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Hardin, L.S. 1990. International repercussions of new crops. p. 47-51. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

International Repercussions of New Crops

Lowell S. Hardin

    1. Major Technological Advances Spread Rapidly
    2. Free Flow of People, Materials and Information is Required
    3. Humanistic Efforts Often Benefit Everyone
    4. Chance-Taking Supporters Are Necessary
    5. The Ultimate Winners are Early Adopters and Consumers


New crops—or old crops which undergo major improvements—can make massive contributions to economic growth and development. On the international scene, major improvements in both wheat and rice cultivars during the 1960s triggered unprecedented production increases in environments where the advanced technologies were well adapted. So great was their contribution to overcoming hunger that collectively we came to call the use of these new technological packages the green revolution.

It was hoped that Norman Borlang, who is often called the father of the green revolution, would participate in this symposium. As he was unable to be present it seems appropriate to relate the following anecdote. It involves Borlang's new semidwarf wheat, 'Mexipack 65'. The place was what was then West Pakistan; the time, 1968. Norm and other members of our party were examining wheat fields, visiting with farmers and public officials. Our concern was that we might find fatal flaws in these new high-yielding cultivars. Already in this the third year since their introduction they had spread to more than 20% of the wheat area in the country.

About dusk we arrived at Lahore where we were to spend the night. We were dirty, tired and hungry. So we were less than pleased to be greeted with this message, "My wheat is sick. The Doctor must come." Directions for getting to the farm, which was some 12 km out of town, followed.

Fearful that there was a serious problem we climbed back into our dusty van. It was almost dark when the young Pakistani farmer who had left the message directed us into his three-hectare wheat field. Gently waving in the lengthening shadows was a magnificent crop of 'Mexipack White'; the new semidwarf transplanted from Mexico. It was still deep green in color and so dense, uniform and sturdy one could toss his hat onto the flat surface of plump heads and there it would stay. To me, it looked like a 100 bushel per acre crop in a country where traditional cultivars then averaged less than 20.

Our farmer host walked us along the irrigation ditch to the far comer of the field. "Where is the sick wheat?" Norm demanded.

"There;" responded our host pointing to a few plants showing signs of damage from high salinity at that spot. But by then we all knew that the crop was well and thriving.

We reversed our tracks and walked back to the van at the corner of the field. A transformation had taken place. Carpets were spread on the bare ground. Lanterns had been hung. Chairs appeared. The neighbors gathered.

"Dr. Borlang;" said our host, "we apologize for bringing you here under false pretenses. But we wanted somehow to thank you for changing our lives. This new wheat will make it possible for me to get married and build a house here where I stand. We knew not how to show our appreciation. So we asked the women. They went to work and made this"

He turned and two of the ladies held up a beautiful quilt. Each square had been made by a different family and collectively they had pieced the squares together.

"Take this home with you to Mrs. Borlang please;" our host requested, "and know that without the new wheats the better life we see ahead would not have been possible."

As we all know, the new wheats, now advanced cultivars largely produced by national research programs, have spread rapidly. In southern and southeast Asian nations it is estimated that the proportion of the wheat area seeded to high yielding cultivars increased from under 4% in 1966-67 to almost 80% in 1982-83 (Dalrymple 1986). Also, as may not be fully appreciated, semidwarfs have also assumed a major role in wheat production in the United States. The proportion of the total U.S. wheat area in semidwarfs has increased from about 3 percent in 1964 to almost 59% in 1984.


Looking back we can now characterize the technological advances in wheat, major contributions of the green revolution that they are, as an extraordinary success. Some of the same scientists that have helped with the wheat story are also directly involved with a related but totally new crop, triticale (xTriticosecale Wittmack). A brief review of the status of triticale may shed light on the process of new crop development and utilization.

It has been my good fortune to be one of those observers who has been looking over the shoulder of triticale breeders since the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) began working on the crop in 1966. Then CIMMYT's objective was to develop a grain crop that had the advantages of both wheat and rye but the disadvantages of neither. Triticale, the first man-made commercial crop, made its initial appearance in the 1870s. As the product of a cross between wheat and rye it remained little more than a botanical oddity until well into the twentieth century (Varughese et al. 1987). The crop's development up to that time and since has involved a broad spectrum of scientists in many countries. Since the initial crosses were made by Stephen Wilson in Scotland, triticale has commanded the attention of plant breeders in Germany, USSR, Sweden and in the 1950s, Canada, Spain, Hungary and Japan. The big international push, however, came after the University of Manitoba started a joint program with CIMMYT (National Research Council 1988).

The financing of blue-sky initiatives such as the development of a new commercial crop like triticale is of interest. The Rockefeller Foundation, a cosponsor of CIMMYT, helped launch the effort. Canada's interest stemmed in part from the hope that they might transfer rye's resistance to leaf diseases into their durum-wheat crop. But the difficulties in the then-existing triticales were challenging indeed. The tall late maturing plants lodged, were sensitive to day length, partially sterile, low yielding, and tended to set shriveled seed. The seed was subject to preharvest sprouting, germinated poorly, the quality for milling and baking left much to be desired, and market demand was an uncertain if not unknown quantity. The breeders had faith that if they could assure a supply of the new crop, somehow that supply would generate its own demand.

Why then in 1970 did two Canadian organizations—The International Development Research Center (IDRC) and The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)—provide CIMMYT with $2.5 million for a 5-year triticale development program?

They were gambling that if they were successful they would produce a commercial crop with the yield levels and food quality of bread wheat which also had rye's tolerance of cold stress, moisture stress, and poor acid soils.

The energetic head of the program was a Canadian, Dr. F.J. Zillinskey. A Canadian institution, the University of Manitoba, was a needed partner. Rural hunger and poverty problems were often greatest in many marginal areas where an improved triticale might fit. Canadians believed in CIMMYT and wanted its important work to move forward. But with a surplus of wheat at home it might not be politically expedient for Canada to support CIMMYT's wheat program. Opponents might view such efforts as building up competitive producers thus contributing to decreases in Canadian wheat exports. Triticale was not wheat. It was a different crop. Help to the less advantaged and national pride rather than political dissension could well be associated with a joint Canada-CIMMYT triticale initiative. So the grant was made.

Drawing on its international support, CIMMYT has now sustained a substantial triticale program for more than two decades. Annually this has involved making 1,000 to 2,000 crosses and keeping 30 to 40 million triticale plants under observation. For 20 years the Center has distributed international screening and yield nurseries to more than 70 countries. Yields are being tested in over 60 selected locations worldwide. Thus the developmental effort in the public sector in which CIMMYT is a key actor is of major proportions.

Progress has not been rapid. Enthusiasts and private firms, it turned out, pushed the crop prematurely in the early 1970s. A backlash developed. By the mid 1970s, disenchanted farmers and seed companies had discarded the new crop just as many university scientists had dropped triticale from their research programs.

This setback had to be, and was, overcome. Recent estimates indicate that triticale is currently grown on more than 1 million hectares worldwide (Varughese et al. 1988). Some 600,000 ha of this total are on the sandy, acid soils of Poland where the grain is used primarily for animal feed. It is nutritionally superior to rye in animal rations. And, for baking bread, it makes a better blend with wheat than does rye.

Now, more than 115 years since the crop's discovery, due to cooperation of plant scientists throughout the world triticale has become a commercial crop. CIMMYT's trials indicate that yields now approximate those of wheat and rye in areas where these crops are traditionally grown. Triticale's chief advantages, however, are its capacity to out yield wheat and rye in many marginal crop production areas. Polish triticales, winter types, have spread most rapidly, notably in Europe and the USSR. However, spring triticales now show promise in the drier parts of North Africa, for example. In such environments they often out-compete wheat at the lower range of adaptation and performance just as they frequently do better than barley in the more favorable portions of the ecologies where that crop is grown. It is in such marginal or stressful dry lands where soils are sandy, acid, and phosphorous-deficient that triticale appears destined to make net additions to food availability.

Triticale has regained promotional support from the private seed trade, especially in Europe. In addition to it,; use as a feed grain triticale has earned a role as a forage crop. In its food quality characteristics, triticale most closely resembles soft wheat. Because it is soft, not more than 30% triticale can be mixed with good bread wheat flour for making leavened bread. Triticale is being used directly, however, for making noodles, cakes, cookies, crackers, waffles, tortillas and whole-meal breads.


As a faculty member at Purdue University in 1963, I shared in the excitement of the discovery of 'Opaque 2' maize by Edwin T. Mertz, Oliver E. Nelson, Jr., and Lynn S. Bates. We learned that this mutant had the same amount of protein as conventional maize. The exciting part, however, was that in addition it contained twice the normal levels of lysine and tryptophan as well (National Research Council 1988). The 1964 feeding trials with rats (Mertz 1966) looked highly promising. Then in Colombia, Dr. Alberto G. Pradilla achieved extraordinary results by feeding 'Opaque-2' maize diet to severely malnourished children (Bressani 1966; Harpstead 1971). Based on these findings many of us felt that in 'Opaque-2' maize the world had a grain crop that approached skimmed milk in protein quality. Yes, obstacles remained to be overcome. But here we thought was an inexpensive answer to the shortage of protein in the diets of so many of the malnourished poor.

Some of us went so far as to conceive of ways of educating people to grow and eat 'Opaque-2' maize. We looked at the results Maner and others achieved in swine feeding trials (Maner et al. 1971). Feeding trials of a pair of pigs, one fed 'Opaque-2' and the other normal maize, made a dramatic demonstration. The one fed 'Opaque-2' without supplemental protein grew well. The one fed normal maize alone grew poorly—if in fact it survived. Rural villagers, we thought, would surely want to adopt the new maize—if only they could see such a demonstration.

Armed with pictures and visions of rather quickly upgrading the diets of millions, CIMMYT approached the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to help fund an intensive research and development program. This the UNDP agreed to do. And, despite difficulties, even strong advice to the contrary, UNDP has stayed the course—a remarkable record of continuity for such a multinational development assistance agency.

Why was it that by the late 1970s 'Opaque-2' maize, in a history somewhat parallel to triticale, was largely discredited? Despite the great expectations associated with its proven nutritional benefits, the crop suffered from these hard-to-cure ailments:

Recognizing the above constraints, CIMMYT some 10 years ago altered its strategy. Its focus became one of combining the 'Opaque-2' gene with genetic modifiers. The effort was renamed CIMMYT's "quality-protein maize" (QPM) program. Assessing the advances made in the last decade, the National Research Council's (NRC) panel reports that scientists have now progressed to the point that:

Countries are again releasing some QPM varieties. For example, Brazil recently did so with the hope of improving human nutrition in regions of small farms. Evaluating all of the evidence the NRC panel sees the QPM germplasm available as "an intermediate product" requiring ongoing collaborative efforts to customize it for those areas where it has the greatest potential use.

Contrary to earlier expectations, the strongest demand pull could come from animal feed rather than direct human food uses. Availability and cost of supplemental proteins for balancing the rations of monogastric animals will be the key determinant on the feed side. One road block to expanded breeding programs that is yet to be overcome is the absence of a visual marker for the presence of high quality protein in the seed. While CIMMYT has recently developed a simple inexpensive chemical test for QPM, such analyses are required for positive identification. This problem complicates the process of commercial production, pricing and marketing. Short of chemical analyses, there is as yet no visual way for the seller and buyer to know for sure that they are actually handling QPM.

In the U.S., work on 'Opaque-2' or QPM is ongoing at Purdue University, Texas A&M, Florida, and the University of Nebraska. At least one primary seed producer, Crow's Hybrid Corn Company in Illinois, has 'Opaque-2,' soft endosperm hybrid for sale. Farmers who plant this hybrid use the resulting crop for animal feed. As yet, however, one cannot say that either 'Opaque-2' or QPM is a commercial crop.

CIMMYT is continuing its QPM germplasm development. Its aim: to deliver the best available products to national programs in selected countries for release to farmers (Bjarnason and Short 1988).


The foregoing discussion has touched on the recent histories of three new, staple food crops. The first, semidwarf wheats, is an extraordinary success story. Triticale, the second, now a crop in its own right, has its area and production reported separately from wheat by FAO thus heralding its arrival as a commercial crop. The future of the third, QPM, remains problematical.

Having briefly examined the world's experience with these three crops, are there international implications that we can draw? Among those that come to mind are the following.

Major Technological Advances Spread Rapidly

Big leaps in technology are widely and quickly adopted. When Indian and Pakistani farmers saw actual plots of semidwarf wheats, so great was the pressure for seed that it was necessary to put seed fields under armed guard. It helps if existing supply and marketing practices, as was the case in this instance, are easily adapted to the new crop or development. Conversely, small, marginal advances in technology are typically hard to sell and slow to move. Successful new crops, therefore, are significantly better than the old ones with which they compete.

Free Flow of People, Materials and Information is Required

The advances we have discussed capitalized on the free flow of information and genetic materials among scientists throughout the world. Plant breeders need access to a wide variety of genetic materials. At the moment the more sophisticated private crop development institutions are in the industrial countries. Areas of origin of economically important crops are dominantly in the less developed countries (LDCs). In this situation the exercise of plant breeders' rights can result in international tensions. For example, LDC leaders have accused industrial nations of exploiting them in the following manner. Germplasm freely collected in an LDC enters into a new crop created in an advanced country. A patent is granted. Then the new crop is sold back to the LDC at a stiff price. Some LDCs have suggested that they should make their germplasm available to those outside the country only at a price-if at all (Hardin 1987).

Ours is an increasingly interdependent world. No nation or firm has a comer on the ingredients for progress. In our efforts to create incentives (such as breeders' rights) for those who develop needed new crops, it would be self defeating to impede the free flow of materials, products and ideas.

Humanistic Efforts Often Benefit Everyone

The desire to improve the well being of needy people is a strong motivating force undergirding the efforts with three crops under review. In these cases, however, concerted efforts to help better the lot of disadvantaged peoples actually stand to benefit world society at large.

Chance-Taking Supporters Are Necessary

Public institutions are often characterized as conservative and unwilling to take risks. Yet it is the world community of public donors that has largely financed the effort to develop the three crops. If triticale should flourish and QPM become an established commercial crop, it will be because chance-taking supporters stayed the course.

The Ultimate Winners are Early Adopters and Consumers

Much successful new technology increases quantity and quality of output while lowering unit costs. As more and more producers adopt the new technology, the volume marketed rises and prices fall. Producers who do not adopt the new continue their old high cost practices at their own peril. Even for the early adopters, margins shrink. In a market economy the long-term gainers are consumers. Improved technology enables them to buy better products at the same price or the same products at lower prices.

This process operates internationally just as it does domestically. Further, the speed with which it happens is accelerating in today's fiercely competitive environment. Therefore, every nation has a major stake in being or becoming a full partner in the technology development process.


Last update February 12, 1997 by aw