From Uganda to Minnesota: A race to save food and humanity


A few days before the annual Academy Awards ceremony, scientists at the University of Minnesota decided to splurge, break out coffee and cookies, and celebrate the lifetime achievements of one of their own. 

Susan Dworkin, author (“The Nazi Officer’s Wife”, “Desperately Seeking Susan”) playwright and journalist, was in town to discuss her new book, “The Viking in the Wheat Field” (Walker & Company). It traces the life of Bent Skovmand on his journey from rural Denmark to a farm in Minnesota, seven years of study at the University, and subsequent work to save more than 150,000 varieties of wheat seeds and grain genetics around the world.

As Oscar Wilde noted more than a century ago, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” If it were the other way around, Hollywood would be busy filming an epic in Minnesota about a race against time in which survival of humanity hangs in the balance.

That sums up Dworkin’s new book. Skovmand, the story’s hero, is a plant pathologist, plant breeder and geneticist whose bachelor’s through doctorate degrees are from the University of Minnesota. He died in 2007 after fighting to preserve wheat genetics around the world, working with his mentor Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, being knighted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, starting a Nordic Seed Bank to save the seeds of Scandinavia, and then the ultimate international seed collection, often called “the doomsday vault” kept underground above the Arctic Circle in Norway.

All of this work has deep roots at the University of Minnesota. So do many of Skovmand’s contemporary colleagues and another generation of scientists carrying on their work in unique, USDA and Minnesota bio-security facilities built on the St. Paul campus.

This was recalled in Dworkin’s lecture, “Bringing Science to the People: Minnesota’s Incomparable Legacy in Saving the World’s Wheat.” She and Dr. Carol Ishimaru, head of plant pathology at the University, both commented on how research sites like Borlaug’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico were nearly closed from lack of funding a decade ago.

That was about the same time Asian soybean rust began spreading and threatening the world’s soybean crops, putting Minnesota soybean farmers and plant scientists on guard. It coincided with the discovery of a mutated wheat rust in Uganda in 1999 – now known as Ug99 – that threatens 80 percent of global wheat varieties and is spreading from Africa into Asia.

Minnesota’s laboratories are among only a few in the world secure enough to deal with such pathogens, said applied economist Philip Pardey, an expert on research economics. While that may be reason for Minnesota pride, there is little reason to be confident about our future food supply, he said.

From 30 percent to 50 percent of all agricultural research worldwide simply keeps us “running in place” to protect crops from recognized crop diseases and sustain current levels of food production, Pardey added. Meanwhile, research dollars are being pulled and allocated in ever-increasing new directions, or are being spent on private research projects for specific products that raise even more issues about future food supplies and access.  

A crib sheet for anyone wanting to study these threats to food, and thus the global economy, would include the Los Angeles Times feature, “A ‘time bomb’ for world wheat crop”; the thorough Agweek magazine cover story “The race against Ug99”; and a helpful map of the spread of Ug99 and other scientific details found in Wired magazine’s Feb. 22 article.

A frightening economic analysis of the threat is offered in the Market Skeptics blog.

Returning to Minnesota, check out “Battle Ug99, scab with new wheat released by U-M” in the August 2008 edition of The Farmer to learn how Minnesota scientists continue to fight the threat. And to appreciate the combined USDA bio-security laboratory and greenhouse on the University’s St. Paul campus, read John Byrnes and Luisa Badaracco’s account, “.USDA gives green light to U of M containment facility

That is real life, a race against time befitting Harrison Ford or Matt Damon. It sheds light on real heroes battling great odds to protect plants and animals that sustain us and our global population. Dworkin brings these heroes and their challenges together in an extremely readable contemporary history of the struggle to provide food for the world in the days and decades ahead.

Every Minnesota high school student with a modest interest in science should read this book for what it might inspire in him or her. Every public official with influence on research budgets and use of institutions and intellect to solve problems should also read the book … and ponder whether they are part of the problem or the solution.

Dworkin’s book is that good. The human stakes are that high.