UNL CropWatch April 29, 2011: UNL Wheat Breeder's Long-term Creative Work Recognized

UNL CropWatch April 29, 2011: UNL Wheat Breeder's Long-term Creative Work Recognized

April 29, 2011

Stephen Baenziger became a scientist out of the idealistic hope of helping to feed the world. Thirty-five years on, that idealism still drives him, though it's leavened with a certain reality about humanity.

Steve BaenzIger

Steve Baenziger, Eugene Price Distringuished Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, examines a wheat plant in an East Campus greenhouse. (Source: Craig Chandler, UNL)

Baenziger, the Eugene Price Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, recently received the University of Nebraska's Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award. In 25 years at UNL, Baenziger has developed an international reputation as a wheat breeder whose research is helping to feed more people and improve lives in Nebraska and around the world.

He's doing pretty much what he decided in high school he wanted to do. Born in Toronto, Baenziger grew up near Chicago, in Des Plaines, Ill.
"I was always interested in science and math. I was born in 1951, and when I was 10, Kennedy said we were going to go to the moon," Baenziger recalled. "It looked like science was almost limitless in what it could do."

"When I got to high school, I started reading about what problems were facing humanity. And one of them was feeding the world," he said.
At the time, warnings of a "population bomb" that could lead to mass starvation were common, and Baenziger first set his sights on majoring in human nutrition at Harvard. Along the way, though, he encountered some excellent plant professors, "and I decided it made more sense to go into feeding the world working on the supply side, you might say."

So began what became Baenziger's life work: developing high quality grains with improved nutritional value. After getting his bachelor’s in biochemical sciences at Harvard, he went on to get master’s and doctorate’s, both in plant breeding and genetics, at Purdue University.

After Purdue, he ended up at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for eight years, working on germplasm improvements in wheat and barley. Then he moved to Monsanto, drawn by the looming promise of biotechnology. After three years at Monsanto, Baenziger was hired at UNL to lead the university's already internationally known wheat breeding program. Baenziger rarely misses an opportunity to praise his predecessor, John Schmidt, for his stewardship of the program.

"I already knew the University of Nebraska's wheat breeding program was one of the best in the world," Baenziger said.

Its sterling reputation has continued under Baenziger's leadership. In the last five years alone, Baenziger has released six new wheat cultivars. In all, Nebraska-developed cultivars account for 65% of Nebraska's wheat acres. His germplasm resources have been used to develop numerous wheat cultivars in other Great Plains states as well.

Like so many in his field, Baenziger considers himself a disciple of Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize winner who's considered the founder of the Green Revolution that at one time seemed to have solved the world's hunger problem. Borlaug knew better.

"Borlaug said, 'don't be mistaken. What we've done is bought time for 30 years. At the end of 30 years we’re going to have to do it all over again, Baenziger said.

"Norm was exactly right," though off by about five or 10 years, Baenziger said.

Today, though, the question is not "can we feed the world?," Baenziger said. It's "Do we care enough to feed the world?"

"Quite frankly we could feed the world today with the production we have. We choose not to," he added.

"I started full of idealism and optimism to feed the world," Baenziger reflected. "My goal now is should the world ever decide that we want to feed the world, we’re going to have the technological capability to do it.

"I can breed great wheat varieties and I can teach great students that can go out and do wonderful things, but I can't change the human spirit.

Still, Baenziger remains optimistic. He enjoys working with colleagues, producers, the industry and students. He likes to quote Confucius: "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life."

"I started working at 24 years old, I've now got 35 years in. I've probably worked fewer than 10 days."

Baenziger is particularly excited about the "unbridled opportunities" facing today's students. He draws on another favorite quote, from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "When duty whispers low, 'Thou must,' the youth replies, 'I can.'"

"That's the optimism I have when I see these students today. They're just amazing."

Last December, Baenziger, 59, was named the inaugural holder of the Bayer CropScience AG-funded Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair. It’s part of a new agreement between Bayer and NUTech Ventures that funds UNL research and education programs.

Dan Moser
IANR News Service