The Viking in the Wheat Field

Bent Skovmand’s struggle to preserve the world’s harvest.

Viking In The  Wheat  Field

“We’re just plain urban eaters—most of us. We just want to go to the market and buy that loaf of bread. We don’t understand the politics, the lobbying, or anything that goes on [in regards to agriculture], says Susan Dworkin, author of “The Viking in the Wheat Field” (Walker), a new book that focuses on the work of the late Bent Skovmand (1945-2007), who devoted his life to protecting and increasing the world’s food supply.

According to Dworkin, her goals for the book were threefold: To recognize the efforts of “hidden, but heroic” public servants like Skovmand; to publicize the existence of Ug99—a new type of stem rust that poses a grave threat to the world’s supply of wheat; and to educate urban folk about the importance of issues like plant diversity. “There is a big information gap between people who live in urban and suburban America and people who live in rural America,” notes Dworkin, lamenting the fact that city dwellers have virtually dropped out of the “hugely important civic conversation about food security.”

With this in mind, Failure interviewed Dworkin about Skovmand, stem rust, and efforts to develop Ug99-resistant varieties of wheat.

What inspired you to write “The Viking in the Wheat Field”?

I saw Bent Skovmand’s obituary in the New York Times, and I had been reading about him for a long time. I knew he was the central librarian for all the wheat breeders in the world, and thought he was too important to neglect. So I took steps to contact his family, friends and associates and made an exclusive arrangement with his wife for access to his papers. I ended up sitting in his study [in Sweden], reading his letters and academic papers. Then I went to Mexico to talk to many of the people he had been associated with at CIMMYT [the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center]. I interviewed maybe 100 people in the course of my research.

My goal was not only to write the biography of a great public servant, but also to acquaint people—particularly urban people like myself—with the subject of plant genetic resources and how incredibly vital plant diversity is to the health and food security of the world. I hope I’ve succeeded, at least to some degree.

Who was Bent Skovmand?

He was a wheat breeder—an expert on wheat. He came from Denmark and went to work with the late [Nobel Peace Prize-winning agriculturalist] Norman Borlaug developing improved varieties of wheat. Over time he realized the importance of preserving all the varieties and relatives and ancient progenitors of wheat, and how important these were to breeders trying to improve the crop, fight off disease, and meet the challenges of global warming. If you were looking for a new variety to fight drought or resist some horrible plague, you would go to Skovman and his seed bank and look for genes to put into your wheat.

A couple of years before Skovmand died, he went to work at the Nordic Gene Bank [now called Nordgen], and was one of the people involved in the building of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault [in an abandoned coal mine in Svalbard, an archipelago on the edge of the Arctic Circle], which contains a collection of the world’s crop seeds. It’s pretty depressing that the nations of the world have to save the seeds of their crops inside [a mine] because there is the possibility that agriculture will be destroyed.

A significant portion of your book is devoted to Ug99. What is Ug99?

It’s a new race of stem rust, discovered in Uganda and named in 1999. Stem rust is a terrible, intractable plague on wheat—a fungal disease spread by microscopic spores that blow on the wind—and Ug99 kills [almost] all the varieties of wheat. It started in Uganda, then moved into Kenya and decimated the wheat crop there. Then it jumped the Red Sea, reached Yemen, and started moving up the Arabian Peninsula. Now it’s in Iran, and scientists from countries that don’t speak to each other—like the United States and Iran—are working in cooperation, trying to come up with sources of resistance. Those few varieties that are resistant have to be developed, multiplied, shipped and distributed. It’s a huge danger, and there’s a big project at Cornell University—the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project—to develop resistance to rust in wheat.

Why haven’t we heard much about Ug99?

Why haven’t we heard much about the National Plant Germplasm system? Why haven’t we heard much about the International Agricultural Research Centers? Why haven’t we heard much about agriculture? It’s all one question. The <i>New York Times</i> has been heroic in trying to cover agriculture for an urban population that has no interest in it. There’s a group of writers—myself included—who have been trying to get people to understand how very important this is. 

Why is the world’s wheat vulnerable to Ug99?

Rust is a clever fungus. Say we re-breed wheat so it will survive greater cold or grow at higher altitudes or with less water, then the stem rust mutates to destroy the new kinds of wheat. In Uganda, the gene we depended on for 50 years suddenly became powerless. The new idea is not to depend on one gene, but to stack up a bunch of minor genes which together make the plant immune. So that if one of them fails, there are many other partners still working.

Does the U.S. have a plan for Ug99?

God forbid Ug99 comes to this country. If you go to the Agricultural Research Service Web site, you’ll see we have a very detailed plan, one that includes the Dept. of Agriculture, Dept. of Transportation, Dept. of Defense, and Homeland Security. It shows how seriously we take this threat.

What’s your take on genetic engineering?

The book changed me. I met one scientist—one—in the course of my 100 interviews, who did not feel that genetic engineering was necessary to feed the world. But there is genetic engineering and then there is genetic engineering. Rice doesn’t get rust. If we could figure out what it is about rice that is impervious to rust and put that into wheat, would that be bad or good? You have to pause before you answer. It might be a great thing because it would save the world from Ug99. But it might destroy something else.

Skovmand would say that if genetic engineering is done in the name of the public and for the public, and if it’s not a proprietary gene and not held as a trade secret then it's good. He used to say: If we’re not careful, four or five companies are going to control the seed supply of the entire world.

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project