Dr. Vietmeyer was born in Wellington, New Zealand and
received his B.Sc. degree from the University of Otago in 1963. His Ph.D. is
from the University of California and was awarded in 1968. He remained at Berkeley
as a lecturer in Chemistry until receiving an NIH Fellowship at Stanford University
later that year. In 1970, Dr. Vietmeyer joined the staff of the National Academy
of Sciences in Washington, D.C. and began his extraordinary research career.
For the next 25 years he oversaw more than 40 Academy reports that stimulated
interest and generated economic growth in the world’s needy areas. These
innovative studies had a great impact on agriculture and food production. In
recent years his discovery that barley malt can liquefy porridges has led to
improved weaning diets and the survival of malnourished children. His landmark
book Underexploited Tropical Plants with
Promising Economic Value has spawned a generation of fans and encouraged
hundreds of scientists to take up the call and investigate these non-mainstream
leads. The organizers of the 2006 conference had to convince this shy genius to
tear himself away from his latest project (a biography of agricultural pioneer
Norman Borlaug) in order to kick off their day-long conference. The editors of
this journal are honored to be permitted to publish Dr. Vietmeyer’s ruminations
on a career built entirely on helping others to help themselves.
When considering how to cast this talk, I first
settled on giving an overview of the plant kingdom’s species and highlighting
how few are actually used intensively. This seemed most appropriate for a
lecture at this great university. Then I had a second thought: To hell with all
that! I’ll merely relate some stories about my life as a “Crop Champion.”
This being the School of Public Health, I’m supposing
many of you will eventually find yourself working in faraway regions. And there
you’re going to notice strange plants and weird-looking foods like the ones I
spent my career getting to know and love. So I thought that if I provided some
personal insights maybe one particular snippet might remain in your memory. And
then at that future time in some far-flung market, maybe you too will get
inspired to become a Crop Champion.
As background, you ought to know that the plant
kingdom has many jewels, and most have yet to be polished and put to proper
use. A Crop Champion is the person who gives them enough gloss to attract
professional attention and spark their march into the fullness of their
Also, you ought to know that there is no school for
Crop Champions. The development of underexploited crops is not a scientific
discipline and thus by default remains open to amateurs. I was an amateur,
having been trained as an organic chemist; the people who will speak after me
are also basically amateurs. So you have as much chance to advance a forgotten
crop as any of us. Don’t feel intimidated by the task: specific details about a
plant can be picked up quite easily. And what its advancement requires is
mostly a matter of common sense. Championing a species, however, takes drive,
vision, and guts. Anyone attempting it must be prepared to face setbacks and
sometimes take a beating from critics and worry warts. But in the long run, a
successful Crop Champion makes the future more livable.
Solutions where the problems are
Thomas Jefferson once declared that the greatest thing
a person can do for their country is to provide one new crop. In this era of
globalization we can expand his vision and say that the greatest thing a person
can do FOR THE WORLD is to provide one new crop.
You see, new-crop development will become increasingly
significant in the years just ahead. Even now we can barely feed the current
six billion people equitably; so what will happen when several billion more are
added during the lifetime of most of the students in this room?
Adding to my fervor is the fact that the most urgent
public health problems exist where the greatest diversity of plants happens to
occur. There is thus a natural connection between the nations needing the most
help and the plants that have the most to offer. Despite their obscurity and
often funny names, these under-producing plants can carry great promise. That’s
why more Crop Champions are needed. By drawing attention to the species’
untapped powers they help solve humanitarian or environmental problems in a
novel and natural manner. They add, moreover, a dimension conventional thinkers
will never come up with.
Crop Champions might be scientists, economists,
ethnographers, public health specialists, Peace Corps volunteers, geographers
or none of the above. Essentially they are publicists, guidance counselors,
lobbyists and nags for the world’s downtrodden plants—species that are useful
I got into this strange business entirely by
coincidence. At the time I was a well-behaved organic chemist doing graduate
research at the University of California with the aim of making a career as a
chemistry professor. Then one day in 1965 I took a passing interest in the
components in different pine resins. My professor mentioned that the geography
department had a specialist who knew a lot about pines, so I made an
appointment and went to see N. T. Mirov.
That afternoon we spent perhaps an hour talking, and
Dr. Mirov offered me resin samples from the 90 pine species he had growing near
Placerville. At five o’clock I thanked him for his help and was literally halfway
out the door when he said, “Oh, just a minute.” Then from his desk he pulled an
old-fashioned aspirin bottle full of yellowish liquid. And beside it on the
desk he placed a piece of white solid as well as a few seeds that looked like
olives far past their “use by” date. Finally, he proceeded to introduce me to
the plant called jojoba (pronounced ho-HO-bah) and to the oil and wax its seeds
During this brief overtime discussion, maybe 10
minutes, he provided a copy of a paper he’d written in 1953. Although it laid
out the plant’s untapped potential, nothing much had happened in the twelve
intervening years. He also told me that when the paper first appeared, he’d
received a telephone call from a Shell Oil scientist who said, “Send me a tank
car of that oil. Doesn’t matter what it costs. Just send enough to fill a tank
car.” Well, I doubt Dr. Mirov had ever seen much more jojoba oil than was in
his aspirin bottle. Thus there’d been a fault line between what a learned
academic could provide and what big business needed for formulating new
products. Understandably, nothing eventuated.
A whale of an oil
The next Saturday I tracked down the biology library
and spent a memorable weekend reading about jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis).
I learned that this shrub was native to the Sonoran Desert of northern Mexico
and southern Arizona. It had long contributed to Native-American life and could
be found growing on some tribal lands.
The seeds were rich in an oil that had no
triglycerides, no diglycerides, no monoglycerides—no glycerin whatsoever.
Instead, this very unusual lipid is made up of long chain acids esterified to
long chain alcohols. Chemists call that a liquid wax and jojoba is the only
plant to produce it, at least in quantity.
I learned also that one species in the animal kingdom
produced it in quantity. That was the sperm whale, and at that time, the
mid-sixties, whalers were killing one every 29 minutes. The meat being
inedible, whalers sought only the oil, which was such a great lubricant that
most vehicles on earth had a little in the mix making up the transmission
fluid. The U.S. had actually designated sperm oil a strategic commodity, and
future supplies were in doubt because the anti-whaling movement was getting
underway. In 1965 this was of acute concern because spacecraft depended on
sperm oil, and the great national cause was to land men on the moon by 1970.
Imagine me at that moment: a young graduate student,
one whose formal studies were so esoteric as to be of little value to anyone,
stumbling over a plant that might save the deserts, save the Indians, AND save
the whales? That was why the weekend proved memorable. Subsequently, I wrote
searching letters to botanists and others working in the Southwestern deserts,
but was unable to find anyone actively developing or even studying the plant.
Late in 1968, when I moved to Stanford as a
post-doctoral student, I mentioned jojoba to my new professor. Carl Djerassi
was a great chemist who created the compound in the modern birth control pill
as well as many more materials that remain in common use. As much of his
research had been done in Mexico, he’d acquired a lively interest in Latin
America, not to mention Africa and Asia. Through that extracurricular
interest, he’d been appointed to a National Academy of Sciences board that was
attempting to raise the quality of science in developing countries. Because of
my interest in jojoba, he suggested I go to Washington DC and work for this
board, which was just getting established and was hiring staff. To shorten a
very long story, I took up his suggestion in 1970 and, along with my family,
left the Golden State and headed east.
The NAS group’s formal title was Board on Science and
Technology for International Development (BOSTID). Its chairman, Roger Revelle,
was the sage to whom Al Gore later attributed his awakening to the importance
of the environment. Roger was a farsighted polymath whose interests stretched
even to the consequences of the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide,
the significance of which the public in those days had no clue.
More to the point, though, Roger possessed the strange
belief that although developing countries faced many problems, somewhere in the
sciences or the world many solutions could be found. What was missing was the means
to bring those solutions to the problems. I was hired to be that means.
The fact that no one knew how to define my task proved
most fortunate, because the lack of a formal job description allowed me to work
on anything, so long as it might solve a developing country problem and was
innovative and underappreciated. In other words, I could go searching across
the sciences and across the globe for fascinating far-out possibilities that
were languishing for lack of leadership.
Jojoba gets going
During my first weeks on the job I happened to mention
my jojoba story to a colleague. He suggested I talk to a Cherokee friend who
worked in the Office of Economic Opportunity. This was President Johnson’s
so-called “Great Society Program” and even in the Nixon era it remained great.
The Cherokee, Bill Miller, was a stunner. He’d won the
Silver Medal in the javelin throw in the Olympic Games in 1952 in Helsinki. I’m
told he was the second Native American to medal at the Olympics. And like Jim
Thorpe before him, he was a man of spirit. When I explained that a plant
growing on southern Arizona reservations might provide the local tribes an
economic base he was elated.
That enthusiasm was somewhat scary because all I knew
about jojoba was what I’d gleaned from Dr. Mirov and the meager literature. I
explained my fear that deep down there must be some problem, because this was
the great United States that annually spent billions on research. How could so
potentially valuable a resource, one capable of providing a strategic material,
exist within our own borders and remain ignored?
Bill seemed unfazed, and he and I spent a few days in Arizona
checking things out. At a small botanic gardens in the hills north of Phoenix,
we met with a dozen or so locals representing almost the entirety of
individuals who sensed jojoba’s possibilities. We pressed them about potential
problems: “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” we asked over and over. There were no
obvious indictments, no major technical barriers that would doom any future for
jojoba as a crop.
None of this was part of my formal career, just a pro
bono contribution. Bill’s program, however, had a pot of federal dollars to
help Native Americans and he was anxious to move ahead. Still and all, I feared
there must be a flaw hiding itself from the amateurs; surely a corporation or
an entrepreneur would have otherwise led the way long before.
To resolve all doubts, Bill sponsored a jojoba
conference. I believe it was 1972 by this time, and at that large gathering on
the Tucson campus of the University of Arizona a raft of uncertainties arose:
How do you plant the crop? How do you manage a plantation for the best
production? Although some specimens are more productive than others, how should
they be propagated? And how could the seeds be harvested?
Managing the sexes was a special concern. Half of
jojoba’s seeds grow into male plants, which produce no oil and are essentially
worthless. Was it possible to separate those seeds so the planting could be
made overwhelmingly female from the get-go?
As it turned out, no one had definitive answers to
these questions. Thus we were faced with basically domesticating a wild species
from scratch. On the other hand, the array of practical, technical and economic
problems were ones that had been solved for many other crops. Why not jojoba?
A few days after our return to Washington, Bill called
and asked if he could come by. He plunked himself down on a chair in my tiny
office on Pennsylvania Avenue and blurted out, “Well, what the hell do we do
now?” I hadn’t given that question any thought, but there came a flash of
insight, and I said, “Let’s get a tank car of oil!”
In the upshot, Great Society funds were used for the
next several years to pay Arizona tribes to harvest the jojoba growing wild on
their lands. Primarily, this involved the San Carlos Apache, whose reservation
is just north of Phoenix. After a huge heap of jojoba seeds were on hand, the
U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in and offered help. Members of the
tribe drove truckloads of seed to Berkeley, California, where USDA researchers
provided them equipment to separate the oil and clean it up.
In this manner, Bill Miller, the San Carlos Apaches
and the USDA obtained what amounted to a tank car of jojoba oil. Then all the
drums containing the unique liquid were trucked to Tucson and made available
without charge to anyone who could make a case for it. To get a sample you
wrote to the Office of Arid Land Studies at the University of Arizona, and, if
you were convincing, they’d send anything from a little bottle to a full 55
This may perhaps seem wasteful, but we were aiming to
ascertain the demand end, figuring that if the oil proved useful the production
end would take care of itself. Also, I still wasn’t entirely convinced we wouldn’t
suddenly stumble into that damnable fatal flaw.
I needn’t have worried. As a result of the oil
giveaway, all sorts of scientists, entrepreneurs and corporations discovered
valuable uses. To mention just one: Mobil found the oil such a high grade
lubricant that the company didn’t wait for the plantations and created its own
synthetic copy. At least, that’s what one of its engineers told me a few years
back. This top-of-the-line engine oil, Mobil One, remains on the market to this
More typically, the scientists, entrepreneurs and
companies wrote back saying that the oil was very desirable. Most said they’d
use it as long as the supply was guaranteed and the price reasonable. Given
these assurances, they said, they’d reformulate their products. One company,
Shiseido of Japan, began incorporating jojoba into its cosmetics even without
The backdoor approach featuring a tank car of oil did
indeed open the front door to production. It worked so well, in fact, that we
soon had to endure the go-go era when jojoba turned into a “wonder plant.” All
sorts of speculators, from the committed to the crooked, pushed the crop. Many
bought cheap desert land in Arizona and California, planted jojoba seed, and
sold shares to investors. The outcome was unhappy, because the technical
uncertainties remained unresolved and there were no reliable ways to get rid of
the male plants, manage the plantations and harvest the seeds. Most of those
premature plantings fell on hard times and, sadly, many innocents lost their
But an industry had begun. And around that time
horticulturists took up the production problems and, in time, solved them. A
few made absolutely brilliant advances. Israeli scientists, for instance, made
major advances in taming this wild desert dweller and creating a crop for the Negev
Desert. An American, Ron Kadish, and horticulture professors in California and
Arizona also made advances by selecting stellar lines that had hundreds of
seeds lined up side-by-side along branches that on typical plants carried only
Today, the jojoba industry is established in Arizona, Mexico,
Israel and Australia. And the plantations are increasing in productivity.
Almost certainly people in this room are wearing cosmetics containing jojoba
oil. Shampoos with it are likely to be the choice of certain audience members
This first experience with an underexploited plant
taught me a basic lesson: it really was possible that no one had cottoned on to
the potential of a prospective crop that was, so to speak, right under their
noses. Despite annual expenditures of billions of research dollars, this potent
resource was going nowhere without a Crop Champion.
I’ll end this opening section with four pictures:
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 1: Jojoba samples much like those Dr. Mirov placed
on his desk in 1965. Here you see the seeds that seem to have passed their
“use-by” date. Here also is the oil in an aspirin bottle. Here, too, is the
white solid, which in reality is the hydrogenated product. (Jojoba oil is
mono-unsaturated, but when hydrogenated, it forms this crystalline wax rather
than the margarine-like spreads produced by standard vegetable oils.)
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 2: Bill Miller, the Cherokee who really was the
financial force behind this crop’s development. I doubt anybody in the jojoba
business today remembers him or knows anything of his contribution, but he was
the pivotal character who got the money that paid for the tank car of oil that
in turn kicked off all that eventuated.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 3: One of the first jojoba
plantations. This one was near Yuma, Arizona, and I recall our excitement
at seeing it. Previously, we’d been dealing in abstract visions, hopes, and
dreams; now here was plantation production in hard reality.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 4: Just one of the stellar advances that arose
once horticulturists began investigating jojoba. This branch with seeds every
inch illustrates the tremendous productivity of the rare specimens that
horticulturists ultimately discovered and propagated.
Promising plants of the tropics
I’ve already noted that this jojoba work wasn’t part
of my formal mandate; the National Academy of Sciences was paying me to help
truly needy nations. However, as the jojoba developments started taking root, I
began wondering whether my mandated countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America
might also have promising natural resources that were being ignored. Among
those tropical continents’ myriad plant species could there be botanical jewels
with jojoba-like potential?
Following this line of questioning, I wrote to perhaps
a dozen economic botanists. I hardly expected a response, but, wow, you should
have seen the flood of mail that poured back in. Those dozen or so specialists
collectively nominated more than 100 species they thought were latent resources
of the future.
Thus, in 1974 the NAS appointed a panel to identify
the very best candidates for helping developing countries. The 20-member panel
was co-chaired by Richard Evans Schultes, head of the botanic museum at
Harvard, and Eddie Ayensu, head of botany at the Smithsonian Institution. We
all met together for several days in the Virginia countryside and whittled the
nominated species down to 36 that seemed to hold the highest potential. These
winners were made public in Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising
Economic Value, a 188-page compendium in which the promise and development
needs of each species was sketched out in just four or five pages. Those
illustrated vignettes may have been short on specifics, but they proved long on
inspiration. Perhaps you’ll hear more about some of the fallout from the later
speakers, but here I’ll mention a couple of follow-ups I was involved in:
guayule and winged bean.
Guayule: natural rubber from our own backyard
Like jojoba, guayule (Parthenium argentatum)
happens to be an arid-land species from the Southwest. It is, however, native
to the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and extends up into a smidgen of west Texas.
Figure 5 shows the plant. A nondescript shrub, this one looks vaguely like
scraggly sagebrush. But it contains a surprising raw material: natural rubber.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 5: Guayule (Parthenium argentatum), a
source of natural rubber
Guayule (usually pronounced why-OO-lee), was also part
of the Native American culture. The Aztecs used its rubber to make balls for a
game remarkably like modern basketball.
A desert plant that produced rubber had seemed so
far-out that once the underexploited-plants compendium was published, I’d paid
guayule little heed. But my attitude changed when, a couple of years later, an
Israeli who’d been on the panel dropped by my office. “I’ve just come from Mexico,”
Joel Schechter said, “and I found that a group of young engineers have worked
out how to process guayule and get the rubber out on an industrial scale.”
Joel’s excitement was contagious and in time I got to
launch a formal guayule investigation. The funds came in part through Bill
Miller, who was still in Washington but had transferred to the Bureau of Indian
Affairs. In this case, our mission was not unprecedented. Back in the 1940s a
huge federal program had all but domesticated guayule. During those war years, America
was cut off from the rubber-producing nations in Southeast Asia and faced a
crisis. After 1942 rubber was withdrawn from sale to consumers. New tires went
only to the military, and a 30-mph nationwide speed limit was imposed primarily
to help people conserve their old tires.
Given those strictures, guayule was seen as vital to
vanquishing the Axis Powers, and 30,000 acres eventually got planted in Central
California. The campaign happened to be filled with high drama, and one day
Bill and I went to the Federal Archives in Suitland, Maryland to see what we
could find about it. I distinctly remember the archivist trundling out a
trolley laden with boxes of WWII-era documents. Amid that mountain of reports
lay a parcel whose paper wrapping was falling apart. Inside was a big black
block of rubber that had been isolated in 1944. The parcel must have weighed
50lbs and the 30-year-old rubber was going a little gooey round the edges. Bill
later had it sent to Akron, Ohio. There, researchers at the Goodyear Tire and
Rubber Company took a coring from the center and put it through the most
rigorous modern analysis. Guayule proved to be excellent rubber.
As part of our research I visited Saltillo, the
Mexican city where the modern processing was under study. Getting the rubber
out is harder than you might think. The liquid latex is held in separate cells
and, unlike the rubber tree, cannot be drained by tapping the trunk. Instead,
Enrique Campos-Lopez (the young man featured in Figure 5) and his engineer
friends had designed and built a facility that mashed the stems and used vats of
water to float the rubber away from the sodden vegetable matter. Figure 6 shows
the resulting rubber. The operation was impressive to see, and the engineers
had scaled everything up to the point where they would soon have enough to make
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 6: Rubber extracted from guayule
Our 80-page book Guayule: An Alternative Source of
Natural Rubber was published in 1977. It generated considerable follow-up
in Texas, Arizona and California. For years the U.S. Department of Agriculture
and others continued exploring the plant and its products. In the end, however,
the programs petered out.
Although guayule did not rise to become a modern crop,
I’m perfectly happy. The rubber tree anchors a super-sustainable production
system—one that absorbs atmospheric CO2 and turns it into wood that ultimately
becomes furniture and other quality products likely to lock up carbon for
decades or perhaps centuries. The rubber tree, however, is vulnerable to
collapse because its native area in the Amazon basin hosts a devastating leaf
blight. Should that disease-causing fungus ever cross the Pacific and infect
the main production areas in Southeast Asia, the world’s rubber production
This would not be good. When you think about it,
civilization runs on natural rubber. Small tires can be entirely synthetic, but
the rest rely on natural rubber, which runs cool and keeps tire walls from
failing. Even a small cutback would foreshadow a global catastrophe. Guayule
produced in dry-land areas with machine agriculture—the way cotton or corn are
grown—could then seemingly burst out of nowhere to keep civilization rolling.
The basic research we helped stimulate would, under such a scary scenario,
The supermarket on a stalk
There were four legumes among the 36 species in Underexploited
Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value, one of which got me started
on a lifetime of interest in these nitrogen-fixing species. Legumes are
nature’s pioneers, and they not only revegetate barren land but also leave
sites better than they found them. By building soil and depositing nitrogen and
vegetable matter legumes benefit all later comers, whether plant, animal,
microbe or human. Because of this capacity for what is nowadays fashionable to
call “sustainability,” I spent 15 years touting the legume family in print and
in popular lectures.
This binge was stimulated by the winged bean (Psophocarpus
tetragonolobus). This is of course not a bean that flies; its common name
refers to the pod, which, as Figure 7 shows, has “wings” running along its
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 7: Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus)
At the time of my involvement, only one brief paper
said anything about the species’ agronomy or uses. There were taxonomic reports
and such, but none even touched on its humanitarian potential. This
nitrogen-fixer is, however, a village food source par excellence.
Something like Jack’s beanstalk, it grows huge and offers six edible parts:
Pods: Figure 8 shows the pods being sold in a Bangkok
market. Beyond being nice to eat, they are nutritious.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 8: Winged bean pods being sold in a Bangkok market
Seeds: Figure 9 shows the seeds you find inside
the pods. In composition, these are essentially identical to soybeans. They are
rich in oil and food energy, and they’re also rich in quality protein.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 9: Winged bean seeds
Flowers: Boiled or steamed, the prolific
blossoms turn black and chewy, and look and taste like mushrooms. They also go
into the pot.
Leaves: Masses of leaves enshroud a winged bean
plant. They too are edible. In taste, texture, table presentation and nutritive
quality they are akin to spinach.
Tendrils: The tendrils the plant uses to
clamber up a pole are also pleasant to dine on. They’re vaguely like very thin
asparagus, at least in appearance.
Tubers: You might think that delivering the
equivalent of green beans, soybeans, spinach, mushrooms, and asparagus would be
enough for any plant. But that’s just what winged bean provides above ground;
below ground it grows a tuber. Figure 10 shows one at a young stage. Notice
also the prominent root nodules that host the plant’s plentiful bacterial
partners that busily download nitrogen from the atmosphere. Those tubers are
not only delicious when cooked in a fire (as were the samples shown in Figure
11), but they also add nutrition into the bargain. Nitrogen is the key atom
making up protein, and this powerhouse nitrogen-fixer provides tubers with
10-12% protein (measured on a dry weight basis). They are among a handful of
starchy root vegetables that are protein-rich.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 10: Winged bean tuber (young stage) and root
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 11: Winged bean tubers
Now perhaps you can grasp why I dubbed winged bean the
“supermarket on a stalk.” At first, I was baffled why Thais and others hadn’t
advanced this crop themselves. Then I learned that the better-off classes
dismissed winged bean as merely “a poor person’s vegetable.” The upper crust in
the Philippines, for example, relegated the so-called “seguidillas” to the
servants’ quarters. But association with poor people is no reason to reject a
crop…quite the opposite, in fact. Poor people’s plants are likely to be robust,
productive, self-reliant and useful. Once upon a time, many of today’s food
crops were foolishly dismissed as “poor people’s plants.” Examples include
peanut (slave food), soybean (coolie food), potato (Irish food), corn (Southern
food) and pasta (Italian immigrant food).
Soon after our 40-page book appeared in 1975, Southeast
Asia’s discrimination began fading and around the world a clamor arose. Though
The Winged Bean: A High-Protein Crop for the Tropics was very slim, it
sparked its own go-go era. The crop came in for frenzied research in Thailand
and other nations whose authorities had forever studiously ignored it. And in a
few nations that had never heard of it, the winged bean rose to become a new
Yet despite all the enthusiasm, the supermarket on a
stalk has still not reached its potential. I’m tempted to write it up all over
again. Part of the problem is that it is a pole bean, and needs support to grow
well. That complicates production compared to, say, soybean. However, soybean
only became self-standing thanks to modern selection and breeding.
The winged bean still needs stakes, fences or a back
wall of the house. Nonetheless, when provided such supports it produces vast
amounts of food—far more per square meter than soybean. That’s when it most
closely impersonates Jack’s beanstalk. And its six separate foodstuffs target
the main malnutrition monsters: the disastrous deficiencies of food energy,
protein, vitamins and minerals that annually kill millions of children.
Leucaena: soil improvement and forage
To this point in my career, I’d never dreamed of
dealing with forestry species. But in 1976 Don Plucknett, a farsighted and
intellectually courageous agronomist on the USAID staff, called. “If you’d like
to write a book on leucaena,” he said, “I’ll fund it.” Actually, the last thing
I wanted to do was write a book on leucaena (pronounced loo-SEE-nah), which
quite literally had a seedy and weedy reputation. But I thought to myself, if
Don thinks enough of it to put up the dough, maybe I ought to say yes.
Leucaena, like many plants I’ve dealt with, has a
name that is difficult to spell, pronounce or remember. I wish I’d had the
smarts to select simpler names. For instance, “lucena” and “wing bean” would
probably have speeded those crops’ progress. However, I represented a
prestigious scientific organization and was working with botanists worldwide,
so it was impossible to make changes so heretical. A gawky name can hinder
anyone trying to make a little-known plant succeed in the wider world. That’s
what happened with a fruit I grew up with. In New Zealand during
my youth we called it “Chinese Gooseberry,” a name that proved political poison
when the first samples arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s. “Red China”
was then the evil enemy, and the fruit bombed until someone came up with
The resulting study focused on the newly developed
giant leucaena (Leucaena leucocephala), which to my surprise proved
neither seedy nor weedy. This species rises more than 80 feet with a trunk more
than 3 feet in diameter. Although far from a forester’s dream, it produces
quality wood. Its protein-rich foliage also makes good feed for certain
animals. More basically, while producing those useful products it rebuilds the
soil and fosters the return of fertility and further types of vegetation.
Despite its sustainable land uses and appeal as a
resource, this species’ greatest feature is its tremendous speed of growth.
This aspect is best illustrated visually:
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 12: This giant leucaena growing in terrible soil
near Bangkok is merely three months old.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 13: These giant leucaenas grown on the coast of
the Philippines about 100 miles north of Manila, are just one year old. I spent
an hour walking around under them. A year earlier, the site had been barren and
festooned by a coarse, weedy, cutting grass called imperata. Now the grass was
gone and the soil was black and bedecked by worm castings. Moreover, the
original rainforest vegetation was beginning to regenerate in the shade,
shelter and moist conditions beneath the canopy of greenery.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 14: These giant leucaenas—growing close to the
city of Pune on India’s Deccan Plateau—are four-and-a-half years old. They made
a memorable sight because all around this plantation the land was totally
treeless. This mini-forest seemed akin to a separate 3-dimensional ecosystem
that continuously supplied firewood, forage, furniture and building materials.
After our 115-page book Leucaena: Promising Forage
and Tree Crop came out in 1977, giant leucaena took off. The late 1970s
proved to be this tree’s go-go era. Soon it was being planted throughout the
Asian tropics. The locals were agog at the speed of growth and the value of the
Then a pest broke out. A species of psyllid, an insect
from leucaena’s homeland, El Salvador, had made its way to Asia. For a time I
was under the gun because the trees looked dead and gone. Critics and even some
colleagues blamed me for bringing on a disaster. But leucaena turned out to be
irrepressible; though defoliated, it actually wasn’t dead. Regardless of the
ravaging insects, it kept struggling to push out leaves. Then, in a year or so,
local predatory insects learned to thwart the foreign newcomer. It sure was a
relief to see those lifeless-looking trees finally leafing out for good.
I don’t know where leucaena stands today, but I’ll bet
it can be found in most tropical lands. It is, however, basically restricted to
alkaline soil and shuns the red acid soils so prevalent in tropical latitudes.
Nonetheless, this tree that absorbs so much CO2 so quickly and in such a small
patch of earth could contribute to what might be called “global cooling.” The
furniture-grade wood could, like rubberwood, end up in upscale commodities that
keep the carbon tied up almost in perpetuity.
Calliandra: an annual firewood crop
One leguminous tree that takes to those red acid soils
is calliandra (Calliandra calothyrsus). In the 1979 compendium on tropical
legumes I’d included a couple of pages on this strange species, and in 1981 I
took a small panel to Indonesia to judge it up close and personal. Calliandra
isn’t much to look at. Its stems are so small they’re like rake handles and the
tree itself is tiny. However, calliandra can top 20 feet in its first year. If
you whack that stem off, the base will send out five or six new ones and
they’ll top 20 feet the next year. Should you cut those, there’ll be eight or
ten more the following year. You can literally go on cutting a crop of wood
year after year for decades.
This rapid and never-ending rotation allows annual
firewood harvests from the same spot of land. This is important because in many
parts of the tropics firewood is as important as food. Corn, rice, yams,
cassava and so forth are useless unless there’s some way to cook them. Native
forests in many rural parts of the tropics are being raped to provide the fuel
poor people need. Calliandra can help change that. Though only like rake
handles, the stems are ideal for people who lack axes and wedges and who cook
over a typical three-rock open fire. They merely whack their trees with a
machete and feed the bits between the rocks.
On the eastern end of Java, we visited ingenious
villagers who’d built their own crop rotation around this species. First they
grew corn for several years. Then, when sensing that the soil fertility was
failing, they planted calliandra and kept it in place for 5 years, all the
while harvesting wood for their fires and forage for their animals. Then they
dug out the stumps (which were sold as charcoal) and replanted corn in the
newly replenished soil. Figure 15 shows them using their inspired system.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 15: Villagers in Java using calliandra (Calliandra
calothyrsus) in crop rotation
Although this was the villagers’ own innovation, Indonesia’s
calliandra Crop Champion was Sukiman Atmosudaryo. As director of the government
tree-growing corporation, Perum Perhutani, this former professor planted calliandra
over large areas easily accessible to the villagers. The resulting firewood and
forage was theirs to use. In exchange, though, the locals had to pledge to
never enter the government’s teak plantings on the higher slopes.
When Dr. Sukiman took us to several of these sites he
was greeted like a savior. The villagers had previously raped his teak
plantings solely because they needed firewood and a place to feed their
animals. Now, with calliandra, they had those things in abundance and close by.
Dr. Sukiman also exercised similar ingenuity in
restoring a denuded and eroding watershed in eastern Java. The dearth of
vegetation cover had meant that during the dry season the stream below the
slopes got weaker and weaker until it ran dry, which precipitated ruin for the
valley’s inhabitants. On his orders, calliandra seeds were broadcast along the
ridges that topped the stark canyon-like cliff faces. Seeds from those trees
fell down the sheer slopes and spawned more calliandra trees, which then
dropped more seed even farther down. The natural reseeding proceeded for
several years until this impossibly steep canyon was tree-covered top to
bottom. Figure 16 shows the outcome. The villagers living below these slopes
told us that the stream was again reliably providing water year-round. Also,
native vegetation was springing up thanks to this shady fertilizer tree’s
“nursing care.” Moreover, Dr. Sukiman had helped them organize communal
beekeeping, which had led to a lively trade in calliandra-blossom honey. All in
all, the people loved the little tree so much that many children in that valley
were named “Kaliandra.”
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 16: Formerly denuded and dried-up watershed, now
replanted in calliandra
Following publication of our 52-page book Calliandra:
A Versatile Small Tree for the Humid Tropics in 1983, no go-go era
eventuated. Nonetheless, this tiny tree that produces annual harvests like a
farm crop got taken up in many parts of the tropics. Still and all, calliandra
deserves revisiting. Firewood shortages remain a major driving force behind the
disappearance of tropical forests.
Mangium: a forester’s dream
In 1980 the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization
published a brief item in which C.K. Tham described tests in Borneo using a
tree called Acacia mangium. Thus, after inspecting Indonesia’s calliandra,
the 5 panelists and I visited a forest station in Sabah, a Malaysian state on Borneo’s
northern tip. Tham, who turned out to be barely out of college, had just a few mangiums.
The species is native to the tropical rainforest of north Queensland, Australia
and its seeds had been obtained just a few years before. Unlike calliandra, mangium
is a forester’s dream. Its trunk is straight, its wood can be very fine, and it
soars to great heights with surprising speed.
Figure 17 shows a mangium planting that is 50 feet
tall, yet the trees had been in the ground just four-and-a-half years. What is
more, this site had been most unpromising for anything other than the world’s
worst weed. You see, its red acid soil was held in the implacable clutches of imperata.
This pestiferous cutting grass has a bad habit of catching fire—a feature that
not only kills the competition but kicks the grass up a notch as well. Tham
(who can be seen in the picture) had found that mangium seed could be planted
directly into imperata-infested ground. As long as the planting was weeded once
or twice the first year, the tree took off and conquered the grass shortly
after that. With imperata’s shackles broken and the trees contributing shade
and nitrogen, a healthy ground cover arose spontaneously. As can be seen, the
rainforest was returning like gang busters. To see an entire rainforest
regenerating in less than five years was the most astounding sight of all.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 17: Four-and-a-half-year-old Mangium (Acacia mangium)
sparking the regeneration of a rainforest
Our 62-page Mangium and Other Acacias of the Humid
Tropics came out in 1983, and since then this species has been widely
planted. Indeed, I recall an Indonesian report way back in the early 1990s
describing plantings covering tens of thousands of hectares. Like leucaena,
this species could contribute to “global cooling” while turning barren expanses
of the tropics back into their original rainforest. Millions of acres around
the middle of the world are currently lost to imperata, so there’s no shortage
of space. And a tree that grows this fast takes a lot of greenhouse gas from
the global heat shroud we all want to see reduced.
Bracatinga: a shade tree
Our large 1979 book on tropical legumes briefly
mentioned Mimosa scabrella, a tree that once fueled southern Brazil’s
railroads. We featured it again in the 1980 book Firewood Crops: Shrub and
Tree Species for Energy Production. Both insertions were quite daring
because virtually nothing whatever had been written about bracatinga since
modern fuels replaced wood on Brazil’s railroads. However, I’d seen a 1930s
brochure featuring this fast-growing hardwood that was then planted trackside
for locomotive fuel.
Although inserting such a shadowy prospect was chancy,
things worked out thanks to a young Costa Rican forestry student who caught a
copy of Firewood Crops in the library at his university in Turrialba. He
happened to have a Brazilian girlfriend and was searching for any excuse for a
trip. He talked his professor into letting him investigate this tree, borrowed
the airfare from his folks, had a good time with his sweetheart, and brought a
new crop back to his country.
Figure 18 shows bracatinga’s Crop Champion and the
product of one of his seeds. As I recall, this tree is just 3 years old. The
site is 50 miles west of San José, on a hillside near Heredia, and it is
shading and sheltering sensitive coffee plants from the tropical sun’s
devastating heat and desiccation.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 18: Three-year-old bracatinga (Mimosa scabrella)
near San José, Costa Rica
Where bracatinga stands today I know not, but surely a
robust nitrogen-fixing tree that grows so big in just three years can
contribute toward lessening several of our era’s global problems.
Lost Crops of the Incas
Figure 19 shows the sort of scene graduates of this
great institution [the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health] may
find in the parts of the tropics where the public health problems exist. This
picture was taken in the Andes and shows some of the strange-looking foods to
be found throughout the South American highlands. What may look like offbeat
potatoes are actually entirely different tubers, and what may look like offbeat
chili peppers are lesser-known species as well. Indeed, few of the fruits and
vegetables seen here have ever gotten out into the wider world. Even the locals
tend to diss these ancient foods, writing them off as has-beens whose time has
long since passed in this era of wheat, rice, corn and soybeans. The truth,
though, is quite the opposite. These ancient resources portend a better future
for the Andean nations and for the wider world. That’s why we published the
400-page Lost Crops of the Incas in 1989. The next illustrations
highlight just a few of the scores of potent prospects.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 19: Some strange-looking foods of the South
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 20: Yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia). This
distant sunflower relative has tubers that are sweet but almost calorie-free.
Because of their succulence, most are eaten raw for refreshment; many, however,
are eaten cooked. A calorie-free sweet staple food sounds somewhat like modern
civilization’s holy grail. And yacon can grow in North America. Imagine!
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 21: Oca (Oxalis tuberosa). In the Andean
highlands, it is second only to the potato, and remains a staple for Peruvian
and Bolivian Indians living at high altitudes. Although the potato has gone
forth and multiplied into a major food for mankind, oca has remained at home. New
Zealand is about the only non-Andean nation that knows it. While growing up
there, I enjoyed these red, wrinkled tubers which taste like potatoes that need
no sour cream. The slight sourness makes them delectable. I predict these will
be seen in supermarkets worldwide, perhaps quite soon.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 22: Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), which
featured not only in Lost Crops of the Incas but also in the inaugural
compendium, Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value.
The grain is one of the vegetable kingdom’s best protein sources. Quinoa
(usually pronounced KEEN-wah) is already appearing in U.S. supermarkets. That’s
not necessarily because of our endeavors, but we are certainly glad to have
helped nudge the crop along the path to its greater destiny.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 23: Tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea).
Gardens high on the mountainsides from Colombia to Chile contain small trees
that bear large crops of these egg-shaped “tomatoes.” Tree tomatoes have
bright, shiny, red or golden skins and can be eaten raw or cooked or added to
cakes, fruit salads, sauces, or ice cream. Among the most popular local
delights, their succulent flesh is tart and tangy and has a unique piquancy.
Despite the tartness, these make good dessert treats. They are beginning to
appear in the specialty sections of good supermarkets.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 24: Kiwicha (Amaranthus caudatus). Until
400 years ago, this species was a major Andean crop, but it disappeared along
with the Incas. After reading about our work, Luis Sumar Kalinowski, a
professor in Cuzco, set out to rediscover it. Seemingly there was none
anywhere. But finally, he located a few handfuls of seeds that some family had
religiously grown for four centuries. This field results from their efforts and
his. Today, kiwicha is cultivated again; the Incas would feel right at home
By the way, in Mexico, 4,000 miles northward of the
Incas, the Aztecs had their own counterpart of kiwicha. Their species (Amaranthus
cruentus) never disappeared, and it was one of the 36 “winners” in the
first compendium volume. A decade later, we revisited it in Amaranth: Modern
Prospects for an Ancient Crop. This 80-page highly illustrated summary
helped spark modern attention. Rodale Press, however, was the real force that
got this nutritious grain grown again. As a result of research inspired by the
late Robert Rodale, amaranth breakfast flakes are staples in today’s
supermarkets and health food stores. Bob was a great Crop Champion. He was in
the Soviet Union preparing to push new crops and new-age agriculture when a
truck broadsided the car taking him to the airport for the flight home.
Lost Crops of Africa
In 1995 my prime sponsor, USAID, stopped funding the
program, apparently on the basis that 25 years’ support was enough, regardless
of our many successes and meager needs. Sadly, I couldn’t land a replacement
sponsor. Thus the program abruptly ended.
The Academy let me keep my office, and I managed to
persevere for over a year, toiling with essentially no pay, to complete the
first volume of what had been projected as the program’s master work. The
383-page Lost Crops of Africa, Volume 1: Grains describes
more than a score of little-known but very promising cereal grains that are
native to Africa’s hunger zone yet remain poorly supported by science and
produce at levels far below their potential. In essence, it touches almost all
of Africa’s needs: overcoming malnutrition, boosting food security, managing
the land sustainably, fostering rural development and reducing poverty.
After that volume came out in 1996, sadly, I was
forced to leave this line of endeavor and search for something that could pay
the bills that had piled up.
Crop Champions: A field that welcomes amateurs
From my experience you can see that, though maybe not
financially rewarding, being a Crop Champion is extraordinarily rewarding. And
this line of work needs more recruits because of all those jewels that exist in
the plant kingdom and still await a polish. The majority of those exist in the
unhealthy, hungry and deforested expanses of the tropical latitudes where
public health also awaits more attention. Some audience members are therefore
likely to find themselves face-to-face with a crop needing the publicity that
can attract professional passion and inspire its march into the fullness of its
The point here is that Earth holds at least 250,000
plant species, among which several thousand have edible fruits, leaves, roots,
flowers, stems or some such part. Figure 25 is included to provide some sense
of how few of those thousands currently feed humanity. You can see that basically
30 plants support all societies. Notice that mango, sunflower seed, and onion
make the top 30, which is a telling indication of the smallness of the
diversity behind the food that supports humankind.
(Click to enlarge)
Figure 25: The top 30 plant foods that currently feed
Among those thousands of overlooked edibles, several
hundred have the prospects for greater things in organized food production.
Most are native to Africa, Asia and Latin America—the very places where food is
in shortest supply and hardest to grow. Those uncut jewels are all out there,
each awaiting its Crop Champion.
As you’ve seen, in the Crop Champion world, amateurs
are welcome. Of all the people I’ve highlighted, none were trained crop
developers. All were generalists who started out knowing nothing about their
chosen plant and carried on by the seat of their pants. That can-do spirit, in
fact, heightened their chances of success. There’s no common blueprint to
follow, and the challenges are too broad for specialist scientists. By itself,
no scientific discipline can create a new crop. Only a sort of General
Practitioner, prepared to wield an array of sciences and technologies together
with inner wisdom and common sense, can do that. Completing this intellectual
panorama also requires a hide tough enough to withstand setbacks, unforeseeable
difficulties and all-too-common carping and criticisms.
If you’ve got what it takes, however, you too can
become a Crop Champion. You can enjoy the ride of a lifetime. Engagement in
such a venture helps make the future more livable for everyone, but especially
for mankind’s most needy—and for you.