Lunch with a Seed Man

Lunch with a Seed Man

In 1926, Henry A. Wallace, who was then the editor of a farm journal, joined with a group of Iowa businessmen to start the Hi-Bred Corn Company. He had come to believe that hybrid seed corn would help farmers grow more food and make more money.

Wallace went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, vice president under FDR, the Progressive Party's presidential candidate in 1948 (he opposed segregation and supported universal health insurance) and the editor of The New Republic. The Hi-Bred Corn Company went on to become Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a $3.3 billion a year division of DuPont, which still helps farmers grow more food and make more money.

Only now the work being done by Pioneer is more urgent than ever, a company executive named Tom West told me last week. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, he said, expects the world's demand for grain to double by 2050, and farmland is in short supply.

"How can we double grain production while using less land in a more sustainable fashion? That's the issue," said West, a Pioneer vice president who has been with DuPont for 37 years. Already, vast swaths of rainforests in places like Brazil and Indonesia are being destroyed to grow food.

Tom and I met, at my suggestion, at a Washington, D.C., restaurant called Agragria ("from our fields to your table") that is owned by and supplied by family farms across the country. Tom enjoyed the fried chicken, and I had a yummy roasted vegetable sandwich, about which more in a moment.

Tom walked me through some PowerPoints that persuaded me that improved corn seeds-created first by traditional breeding, and more recently by genetic engineering-have dramatically improved yields. The facts are indisputable: The land used to grow corn has increased by about 10% since 1981, but production has grown by 56% in that time. Traditional breeding increased yields by an annual average of about 1.2 bushels per acre over the years, and transgenic breeding (a.k.a. genetically modified seeds) has more than doubled the productivity growth, to a rate of 2.5 bushels per acre per year.

"Corn is a spectacular example of things going in the right direction," West said. In Henry Wallace's day, farmers grew about 6,000 corn plants per acre. Today, they grow closer to 20,000 per acre because the plants have been modified.

Just a few more food stats: Global food production has more than doubled since 1961, food production per capita has grown by about 25-30%, while cropland per capita and food prices per capita have declined. Again, that's all good news, and it's only possible because farmers are more productive than ever.

Pioneer thinks it can help them do even better. The company's "crop genetics pipeline," as it's called, includes dozens of varieties of corn and soybean seeds that are being engineered to resist disease, tolerate herbicides, produce more ethanol per corn plant, generate more nutrition (soybeans with Omega-3 oil) and improve flavor. Perhaps most important, the company is working to make corn that is more drought-resistant and able to use nitrogen more efficiently.

Getting corn plants to use nitrogen efficiently could be a big win for the environment, West told me. Each year, he said, farmers apply an average of 138 pounds of nitrogen per acre of corn. Some of that ends up in rivers and streams and contributes to dead zones in the world's oceans. Yes, West is arguing that genetically modified foods will help make agriculture more sustainable.

Now-this is an extremely controversial way of look at the food industry, as any reader of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma knows. I'm not an expert on any of this yet, so I'm in a learning and listening mode. But as a reader and fan of Pollan's work, I know that much of the grain that is grown in the U.S. is used to feed cows, pigs and chickens. A Pioneer spokeswoman told me that about 46% is used for feed, another 24% is used for fuel (probably not a good idea), 19% is exported and another 6% goes to high fructose corn syrup, glucose and dextrose (i.e., sugary calories). Very little ends up as corn on the cob, say, or in a can of niblets.

Can you see where I'm going with this? One reason why global demand for grains is growing so fast is that more people are eating meat. Growth in meat-eating has been fastest among the middle classes in India and China, but we Americans remain world champion carnivores: We eat about eight ounces of meat a day, roughly twice the global average, according to this must-read article by Mart Bittman in last Sunday's New York Times.

But, as Bittman writes:

The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States - much of which now serves the demand for meat - contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation's rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. This diet made it possible to remove cattle from their natural environment and encourage the efficiency of mass confinement and slaughter. But it causes enough health problems that administration of antibiotics is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world's wealthier citizens - heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes. The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the "you gotta eat meat" claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren't harmful, it's way more than enough.

That brings us back to my sandwich of "slices of eggplant, portabella mushrooms, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and chiffonade basil on ciabatta bread." I'm not a vegetarian, but I do know that the one easy and important step that all of us can take to benefit the environment is to eat less meat. Again, here's Bittman:

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan - a Camry, say - to the ultra-efficient Prius.

This isn't the answer to the world's food problems, of course. People in poor countries can't live on $8 roasted vegetable sandwiches. But nor are we likely to meet the world's demand for more food by growing only the kinds of fruits and vegetables sold in Whole Foods Market. Organics are wonderful, but industrial food production is what led to the growth in productivity we've seen since World War II. The world will need cheap, plentiful calories, and that may - may - mean relying on transgenic crops. This is a big topic, and fortunately people are starting to pay attention. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, for example, plans to issue a report this spring, looking at how industrial farm animal production affects public health, the environment, rural communities and animal welfare.

Tom struck me as a business guy who sees his work as a way to help farmers, alleviate global poverty and protect the environment. "My parents ran a seed and feed store," he told me. He's especially excited about a Pioneer research project designed to produce bio-fortified sorghum in Africa, done in cooperation with the Gates Foundation, about which I'll blog another time.

I'm pleased that Tom West will be speaking at FORTUNE's Brainstorm Green conference about sustainable agriculture. We'll have NGOS there who oppose genetically modified food, so it should be a lively session.