Keeper of the seed

What scientist Bent Skovmand has done in service to humanity was not fully appreciated in his lifetime. It may not be so until the day comes when an old variety of wheat may be needed to save the world's wheat crops from diseases such as Ug99 rust.

What scientist Bent Skovmand has done in service to humanity was not fully appreciated in his lifetime. It may not be so until the day comes when an old variety of wheat may be needed to save the world's wheat crops from diseases such as Ug99 rust.

"He became the leading wheat banker in the world," says biographer Susan Dworkin, whose newly published book, "The Viking in the Wheat Field -- A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World Harvest," tells the story of the protector of wheat genetics.

Early years

Skovmand was born in Frederiksberg, Denmark. He attended the University of Minnesota in St. Paul as part of the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee international exchange program, graduating in 1971 with a major in biological and physical sciences in agriculture. He earned his master's degree in 1973 and his doctorate in 1976.

Then he joined the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batan, Mexico, where he studied older seed strains and genetic variation among widespread strains. There, he went to work for Norman Borlaug at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.


"Skovmand was one of his half-dozen most important disciples and students," Dworkin says.

Skovmand started out as a wheat and wheat hybrid breeder, working with governments and farmers across the world to increase the use of the advanced crops being developed.

"And then . . . he had this kind of epiphany in which he realized that what was really needed was a huge increase in genetic resources for the acquisition and preservation and cataloging and distribution to farmers and breeders of all the different kinds of wheat and the different relatives of wheat in the whole world," she says.

The purpose of this wheat vault would be so that breeders in the genetics era of scientific farming could protect the crop against what was coming, she says.

Rust and climate change

There were two challenges on the horizon, Dworkin says.

"One was this endless mutating rust, which they were very involved with at the U of M," she says.

The other challenge was the changing climate.


The implication of these threats demanded that wheat be re-bred to face up to hotter and drier climates, as well as soil and nonbiotic change.

And that's what Skovmand did with the second half of his life.

"He built the wheat collection at CIMMYT and became an international advisor to, not just wheat seed banks, but gene banks all over the world," she says. "He built the collection at CIMMYT, and it became the major (wheat) collection in North America and then it became the major global collection."

Corporate opportunity

Meanwhile, another change to modern agriculture, beginning in the 1980s, was shaping up to be progenitor of agricultural giants like Monsanto and Syngenta.

"What happened was that there a series of terrible oil spills," Dworkin says. "They were befouling the world all over the Gulf of Oman and (the Gulf of) Mexico . . . and a scientist at General Electric created a bacteria which had a particular ability to digest oil and thought it might be able to help to clean up some of these oil spills."

There ensued an eight-year court battle to get the oil bacteria patented. But being a new form of life, there were endless battles over moral and legal ramifications.

Then something happened to loosen the logjam.


"In 1980, this tremendous gusher, gushing oil in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico," began to threaten the Gulf Coast, she says. "They couldn't stop it."

The oil bacteria issue was suddenly being heard by the Supreme Court, "and they said, 'Yes, you can patent a new form of life.'"

This set the precedent for private investment in life sciences, because life forms now could be created and owned by corporations.

"It was a tremendous change," Dworkin says. "Corporate opportunity was created by a defection on the part of the public sector."

This signaled the beginning of biotech corporate power in the U.S. and around the world. The stakes got very high and the money got very big.

Off limits

American business swung into motion and seed companies became colossal corporations with customers and competitors around the globe.

"They were interested in this and they could do it," Dworkin says. "They could hire the scientists who could do it."


At the same time the new genetic tools began to come into their own. Gene guns were shooting material into plant tissue and genomes were being unraveled. "Genetically modified organisms" were being highlighted in seed catalogues and circled in red in environmentalist newsletters.

"The one crop which wasn't immediately affected . . . was wheat," she says. "Cotton, they nailed it right away. Corn, they nailed it right away."

The Monsantos and Syngentas spent hundreds of millions of dollars making those crops responsive to the new biotechnological traits they could create, she says.

But wheat was more difficult to modify because it is a self-pollinating crop. It was going to take an enormous amount of time, effort and money to modify wheat the way corn had been.

Simultaneously, "there was this anti-GM (genetically modified) movement which closed down a lot of European markets from American food distributors," she says. "The American food distributors said, 'We don't want you messing with wheat. We'll lose all our (overseas) customers.'"

By this time, thousands of new, non wheat crop varieties were being catalogued as the property of private businesses.

Called into service

The big corporations had, for all intents and purposes, gotten out of the wheat business.


During that time, Bent Skovmand, who was fervently opposed to private ownership of forms of life, used that opportunity to collect as many different wheat samples as he could into the gene bank at CIMMYT. There, it was, and is, "held as a resource for all humanity, free and available to everybody," Dworkin says. "That's what this guy did."

And now, as if one queue, the Ug99 wheat rust, unimpeded by contemporary resistant varieties, is tearing wide destructive swaths through wheat-producing countries in Africa and the Middle East and now is poised to strike at India and Afghanistan.

Research is being globally coordinated at a near-frantic-pace, and the wheat bank at CIMMYT is a key resource for new material.

The result, however ironic, is that the big corporations are now getting back into the wheat business.

"What you do have to just look at is the results for the farmer and the results for the consumer, and ask yourself, 'Is this good? Is this serving the community?'" Dworkin says. "That's the only way you can make a judgment."

Skovmand died in 2007. Ug99 was identified the next year.

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