrid corn varieties were susceptible to the disease. In Florida, too, a few seedsmen found that hybrid corn varieties growing there were particularly vulnerable. Yet there was no adequate scientific explanation for the new disease. Scientists knew it was a fungus, but they didn't know what kind or how it worked.

In 1970, the disease was first reported in February from southern Florida, near Belle Glade. Between May 5 and May 20, heavy infestations were cited in southern Alabama and Mississippi. By June 18, the disease covered the entire state of Florida, lower Alabama, and most of Mississippi. The lower third of Louisiana and coastal Texas were also infected.

Reproducing rapidly in the unusually warm and moist weather of 1970, its spores carried on the wind, the new disease began moving northward toward a full-scale invasion of America's vast corn empire. Later to be identified as "race T" of the fungus Helminthosporium maydis, it soon became known as the Southern Corn Leaf Blight.

The new fungus moved like wildfire through one corn field after another. In some cases it would wipe out an entire stand of corn in ten days. Moisture was a key factor; a thin film on leaves, stalks, or husks was all the organism needed to gain entry to the plant. Within twenty-four hours it would start making tan, spindle-shaped lesions about an inch long on plant leaves, and in advanced form would attack the stalk, ear shank, husk, kernels, and cob. In extreme infections, whole ears of corn would fall to the ground and crumble at the touch.

The fungus moved swiftly through Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky, and by June its airborne spores were headed straight for the nation's Corn Belt, where 85 percent of all American corn is grown. By this time, however, unsuspecting Corn Belt farmers had already planted their crops and were largely unaware of the bitter harvest headed their way.

The fungus could begin reproducing within sixty hours of landing on a corn plant-yielding a new generation of its own kind every ten days-and its spores could survive temperatures of 20 degrees below zero and still germinate, which meant they could linger in fields and plant remnants through the winter. In some cases, the fungus could even penetrate corn seed, causing it to fail or produce blighted seedlings.

In its wake, the Southern Corn Leaf Blight left ravaged corn fields with withered plants, broken stalks, and malformed or completely rotten cobs covered with a grayish powder. When farmers harvested what they could, clouds of spores were thrown up into the air behind their combines, spreading the disease even farther.

In just four months-from May to September 1970—the disease had spread as far north as Minnesota and Wisconsin (it later entered Canada), and as far west as Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. The nation's corn farmers were facing a full-blown crisis.

UNCERTAINTY, CONFUSION and PANIC

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was caught completely off guard by the blight. On August 1, 1970—a time when millions of acres of corn in the Southeast had already been laid waste by the blight—agriculture officials were confidently predicting a record 4.7-billion-bushel corn crop. A week later, they began revising their estimates downward, suggesting that the disease could cut the corn harvest by 10 percent.

On Sunday morning, August 16, the Des Moines Register jolted the Midwest with the banner headline CORN MARKET IN TURMOIL. That account reported steep price rises in corn-futures trading on the Chicago Board of Trade the previous Friday, fueled by Iowa State University reports that the new blight had been found in Iowa. One Midwestern trading firm, which normally did about half a million bushels in corn trading on a busy day, did seven million bushels' worth that Friday. "Somebody's trying to manipulate the corn market," said one Midwestern trader. "This corn blight thing isn't that serious. Those southern states just don't grow that much corn. Too many people are getting too excited about too little."

Nevertheless, with the opening of business that Monday, panic gripped the commodity and futures markets. Estimates that the blight might wipe out half the nation's corn crop fueled frantic trading and speculation. At the Chicago Board of Trade, the nation's largest commodities market, 193 million bushels of corn changed hands in one day, smashing a trading record that had stood for 122 years. The Dow Jones index for commodity futures hit 145.27, and had its highest one-day advance in nineteen years. The future prices of corn, wheat, oats, and soybeans all jumped to their allowable one-day limits. Trading in livestock also soared, as prices for live hogs, cattle, and poultry rose in reaction to the prospect of higher priced feed grains. Between August 17 and 20, the corn blight boosted the future price of corn thirty cents a bushel-a huge increase when measured in the millions of bushels traded. During the frantic August trading, some speculators became wealthy overnight; one corn trader made paper profits of $500,000 that month.*

*On the afternoon of August 17, in an effort to slow speculation, the directors of the Chicago Board of Trade met in special session and immediately increased the margin requirement-the amount of cash a trader had to have in his account when placing an order to buy or sell a futures contract.

The August rally in the commodities markets was sparked by newspaper accounts like the report in the August 16 Des Moines Register. But officials at the USDA weren't talking, knowing that any statement on the blight from the department could affect the markets. The department's official crop report was due on September 11. Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was quoted on the commodity wires as saying that no more than 5 percent of the nation's corn crop was affected. An unofficial figure of 4 percent was attributed to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Clifford M. Hardin. One USDA administrator, James U. Smith, then chief of the Farmers Home Administration, was reprimanded for his agency's leaking a statement about the blight to United Press International, and was told by assistant secretary T. K. Cowden to inform his people, "to make no statements that could be interpreted as a governmental figure regarding the size of the corn crop." In Chicago, meanwhile, some traders complained of misinformation and exaggeration by the media. "On Sunday before the limit move," said Charles Mattey, who then headed up Bache & Company's commodities department, "all the media had the wrong numbers. The Georgia pathologists were talking about the seven Southern states, not the entire country. Damage to eighty million bushels instead of two and a half billion...." But in reality, the blight had already far surpassed the eighty-million-bushel mark.

BLIGHT IN THE CORN BELT

What really panicked commodity traders and government officials was the blight's penetration of the Corn Belt; just three Midwestern states-Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa-accounted for half the nation's total corn production. "There has always been blight in the South," said former Chicago Board of Trade Chairman William Mallers, "but when you get [blight] in the Corn Belt, you're really talking." In August 1970, Illinois Secretary of Agriculture John W. Lewis was estimating that 25 percent of his state's corn crop was already lost to the blight. Just one year earlier, Illinois had been the nation's top corn producer, accounting for more than one-fifth of the crop. When the first reports of the blight's severity hit the newspapers in mid-August, the U.S. Congress was in its traditional summer recess, and political reaction to the blight's damage and the rising prices caused by the blight came in piecemeal fashion, mainly from farm-state congressmen and senators at home in their states and districts. However, 1970 was an election year, and while a few congressmen and senators made inquiries of the USDA's action on the blight, with some calling for emergency farm aid, no congressional hearings were ever held on why the blight occurred. But the growing national scope of the problem, and its potential for fueling food-price inflation, did come to the attention of the White House.

In late August 1970, the USDA began to acknowledge that there was a problem. By August 23, Secretary of Agriculture Clifford M. Hardin had opened up the government's corn reserves to help dampen speculation in the commodities markets. On September 3, 1970, Hardin wrote a two-page brief for President Richard Nixon on the corn-blight situation, saying that the blight was not a new problem, but had become "economically significant." The disease's new strength, Hardin explained, was the result of "an unforeseen mutation."

"Although we are concerned about 1970 damage," wrote Hardin, "we feel that . . . there is ample feed grain for livestock to carry us well into the 1971 harvest period." Hardin also assured Nixon that many of the earlier private reports which projected 1970 losses ranging from 10 to 50 percent of the crop "were exaggerated."*

*Later, in December 1970, when the corn blight was seen as something more of a potential political problem, USDA and White House officials organized a Corn Blight Information Conference at which President Richard Nixon spoke to a group of farmers assembled at USDA's research station in Beltsville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. The purpose of the meeting was to assure farm leaders that USDA was working on the blight, and that the White House was concerned, too. In his speech, Nixon talked about the recently passed farm bill and he praised the American farmer. He also spoke briefly about the blight: "There was a time," said the President, "I suppose not ten, maybe not twenty-five years ago, when corn blight came, we might not have had enough in storage to take up the slack, but beyond that, we might not have developed the capability to deal with the problem.
       "But now we not only have the amount in storage to take up the gap, but we also, as I understand, due to the enormous facilities of research and the brains and the overtime and genius that has gone into it, we are finding an answer to this problem.
      "And that means that in the future we will be able to deal with it more effectively. It means also we can share this knowledge with other people throughout the world."

But for many farmers who had already lost entire corn fields to the blight, such figures were no exaggeration. And while major corn processors and other corn-using industries moved quickly to protect their interests by raising prices,*

*On Wednesday, August 20, following the dramatic increases for corn and other grain contracts in the futures markets, major food processors began raising their prices for certain corn products. CPC International, Inc., an industry leader in the corn-processing business, announced immediate price increases for corn syrup and corn starch-up 45 cents a hundredweight and 75 cents a hundredweight, respectively. Other corn processors followed suit.

farmers could not raise their prices. "We'll be lucky if we have enough corn to pay our fertilizer bill," said 52-year-old Indiana farmer, Melvin Pflug, after surveying his 600 acres of corn, about half of which was devastated by the disease.

A BREAK IN THE WEATHER

As the official tally of the blight's nationwide toll remained unknown through August 1970, farmers, traders, and USDA officials anxiously looked on to September. Despite the growing and justified fears of continued damage to the nation's corn crop, there was still one favorable possibility: a break in the weather. "It may seem ironic with all the technology at our command today, but everything now hinges on the weather," said Dennis B. Sharpe, then an agricultural economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "If it is fairly cool and dry over the next two weeks," Sharpe told Business Week that August, "there is nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if it rains and it is hot and humid, the fungus will spread quite rapidly." On September 21, corn prices on the Chicago Board of Trade dropped sharply on the basis of rumored USDA reports that favorable weather in the Corn Belt could slow the spread of the blight. However, humid weather in the first half of September intensified the disease in the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, although the weather did break in the northeast states and western Corn Belt, sparing a huge portion of the crop. In other words, the nation was lucky.*

*"lt. should be recognized," wrote University of Illinois plant pathologist A. L. Hooker in 1972, "that dry weather reduced disease spread in the western Corn Belt and delayed northward spread of the disease on the eastern seaboard. In addition, because of favorable climatic conditions, northern states had above normal yields. Without those two features, national disease losses could have been greater than those estimated."

As it was, the Southern Corn Leaf Blight devastated 15 percent of America's 1970 corn crop, reducing the average national corn yield from 83.9 to 71.7 bushels per acre, costing farmers about $1 billion in losses. Some southern states lost more than 50 percent of their corn crop. In all, more than 1.02 billion bushels of corn were lost in 1970. But the crisis wasn't over.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

Although the most immediate effects of the 1970 blight fell on the shoulders of farmers, its ripple effect soon began to reach other parts of the American economy. Small-town bankers and businessmen who had loaned farmers money began to worry about repayment. Washington worried about exports. At that time, the United States was exporting about 600 million bushels of corn annually, and large quantities of corn were also fed to cattle, poultry, and swine. Domestic food processors and distillers also depended upon corn. If losses in the cornfields became severe, a three-way tug-of war over existing supplies could ensue between food processors, livestock feeders, and grain exporters.

Adding to the reality of the disease itself were rumors that any blighted grain would be toxic to humans and animals. Further questions emerged about "secondary organisms" that might invade the grain, causing still other kinds of toxic problems. In fact, pathologists at the University of Illinois did discover "secondary fungi"—capable of producing the potent poisons known as aflatoxins—growing on blighted corn stalks, husks, and ears. But no toxic effects were reported in livestock or humans.

However, it was learned that the blight itself could be transmitted in corn seed. And that fed speculation that the blight was being exported to foreign countries through American corn seed. By early 1971, the corn blight was reported in Japan, the Philippines, Africa, and Latin America, and some importers of corn seed, such as Australia and New Zealand, were wondering if the problem didn't originate with American seed. Addressing the question, Ramparts magazine, in a March 1971 editorial, wrote, "There is considerable speculation as to whether through our exports of diseased com…We are spreading the blight around the world." At that time the United States was exporting some 46.8 million pounds of corn seed to all parts of the world, worth about $5 million annually. Yet proving that blight in other countries originated in U.S. seed was difficult when the importing countries weren't looking for it in the imported seed.

A SHORTAGE OF SEED

One concern about the blight that began to haunt USDA officials as early as August 1970, was the question of an adequate supply of seed for 1971. Practically all the nation's hybrid corn seed was then grown in the Midwest, where the fungus was taking its toll. Some farmers and seedsmen meeting in the South at that time were beginning to wonder if there would be any corn seed available for 1971. "If this stuff spreads to the Corn Belt," said Ed Komarek of Georgia's Greenwood Seed Company, ". . . we just won't have any seed . . . I hate to think of next year." Yet, D. D. Walker, President of the American Seed Trade Association, meeting in Washington with Secretary Hardin on August 21, confidently predicted that there would be "ample seed corn supplies for the 1971 crop." Farmers, however, weren't merely concerned with an adequate supply of seed, but with an adequate supply of disease-resistant seed. And that would take time.*

*Offers to help produce new sources of corn seed came from some interesting quarters. In an August 20 telegram to Secretary Hardin, for example, Bernard Steinweg, senior vice-president of the Continental Grain Company, one of the largest grain companies in the world, made the USDA an offer of Argentine land and production assistance to help in growing corn for seed. "Our affiliate company in Argentina, which has a hybrid seed company subsidiary," cabled Steinweg, "is willing to assist American hybrid seed corn companies in the production of seed this winter. We not only have lined up acreage for this purpose, we consider we have the technical ability to handle the production in an efficient manner ...We would appreciate being able to cooperate with you and any American seed companies not now aware of our capabilities and interest."
      More than a month later, after the USDA had engaged the cooperation of the Mexican government in allowing American seed companies to grow seed there, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Ned Bayley wrote in reply to Steinweg, "Your offer has been brought to the attention of the U.S. seed trade. We could not, however, find any firm that is able to take advantage of the offer. We understand that it would be very difficult at this late date to produce seed corn in Argentina for return to the U.S. for planting next spring." In one sense, Bayley's reply to Continental was a polite way of saying that American seed companies were not very enthusiastic about one of the world's major grain corporations getting into their business at a time of shortage.

Although several American seed companies did produce new supplies of seed in locations such as Mexico, Hawaii, and Argentina, there was a shortage of disease-resistant corn seed as the 1971 planting season approached. By spring there was only enough new seed to plant about 23 percent of the nation's corn crop, and much of this seed was diverted to southern states in an attempt to create a "buffer zone" to block the expected northerly progression of the blight again in 1971.

Another strategy seed companies used to stretch their limited supplies of corn seed was to sell stocks of disease-susceptible seed in states where drier and cooler conditions had stymied the blight's spread in 1970. During 1971, susceptible corn seed was sold to farmers in western Corn Belt states such as Nebraska, Kansas, and western Iowa, and northern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.

Meanwhile, corn farmers in the Midwest were provided with "blends" of seed-supposedly 50 percent resistant seed and 50 percent susceptible seed. One Midwestern farmer who started spotting the blight on his corn in June 1971, said of the 50/50 arrangement, "I can't find the 50 percent of the stalks that don't have blight."

*In at least one case, a group of farmers in Iowa brought a class action suit against some sixty seed companies which allegedly sold hybrid corn seed to Iowa farmers in 1970 with prior knowledge that the seed was susceptible to blight, and failed to warn the farmers of that susceptibility. That suit, Lucas et al. v. Pioneer Inc., et al. alleged that seed-company officials had knowledge of the disease susceptibility of their hybrid corn seed "prior to 1969, and perhaps as early as 1962." The suit also alleged that the officials knew in February 1970 that the blight had reached epidemic proportions in Florida and was moving north, but failed to warn farmers of the potential disaster, even though many of the companies had sold susceptible seed to Iowa farmers during 1970. Besides this, the suit charged that seed-company officials did not instruct Iowa farmers about any precautionary measures to protect themselves from the impending disaster, though they knew of such measures. The farmers sued for damages and losses of 100 million bushels of corn, then valued at roughly $100 million. The suit, however, was not resolved until the late 1970s, having been dismissed by the Iowa Supreme Court as an improperly brought class action, after which it was refiled by individuals in separate actions, with settlements of court costs awarded to some farmers. Similar suits were also filed by farmers in several other states, but their outcomes are either still in the balance or otherwise undetermined.

Other farmers complained of supply problems. "I've only got about 25 percent normal [blight-resistant] seed," reported Illinois farmer Carl Thompson in May 1971, "and even that is more than some of my neighbors have." A black market in resistant seed developed, with some farmers paying two to three times the going market price. And in at least one case, a truckload of resistant seed was hijacked.

The few seed companies that managed to produce blight-resistant corn seed didn't waste any time in raising their prices. For some reason, the Funk Brothers Seed Company of Bloomington, Illinois, had noticed as early as 1968 that the popular corn hybrids were becoming increasingly vulnerable to insects and some milder Midwestern strains of blight, and had switched the company's seed production operations back to an older kind of hybrid. By late 1970, when other seed companies were struggling to come up with a plan to produce some new seed on an emergency basis, Funk Brothers was sitting pretty. On October 12, 1970, the company announced it would increase seed prices on its new hybrid by 17 percent, selling its best blight resistant line at nearly thirty dollars per fifty-pound bag. In 1969, for example, before the blight, the average U.S. price of hybrid corn seed was $13.70 a bushel. Thereafter, the price of hybrid corn seed continued to spiral upward due to the difficulty in producing blight-resistant seed. By 1974, the average U.S. price had jumped to twenty-five dollars a bushel, an 84 percent increase over pre-blight prices.

CORN BLIGHT PART II

As farmers began planting their fields in the spring of 1971, no one knew for sure what the prognosis for the corn blight would be that year. "Hope is mixed with fear as we go into the 1971 corn growing season," wrote Successful Farming editor Charles E. Sommers in March 1971—"hope that the new southern corn leaf blight disease epidemic won't hit again [and] fear that it probably will…few people in the know are making predictions as to what to expect." In May 1971, George F. Sprague, a USDA scientist from Illinois who was coordinating the fight against the blight, admitted "a considerable degree of uncertainty and speculation" about its outcome in 1971. "We shall have to wait for a final answer," he said.

The prospect of rising food prices and food-based inflation caused by the possibility of two successive years of blight began to surface in the press. "Corn accounts for 70 percent of all grain fed to beef and dairy cattle, hogs and poultry," commented U.S. News & World Report in a May 1971 story. "If this year's crop is severely cut by blight, there will inevitably be shortages—and soaring prices—in beef, pork, milk, eggs and chicken." One Wall Street analyst following the blight remarked later that year, "the biggest question mark overhanging the near-term outlook for inflation does not concern the steel-wage negotiations but the progress of the corn-leaf blight."

On May 2, 1971, in a nationally broadcast speech on agriculture, President Richard Nixon ordered more money for research to fight the corn blight, noting that the disease had created "major problems for corn farmers." The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force had also been enlisted in the effort to monitor the blight's progress using satellite and remote-sensing technologies.

Generally though, the infestations of 1971 were regarded as light compared with the previous year. As in 1970, weather again was an important factor, with a cool, dry spring slowing the blight's progress initially, and somewhat drier summer conditions prevailing in the Corn Belt. Nevertheless, the blight was still spotted in 581 counties in 28 states by July, and in parts of the Midwest, some severe outbreaks were reported. Overall, however, the nation sustained only minimal losses in 1971. By 1972 enough blight-resistant seed had been produced by seed companies, and farmers throughout the country were adequately supplied. The crisis was over

THE AFTERMATH

The corn blight epidemic of 1970-71 was not a crisis for most Americans at the time. Although many were no doubt aware of it, few were directly affected. Had the billion bushels of corn that were lost to the blight been fed to cattle, they would have produced over 7 billion one-pound steaks, or more than 30 billion quarter-pound hamburgers. And while some food prices did rise slightly, corn on the cob, chicken, and hamburger were still on the dinner table.

Corn surpluses from previous years and substitutions of other grains helped to ease the blight's impact. In fact, the nation's grain reserves probably could have absorbed two very bad years of blight before things would have become really tight. However, a few weeks of "blight weather," coming in the late harvest weeks of 1970 and 1971, might have put the nation to that test very quickly. As it was, man and science won this round.*

*However, as biologist H. Garrison Wilkes has pointed out, "Such a crop failure in countries such as Guatemala or Kenya, where people obtain half of their calories from corn, would have been disastrous."

By 1972, American scientists and seedsmen were congratulating themselves for their "heroic" actions, now reassured that the system worked and could respond to an unforeseen disease in a relatively brief span of time. However, beneath the self-congratulations and public confidence, there were some reservations. Some plant pathologists were taken by surprise by the strength of the Southern Corn Leaf Blight and the speed with which it spread, and a few were privately shaken when they learned why this new mutant strain of fungus spread so quickly. While plant-disease epidemics had occurred in the United States before and were a regular fact of life in agriculture, scientists discovered something new about crop diseases in 1970; something they did not know before this particular corn blight occurred.

At the beginning of the epidemic, there was no defense against the Southern Corn Leaf Blight because the new strain of fungus had found a "genetic window" that made its infestation rapid and wide spread. The genetic window in this case was a gene found in the cytoplasm, the watery material that surrounds the cell nucleus and makes up the bulk of most living cells. In terms of crop disease, that was a new twist.

Commenting on that discovery in 1971, pathologist A. L. Hooker noted that it was "most unusual" that the cytoplasm of corn plant cells played a major role in determining the disease reaction, since in almost all other diseases, genetic factors in the nucleus of the cell determined disease resistance or susceptibility. Because of this, explained Hooker, corn breeders and seedsmen had no reason to suspect that uniformity in the corn crop would pose any problem. But it did.

The cytoplasm found common in most hybrid corn at that time was called "Texas male-sterile cytoplasm," or "T-cytoplasm," after a Texas variety of corn in which it was discovered. For twenty years preceding the blight, T-cytoplasm was used by plant breeders and seed companies to simplify the process of hybrid corn seed production. Male-sterile cytoplasm produced tassels on corn plants that bore impotent pollen, which-in combination with a fertility-restoring gene in the hybrid cross-enabled scientists to crossbreed and pollinate large numbers of plants more easily. T-cytoplasm thus eliminated the time-consuming, labor-intensive, and economically expensive step of hand detasseling corn plants. It was a revolutionary invention in plant breeding. But what scientists didn't know then about T-cytoplasm was that it also carried a gene in the mitochondria (an organelle of the cell that produces chemical energy for the cell) which enabled the new strain of the corn blight fungus to do its damage.

T-cytoplasm was a man-made change in corn plants used to foster the quick and profitable production of high-yielding, hybrid corn seed. It was a change accomplished and advanced by science and commerce without full knowledge of the potential consequences. (return) The new strain of corn blight fungus, Helminthosporium maydis, was a mutation perfectly keyed to a gene in that cytoplasm.*

*Interestingly, two Philippine plant breeders had reported in the scientific literature of 1962 and 1965 that they had observed Helminthososporium maydis wreaking havoc on some of their hybrid corn lines as early as 1957. The inbred lines used to develop these hybrids were from the United States, and contained T-cytoplasm. Yet in 1972, a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) discounted these reports almost casually, noting that in neither of the reports did the scientists warn of a possible epidemic. Perhaps the Filipinos did not warn that the fungus could be damaging to all varieties having T-cytoplasm, said the NAS, "because scientists are disciplined to avoid extrapolation. They probably reasoned, too, that they were working in a tropical environment not at all typical of the world's major corn lands.
       In America, meanwhile, two scientists, Donald Duvick of Pioneer Hi-Bred International (the largest hybrid corn seed company in the United States) and A. L. Hooker, a plant pathologist with the University of Illinois, did check the Philippine report. Duvick reported in 1965 that to his knowledge, no differences between T-cytoplasm and normal cytoplasm had been reported or noted in the United States. Duvick charged the increased susceptibility in the Philippines to a possible "secondary effect of reduced plant vigor, accentuated by the Philippine environment."
      Hooker, who would later become one of the authors of the NAS study reporting on the corn blight, tested Illinois corn varieties to see if they were especially vulnerable to H. maydis. In his tests, Hooker used the same inbred lines found vulnerable in the Philippines, containing both normal and T-cytoplasm. He and his colleagues tested these lines in 1963, but they did not use "race T" of H. maydis, and so found no differences. Therefore, the results of their tests were not published.
      By September 1969, however, Hooker and his colleagues had isolated some of the "race T" fungus from an Illinois cornfield, and officially identified it as a new strain in early 1970. Hooker's paper describing the new strain was not published until August 1970, when he reported: "A majority of the acreage of America's most valuable crop is now uniformly susceptible and exposed to a pathogen capable of developing in [epidemic] proportions."
      When did the seed companies first know of the new race T, and the fact that most of the hybrid seed they were selling in 1970 would be highly susceptible to the new disease?
      About a year later, in August 1971, Hooker provided the following observation in a paper presented before the American Society of Agronomy in New York: "Seed companies were unaware of the potential susceptibility of hybrids containing T-cytoplasm in the commercial crop in time to inform their customers of the advantages of hybrids containing all or a portion of plants with normal cytoplasm, or in time to make significant changes in their seed production methods during the 1970 season."

At least 80 percent of the hybrid corn in America in 1970 contained T-cytoplasm, which is why "race T" of Helminthosporium maydis laid waste to 15 percent of the nation's corn crop. "The USA in 1970 had 46 million acres of corn with Texas male sterile cytoplasm," wrote Iowa State University Pathologist J. Artie Browning in 1972. "Such an extensive, homogenous acreage of plants…is like a tinder-dry prairie waiting for a spark to ignite it. Race T was the spark...."

The official scientific response to the corn blight came in August 1972, with the release of the National Academy of Sciences study Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops. The corn crop fell victim to the epidemic," said the Academy's report, "because of a quirk in the technology that had redesigned the corn plants of America until, in one sense, they had become as alike as identical twins. Whatever made one plant susceptible made them all susceptible." The Southern Corn Leaf Blight, said the NAS study, was genetically based— key finding.*

*In a 1976 paper entitled "An Evaluation of Special Grant Research on Southern Corn Leaf Blight," the USDA also acknowledged the genetic uniformity in the nation's corn crop as one of the primary causes of the 1970 Corn Leaf Blight. "In the [1960s], it became clear that relatively few corn breeding parents were being used to produce the bulk of American hybrid corn varieties," said the report. "This narrowness of germplasm set the stage for potential vulnerability to diseases, insects and other stresses. In early 1970, environmental conditions in Southern and Northcentral corn producing regions were favorable for easy disease establishment and spread among vast plantings of highly uniform varieties. The [Southern Corn Leaf Blight] epidemic became of national and international significance."

Looking beyond corn, the Academy also warned that most other crops were "impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable." Moreover, the study added, "this uniformity derives from powerful economic and legislative forces," such as food company preferences for one kind of crop and government marketing orders requiring specific kinds of fruits and vegetables. But despite these warnings, not much has changed since 1972. Corn is less vulnerable, but 43 percent of the nation's corn acreage is planted to varieties derived from 6 inbred lines. Other crops are even more vulnerable. And cytoplasmic breeding systems are still being used in a number of crops, including corn.*

*For more details on the issue of genetic uniformity in agriculture, see Chapter 10

What has changed since 1970-72 is the emergence of something called "biotechnology"-an all-powerful genetic technology that will increasingly be at the center of agriculture and food production worldwide. And at the hub of this new technology, more than was ever imagined in 1970, is the gene.

GENES, FOOD, & POWER

Unseen by most of us, and familiar only to those who peer into the arcane world of plant and animal cells, genes are the building blocks of our food supply. They can determine everything from the protein content in a slice of bread to how much milk a dairy cow produces. Genes, and the configurations in which they occur inside plant and animal cells, hold key instructions of growth that govern cell and organism; instructions that determine the enzymes and biochemical reactions that build proteins and other materials inside the organism, as well as governing its interactions with the outside environment. By tinkering with genes, these carefully choreographed instructions of growth and environmental give-and-take can be altered, and through such changes, a nation's food system can be altered for better or worse.

America's food system—one of the largest, most productive, most sophisticated such systems in the world today—is an incredibly far-reaching system, permeating vast areas of modern society and every-day life. The business of agriculture and its related industries account for approximately one-fourth of the nation's gross national product. Agricultural exports alone add more than $25 billion annually to the nation's balance-of-trade ledger. In terms of employment, one out of every five jobs in America involves the storing, transporting, processing, or merchandising of farm commodities. In producing crops and livestock, over one-half of the nation's land mass, roughly 1 billion acres, is normally used for agricultural purposes.

In any given July, there are billions of corn plants growing in the rich and warm soils of Illinois and Iowa; thousands of dairy cows roaming the hillsides of Vermont and Wisconsin; and millions of chickens, hogs, and turkeys being fattened from Maine to Missouri. Yet, underlying this huge and continuous American empire of food production are genes; the millions of genes carried in the cells of all plants and animals; genes governing microbes in the soil, fungi m the wind, and insects on the move-genes which are the ultimate foundation of all living things that grow and move. To understand and control the function of these genes is to wield whole systems of power. Even a single genetic alteration to one crop line in one subpart of America's huge agricultural system can have ramifications touching millions of people—alterations which are also worth millions of dollars. Multiply such alterations many times over throughout world agriculture, and there are innumerable revolutions made possible; revolutions of food production and polity, and of fundamental economics.

In the United States, large sums of capital have already been invested in the agrigenetic revolution. New industries have formed and major corporate realignments have occurred. The scientific establishment is poised for change and politicians of all stripes are eager to help. For what is happening "backstage" in America's food system today—in the halls of government, in university laboratories, and in corporate boardrooms—is the beginning of the genetic centralization of food production.

In one sense, the new agrigenetic technologies will "transistorize" the food-making process, reducing it to a compact set of genetic components which will be, for the most part, out of public view and increasingly held by governments and corporations. While this technological reductionism is occurring, world food needs, of course, will be expanding. The pie will be bigger, in other words, as "chip- like" power accrues to those who own food genes. In this situation, risks of all kinds will escalate.

In food production systems as we know them today, the variables involved—technological, economic, and ecological—are numerous and wide ranging. Mistakes, unforeseen consequences, and miscalculations giving rise to damaged or failed harvests are not infrequent occurrences. Add to this now the new dimensions of biotechnological food-making—with its near instant ability to screen millions of cells at a laboratory workbench, produce millions of specifically designed microbes, or to leap species barriers in the making of new crops and livestock—and the prospects for mistake or calamity swell geometrically.

Today, we may be moving toward a high-tech, house-of-cards agriculture worldwide, with genetic engineering at its base; a system in which one monkey wrench or one unforeseen mutation can create enormous problems. Just as the technology of hybrid corn production "went wrong" in 1970, aiding the advance of the corn blight, the agricultural biotechnologies of genes, microbes, and molecules might "go wrong" on a much grander scale in the future. Despite what its proponents may claim for it, this is not an invincible or fail-safe technology. (return)

Yet clearly, this technology does have the potential to be safely and beneficially applied, improving food production, environmental quality, and agricultural diversity in the process. But making sure that happens could well be the challenge of the mid-1980s and beyond.


Article copyright by Dr. Bruce M. Pollock

 

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Updated on May 05, 2014