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Health, Science, Environment

William Danforth: Working for an Ever-Green Revolution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2013 - The prepared text of Dr. William Danforth upon receipt of the St. Louis award.

I am honored but assumed that my service on the Award selection committee should make me ineligible. But thanks for the opportunity to speak about this (Donald Danforth Plant Science) Center and about my dreams for St. Louis. For I see an unusual opportunity for us in our region to be important leaders in the next chapter of the long story of the successful partnership between humans and plants.

My views are personal; they are for my friends, young and old. I will talk about the past, but, especially for you who will carry on beyond my active life, think of that past as prologue, a jumping off place for what will come next.  If it is that for you, our work will be justified.

Plants are our partners. We humans have depended on them since our first breath, for they have supplied the oxygen we need, as well as food and useful materials. The first agricultural revolution, one of the greatest human innovations of all time, was the domestication of plants about 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. I imagine that those early farmers depended, as do scientists today, on observation, intelligence and new technologies, albeit primitive by today’s standards. Then for the first time, food could be stored for the winter and enough human energy could be spared to make pottery, to keep records and even to wage war. Thus began cities, civilization and all the progress and setbacks right up to the fiscal cliff. One striking advance: Today the less than 1 percent of Americans who cite farming as their principle occupation feed most of the other 99 percent. But still problems persist.

My personal inspiration, The Green Agricultural Revolution, started in the 1940s. Norman Borlaug and his colleagues used the science of that day to double and triple the yield per acre of important cereals. By the late 1970s the Green Revolution had ended the recurrent famines of India, China, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Nothing like that had ever happened in human history. The Green Revolution saved more than 1 billion people from starving to death and spared the environment from terrible destruction, because without it hungry humans would certainly have turned rainforests and wetlands into farms. More people benefitted from those three decades than from the first 3000 years of the first agricultural revolution. Human benefits sped up 100 X and continue accelerating. Some thought that the Green Revolution might feed us forever, but we have never reached the Promised Land.

Modern agriculture, while a great blessing, is not sustainable. Agriculture consumes too much water, fertilizer and energy and should use less land. Moreover, the world population continues to rise, up 2 1/2 times since the Green Revolution. And still a billion people are undernourished and, on average, a child dies of malnutrition once every 6 seconds. Moreover, environmental deterioration threatens both humans and plants.

The world has experienced environmental collapse before, but past episodes have been regional. The rest of the world has moved on, but now there are so many of us with such powerful machines producing so much greenhouse gasses that we are doing something unprecedented, threatening the environment of the whole world all at once. As always, great gains leave new problems to be solved.

So we dream of and work for an Ever-Green Revolution that will increase production without further harm to the environment. Peter Raven, Virginia Weldon and I could see the emerging challenges when, 14 years ago, we first talked about helping St. Louis deepen its involvement in plant science. We began meeting with some of the region’s great assets – the Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto, the Universities of Illinois-Champaign Urbana and of Missouri-Columbia, both of which have strong agricultural schools, and Washington University with its world class biomedicine, basic biology and expanding center for sequencing the genome. Each institution agreed to strengthen its own plant science and to join in creating this new center specializing in basic plant science with an eye for practical improvements.

We imagined the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts, that St. Louis could be a, or if we did it right, the world center for plant science, a field neglected since the great success of the Green Revolution, especially when compared with rapidly advancing biomedical science. The chief officer of each institution agreed to serve on the board of our new center.

So with a gift of this land from Monsanto, generous financial support from Monsanto, the Danforth Foundation and tax credits from the state of Missouri, we were underway with enough resources for this building and 10 years of operation. St. Louis people and institutions have supported us generously since; today we have an endowment of over $200 million and are planning for our next advance.

Our mission is to improve the human condition through Plant Science. We knew from the start that we would succeed or fail on the quality of the science. Institutions are not honored for doing science, but rather for significant discoveries and contributions to humankind. Achieving noble goals requires world-class scientists. Let’s recognize the scientists who do the real work of the center.

We have three goals – I’ll mention one thrust of each.

  1.  Feed the Hungry and Improve Human Health.  Thanks to the McDonnell family we have the Institute for International Crop Improvement that works through partnerships to use effective technology to improve food production, food quality and food security in countries where they are most needed.
  2.  Preserve and Renew Our Environment. Thanks to the Taylor family we have the Enterprise Rent-a-Car Institute for Renewable Biofuels to take on one of society’s great challenges: obtaining energy, especially liquid energy, from renewable sources, that is from plants including algae.
  3.  Enhance our region as a world center for plant science. Help our region be the best place in the world for plant scientists and for those who want to develop commercial products from plants. We look to the companies that commercialize the products of bio-medical research as models. To further that goal we have worked with Wexford Science and Technology, LLC, to establish BRDG Park with Sam Fiorello as part-time chief executive officer. Already, scientists, investors, and leaders of companies large and small come from as far away as India, Malaysia, and Israel and as close as BRDG Park or across Olive Boulevard to an annual conference in St. Louis.

Thus our region has a rare opportunity to take part in and, even more important, to help lead wonderful advances for both our world and our home community. We will do so if we make the most of our opportunities, if we work together, as all have been doing, for the common good, if we care about who does the work not about the credit. I see a bright future.
Three Predictions.

  1.  Plant Science will do well. The field is moving rapidly. Its great importance is increasingly understood. Federal management of agricultural research has for decades been a major drag on progress, but that is changing. With the help and guidance of Sens. Kit Bond and Roy Blunt, we have made progress in getting a National Institute for Food and Agriculture and an Agricultural and Food Research Initiative established within the USDA and led initially by Roger Beachy. Just recently we have gained an important new ally, the influential PCAST. Professor Barbara Schaal of Washington University helped lead those who drafted a terrific and influential report. Ginny Weldon, Roger Beachy and I have recently helped establish a national organization dedicated to improving the quality and funding of agriculture research.
  2.  Our Center will do well.
    • We sought the best scientific leader in the world and found Jim Carrington, who has made amazing progress in recruiting and retaining other world-leading plant scientists. Our bets are on him. Our hopes and dreams rest with him.
    • We started at the right time before others had realized the opportunities and were ready to make investments. It is good to be on the ground floor and benefit as others come along. The two largest supporters of our research projects, the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, came to the field after we started.
    • We have a unique mission and are already in a strong leadership position. Plant science, unlike medical science, is not a crowded field. We will work hard to maintain our leadership position.
    • Our facilities, equipment, finances and, most important, people are in great shape. I expect that we will soon announce breaking ground on a new wing and some enlargement of our scientific staff, thus enhancing our leadership position.
    • We believe our mission is compelling. We are grateful to those who have shared our vision and contributed generously to bringing it to its present stage. I am optimistic that as others come to understand the importance of what we are about, they will join with us and continue to support our capital and annual needs.
  1.  St. Louis will do well.
    • Monsanto is the world’s greatest and most effective science-based plant company. It opened the whole field; its R&D is second to none. Besides, Monsanto is a great corporate citizen and a generous donor to our center. Monsanto scientists have been very helpful in guiding the center in preparing our research for practical application. Finally, any agricultural start-up company would want to be close to Monsanto and also to our center.
    • We have strong agricultural science and training in our land grant partners and a world class Botanical Garden. Washington University, with its strengths, is working with our center to enhance a Ph.D. program to train people with the science, mathematical and engineering skills and commercial understanding necessary for the future of the region.
    • For over a decade some of us have been working to build support to make it easier for scientists with promising ideas to start companies in St. Louis. Leaders came together from city and county governments, businesses and universities, from science, real estate, politics and law into the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences. The cooperative spirit was unbelievable. We helped support venture capital firms, worked with state and national political leaders to remove barriers.  John Dubinsky led in identifying the BRDG Park area as the place for commercial developments from Plant Science and went on to chair the 200-acre CORTEX district in midtown St. Louis for Biomedical Science related developments. (Phase 1 is completed for $155 million, producing 950 jobs. Phase 2 is now underway with estimated costs of $185 million and 1,400 estimated jobs.) Thanks to BJC, Washington University, St. Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, the city of St. Louis, the state of Missouri, Lewis Levy, Dick Roloff and Dennis Lower. The coalition is now part of a stronger, more permanent organization, BioSTL, led by John McDonnell and Donn Rubin.

In sum – We St. Louisans are helping use bioscience to write a new chapter in human history and in the story of our community.  We started near the ground floor of a new era for advances in plant science. St. Louis is an ideal place to be. We have wonderful partners.
We are leaders now and with new and younger leaders coming along, will remain so. There are no guarantees, but we see science, that is organized human creativity and innovation, as the best hope of handing on a productive, healthy and livable world to our great grandkids.

The challenge for the next generation is to make the most of our unusual opportunity to lead the world on a great and very important adventure.

Dr. Danforth is a contributor to the Beacon.

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