The benefits from public and private investment in agricultural research are immense and have transformed the world’s food security by developing and applying science to increase the productivity and advancements of agriculture. The way that many agricultural pioneers — scientists who have made major discoveries in crop farming — have impacted society and the course of history is astounding.
Before I started researching this article, I didn’t know who discovered chlorophyll or plant metabolism, who invented fertilizer, or who the architects of the “Green Revolution” were, dramatically improving crop breeding methodologies during the 20th century.
Less than 100 years ago, commercial exploitation of hybrid vigor in a self-pollinated crop such as rice would have been considered impossible. Today, hybrid wheat, rice, and other species occupies millions of hectares worldwide.
The advances made by agricultural scientists continue to this day with recombinant DNA technology and breeding strategies to address the changing climate and ever-increasing world population.
We dive in to show you some of the agricultural industry’s biggest game-changers over the past two centuries. They may not be household names, but these agricultural pioneers deserve our gratitude and respect.
Justus von Liebig
Founder of agricultural science and organic chemistry
Justus Freiherr von Liebig, who lived in the 19th century, was a German scientist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry and is considered one of the principal founders of entire field of organic chemistry. Von Liebig’s father was a chemical manufacturer whose shop had a small laboratory, where von Liebig loved to perform experiments when he was young.
Von Liebig went on as an adult to revolutionize organic analysis of compounds using a five-bulb device called the “Kaliapparat.” Through his work, he discovered the assimilation of carbon and hydrogen required a series of chemical reactions that, starting from some organic acids, ended in the formation of sugar, and maintained that plants feed upon nitrogen compounds, carbon dioxide from air, and some minerals found in the soil. He was also the first person to invent a nitrogen-based fertilizer.
Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou
Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaim Caventou, were two young students of pharmacology who had an amazing collaboration together. They worked with and discovered many alkaloids: nitrogenous organic compounds of plant origin that have pronounced physiological actions on humans. They include many drugs (morphine, quinine) and poisons (atropine, strychnine).
Together they discovered emetine (1817), strychnine (1818), brucine (1819), and veratrine (1819). In 1817, they also discoveredchlorophyll, the green pigment found in almost all plants, algae, and cyanobacteria.
In 1820, Pelletier and Caventou, went on to demonstrate that cinchonine was a mixture of two alkaloids that they named as quinine and cinchonine, thus successfully ending a 70-year search for an effective malaria treatment.
Nicolas de Saussure
Nicolas de Saussure was an early pioneer in plant physiology. He was born and lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and later became professor of mineralogy and geology at the Geneva Academy. De Saussure’s most famous book was Recherches chimiques sur la végétation, or Chemical Research on Plant Matter, published in 1804.
De Saussure studied gas and nutrient uptake in plants by enclosing plants in glass containers and weighing the plants and enclosed carbon dioxide before and after, de Saussure demonstrated that plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. This showed that carbon in plants comes from the atmosphere (not the soil, as some believed).
De Saussure proved that the volume of carbon dioxide absorbed is approximately equal to the volume of oxygen consumed. Because the weight of carbon absorbed was less than the total weight increase of the plant, de Saussure reasoned that water is absorbed, and in so doing correctly described the major chemical transformations in photosynthesis.
Pioneer of induced mutagenesis
In 1928, Hermann Joseph Muller introduced the world to the concept of point mutation of DNA facilitated by X-rays. In his paper entitled the Artificial Transmutation of the Gene, he claimed that high doses of X-rays induced gene mutations in the Drosophila (fruit fly) genome. He conducted three experiments in 1926 and 1927 that demonstrated that exposure to X-rays can cause genetic mutations, changes to an organism’s genome, particularly in egg and sperm cells.
He wrote: “Organisms are found to be far more plastic in their hereditary basis than has been believed, and we may confidently look forward to a future in which the surface of the earth will be overlaid with luxurious crops, at once easy to raise and to gather, resistant to natural enemies and climate, and readily useful in all their parts.”
Muller’s work had different implications for various fields, but it showed conclusively that environmental factors like radiation affected heritable characteristics of organisms This discovery enabled crop scientists to directly induce genetic mutations in cultivars, instead of waiting for mutations to occur spontaneously.
While ultimately Muller is credited with discovering induced mutagenesis, he left behind a troubling legacy; he specifically avoided peer- review for some of his findings. The evidence is reviewed at length by Edward Calabrese, who writes, “The set of papers reveal Muller to be an inspiring and principled leader while, at other times, he appears as a person with distorted self-serving interests, highly ideological and partisan, and with little evidence of a moral compass, all the while being very self-righteous, within the context of a very intelligent, unrelenting, aggressive and at times disagreeable manner.”
Italian wheat breeder
Nazareno Strampelli was a wheat breeding pioneer in the early 20th century who did not publish many papers but bred many useful cultivars. Some of Strampelli’s wheat hybrids were exported out of Italy and grown on million of hectares in China in the ’60s and ’70s. Only since the 1990s has his work has been recognized at the international level.
Strampelli was among the first, in Europe and in the world, to systematically apply Mendel’s laws to plant breeding, (particularly to wheat breeding), which resulted in varieties characterized by rust resistance, early flowering and maturity and short straw. Due to Strampelli’s varieties, Italian wheat production doubled, an achievement that during the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini was referred to as the “Wheat Battle.”
Some of Strampelli’s wheats, such as Mentana, Ardito and San Pastore, played a key role in the first phase of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution.
Norman Borlaug, Dr. M. Swaminathan, Dr. Krishnaswami Ramiah
Architects of the Green Revolution
Norman Borlaug developed the “shuttle breeding program” in Mexico, which involved growing alternate generations of crops under two completely diverse environments. The locations differed in soil type, temperature, rainfall, and photoperiod. The shuttle breeding procedure led to the selection of strains possessing relative insensitivity to photoperiod as well as broad spectrum resistance to stem rust. In addition, it helped to reduce considerably the time needed to breed a new cultivar.
This gained global importance because places such as India once suffered deadly food famines. But the Green Revolution in the late 1960s brought an end to the suffering and devastation of malnutrition through the use of high-yielding cereal varieties and the increased use of irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides which caused grain production to stabilize and soar.
The Green Revolution was a huge development effort that brought food self-sufficiency to India in just a few year’s time. M.S. Swaminathan, a plant geneticist, was inspired and aided by Bouralug and is credited with designing the Green Revolution by altering plant architecture and physiological properties through breeding in wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), rice (Oryza sativa L.), corn (Zea mays L.), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor L.), and other crops.
The quest for the breeding of crop cultivars capable of responding to higher levels of plant nutrition started in 1952 when, when Dr. Krishnaswam. Ramiah developed a program for incorporating genes for fertilizer response from japonica rice cultivars into indica strains at the Central Rice Research Institute of India.
Dr. William Gaud
Coined the term ‘Green Revolution’
Dr. William Gaud was an administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from its earliest days in 1961 at the outset of the Kennedy administration. He was in charge of its operations in the Near East and South Asia until 1964. He oversaw an astonishing increase in food production during this period — particularly in Turkey, India, and Pakistan. In 1964, India produced 9.8 million tons of wheat. In 1969, it produced 18 million tons. Pakistan’s yield rose from 4 million to 7 million tons in the same five years.
He is credited with getting advanced technologies to the poorest countries that would benefit the most from them. He told the U.S. Congress in 1968 that these countries “lack the skills to do the necessary adaptive research. They lack the foreign exchange to import fertilizer. They lack the capital to build fertilizer plants. They lack the facilities and techniques needed to train their people in the new ways.”
George Washington Carver
Saved the South from Starvation
George Washington Carver (1864-1943), was born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1865, Carver became the first Black student and the first Black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University and was later recruited by Booker T. Washington to the Tuskegee Institute.
He was an agricultural scientist, inventor and educator who sought to revitalize southern soil that was stripped by cotton, a nitrogen-depleting crop. He developed a crop-rotation method that alternated the cotton with legumes like peanuts that fix nitrogen and other edible crops such as corn. In addition to crop rotation, Carver promoted the practice of using compost to reintroduce nutrients and add organic matter to the soil. He showed that using compost for soil revitalization increased its productivity by a hundredfold compared with previous common methods.
During World War I, there were shortages of crops and food, and Carver began developed alternative uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans, and peanuts. Peanuts were primarily used at that time to feed livestock, but he developed hundreds of products, including plastics, synthetic rubber, and paper from them. From soybeans, Carver invented a process for producing paints and stains, for which three separate patents were issued. Among Carver’s many synthetic discoveries: adhesives, axle grease, bleach, chili sauce, creosote, dyes, flour, instant coffee, shoe polish, shaving cream, vanishing cream, wood stains, and fillers, insulating board, linoleum, meat tenderizer, metal polish, milk flakes, soil conditioner, and Worcestershire sauce. In all, he developed 300 products from peanuts and 118 from sweet potatoes, in addition to new products from waste materials including recycled oil, and paints and stains from clay.
John E. Franz
John E. Franz was a longtime Monsanto Co. chemist who is named on more than 840 patents and is most recognized for discovering the glyphosate class of herbicides. Franz’s work has earned him several accolades over the years. His biggest came in 1987 when he was awarded the National Medal of Technology Presidential Award.
“Franz’s invaluable breakthrough spurred Monsanto to design and produce plants genetically immune to glyphosates, which allows farmers to use the herbicide without damage to their crops,” the website nationalmedals.org wrote, referencing the adoption by corn and soybean farmers of Roundup Ready seed technology.
Although glyphosate has become Franz’s crowning achievement, he branched out beyond that realm of research while at Monsanto, including working on antiauxin chemistry, plant chemistry, and nitride sulfide chemistry. The long list of his patents nationally and internationally includes these fields, as well as several related to the identification and synthesis of glyphosate. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Henri de Laulanié
SRI: System of Rice Intensification
Henri de Laulanié avoided the spotlight, and there aren’t even a handful of photos of him. His work was barely recognized in his own lifetime, but his innovations may turn out to be key in feeding the growing world population.
De Laulanié was born in France in 1920 and trained at an agricultural college before becoming a Jesuit priest. He was sent as a missionary to Madagascar in 1961, where he spent the rest of his life studying rice. By 1983, de Laulanié had discovered a System of Rice Intensification, “almost by accident.”
Farmers using his techniques could get 8 tons of rice per hectare, against the 2 they usually got with conventional farming. And yet, his system used half the water, a tenth of the seeds, and could work with far lower levels of fertilizer or even just compost — farmers could grow four times more rice!
SRI, as the technique is now known, has a couple of relatively simple ideas that just worked, and at first nobody was quite sure why. De Laulanié planted tiny seedlings rather than larger plants, and gave them more space than usual. And rather than flood the paddy in the traditional way, he just kept the ground moist. This encouraged the rice plants to grow bigger root structures, with more tillering from the original seed. This technique is more labor intensive, but the yields have long been reported to be exceptional.
Father of hybrid rice
Rice occupies — and will continue to occupy — a pivotal place in global food and livelihood security systems. Of the annual world production of 596.485 million Mg from 155.128 million hectares, Asia produces 540.621 million Mg from 138.563 million hectares.
In 1959, China experienced the Great Chinese Famine. Yuan Longping was an agricultural scientist who was powerless to help the starving people around him in Hunan province. He said, “There was nothing in the field because hungry people took away all the edible things they can find. They eat grass, seeds, fern roots, or even white clay at the very extreme.”
He remembered the sight of those who had starved to death all his life, and it spurned him on to become known as the “Father of Hybrid Rice.”
In the 1950s, two separate theories of heredity were taught in China. One theory was based on the concept of genes and alleles (Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan), and the other theory was from Soviet Union scientists Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin and Trofim Lysenko, which stated that organisms would change over the course of their lives to adapt to environmental changes they experienced and that their offspring would then inherit the changes. At the time, the Chinese government’s official stance on scientific theories favored the Soviet side. Yuan was taught and mentored by some biologists who followed the ideas of Mendel and Morgan.
In 1966, Yuan himself was eventually named as a counter-revolutionary, and there were plans to imprison him. However, a letter of support for Yuan and his work was received based on his publication about male-sterile rice, and as a result, Yuan was allowed to continue his research and eventually perfected rice hybrids.
In 1979, Yuan’s technique for hybrid rice was introduced into the United States, making it the first case of intellectual property rights transfer in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
John Charles Walker
Discovered how plants resist diseases
John Charles Walker was an American agricultural scientist noted for his research of plant disease resistance.
He was the first scientist to demonstrate the chemical nature of disease resistance in plants. Walker is most known for developing disease-resistant varieties of onions, cabbages, beans, peas, beets and cucumbers. The National Academy of Sciences said that he was considered “one of the world’s greatest plant pathologists” and that “his fundamental discoveries of plant disease resistance made a lasting impact on world agriculture.”
Father of hybrid cotton
In India, the hybrid cotton era only just started in 1970 with the release of world’s first cotton hybrid “H 4” from Cotton Research Station Surat of Gujarat Agricultural University.
This hybrid was developed by the late Dr. C.T. Patel, who is known as the father of hybrid cotton. This hybrid, by virtue of its high yield potential and wide adaptability, quickly became very popular among farmers. Though the work began to develop commercial hybrids in tetraploid cotton around 1930 at cotton Research Station, Surat, India, it was only realized 40 years later in 1970.
The hybrid cotton era is divided into two parts: the conventional hybrid era and the male sterility based hybrid era. In the beginning, all the cotton hybrids were developed by conventional method, i.e., by hand emasculation and pollination. However, the seed of conventional hybrids is very expensive, because manual labor is needed for emasculation. Genic male sterility (GMS) has since emerged as a better tool to accelerate hybrid breeding.
Founder of Modern Plant Biotechnology
Mary-Dell Chilton was born February 2, 1939, in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is one of the founders of modern plant biotechnology. Chilton was the first (1977) to demonstrate the presence of a fragment of Agrobacterium Ti plasmid DNA in the nuclear DNA of crown gall tissue.
Her research on agrobacterium also showed that the genes responsible for causing disease could be removed from the bacterium without adversely affecting its ability to insert its own DNA into plant cells and modify the plant’s genome. Chilton described what she had done as disarming the bacterial plasmid responsible for the DNA transfer.
» Related: Scientist Mary-Dell Chilton and her legacy
She and her collaborators produced the first genetically modified plants using Agrobacterium carrying the disarmed Ti plasmid (1983). She has been called the “queen of Agrobacterium.” Chilton is author of more than 100 scientific publications.
Plant biology and biotech pioneer
Robb Fraley spent decades as Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto Co. and is often referred to as the “father of agricultural biotechnology.” His oversight at Monsanto incorporated plant breeding, plant biotechnology, ag biologicals, ag microbials, precision agriculture, and crop protection, and he is credited with developing the first commercial-scale genetically engineered crop (or GMO, in more popular terminology) in the 1980s. He has a doctorate in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois.
Fraley has been known as a vocal advocate for genetically modified organisms — and the role of science in helping feed the world’s growing population — and has pushed for scientists to join the public dialogue.
Some of his most distinguished honors include being recognized as a World Food Prize Laureate in 2013, receiving the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1998, and receiving the National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science for his work on crop improvement in 2008, among other recognitions.
Percy Lavon Julian
Synthesized hormones from plants
Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of a railway mail clerk and the grandson of enslaved people. He was accepted at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, as a sub-freshman, meaning that he had to take high-school courses concurrently with his freshman courses. Majoring in chemistry, he graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1920.
After graduation he taught chemistry at Fisk University for two years before winning an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University, where he completed a master’s degree in organic chemistry. After Harvard he returned to teaching at West Virginia State College and Howard University. He was a research chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, such as cortisone, steroids and birth control pills.
In the 1930s chemists recognized the structural similarity of a large group of natural substances — the steroids. These include the sex hormones and the cortical hormones of the adrenal glands. The medicinal potential of these compounds was clear, but extracting sufficient quantities of them virtually impossible. He was inducted into the National Academy of the Sciences, National Inventors Hall of Fame and the American Chemical Society for his lasting work. Throughout his life he was socially active in groups seeking to advance conditions for African Americans, helping to found the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago and serving on the boards of several other organizations and universities.
Shang Fa Yang
Discovered the plant hormone ethylene
Shang Fa Yang was a Taiwanese-American plant scientist and a professor at the University of California, Davis who discovered, among many other things, the mechanism of biosynthesis, mode of action, and applications of the plant hormone, ethylene.
Ethylene is involved in many complex aspects of the plant life cycle, including seed germination, root development, shoot and root growth, formation of adventitious roots, abscission of leaves and fruits, flowering, sex determination, and senescence of flowers and leaves. Ethylene also helps plants adaptive responses to stress, such as drought, flooding, pathogen attack, or high salinity. Ethylene is best known, for its essential role in the ripening of fruits, such as tomatoes, bananas, pears and apples.