Can we feed and clothe the world’s growing population while preserving or even improving ecosystem services and the natural environment? Wes Barber, a U of I graduate student in plant breeding, asks this question of himself or others every day. However, searching for solutions to one of the world’s critical agriculture challenges was not something he would have predicted for himself five years ago.
Wes, a native of St. Louis who had no background in agriculture growing up, studied biology at a small liberal arts college in Iowa. His interest in genetically modified organisms was sparked by a class project where he worked at family farms to gain perspective on different farming methods. The experience led him to pursue an internship at Pioneer Hi-Bred, where he worked with genetically engineered corn.
“After working with Pioneer, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in plant breeding and really connected with people involved in the agriculture industry,” Wes said. “My internship experience hammered home that plant breeding works, but it was a trip to Africa that showed me that it is essential to society.”
Wes, who has always had an interest in African history and culture, jumped at the chance to travel to South Africa on an 11-month fellowship. He worked with a group trying to genetically engineer drought-tolerant corn, and he enjoyed learning from South African farmers and hearing their thoughts about GMOs.
“My trip made me a better scientist. Not only did I get to work in a plant stress lab and enhance my research skills, but I truly experienced the need for plant breeding technology in Africa,” he said.
For Wes his next step was simple: study plant breeding at the University of Illinois. He said the U of I was his first choice because of its long-standing tradition in technology and because it has the Illinois Plant Breeding Center.
Wes is one of 59 graduate students in the center, which is preparing the next generation of plant breeders for productive and innovative careers in crop improvement.
Through his work at the U of I and as a member of the National Association of Plant Breeders, Wes was involved with a study recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The study found that with the right partnerships, plant breeding will be essential for addressing challenges in agriculture.
Wes described the study as aiming to highlight the advances and possibilities in various aspects of plant breeding. By developing crop varieties that not only meet end-use targets but also use resources more efficiently, plant breeders can continue to improve the sustainability of agriculture as well as of urban and forest ecosystems. Varieties that require application of fewer off-farm inputs decrease the cost of production, lower the use of fossil fuels, and reduce contamination of water systems, all of which help to improve public health and stabilize rural economies.
“Plant breeders’ objectives aren’t focused only on yield,” Wes said. “Through this study we hope to show groups not traditionally associated with plant breeding, or even with agriculture, that they have much to gain by interacting with and supporting plant breeding. Breeding is a powerful tool for meeting today’s environmental challenges because it can develop plants that simultaneously improve food production and the natural environment.”
Wes said the U of I provides an atmosphere where students can participate in discussions about social and environmental issues surrounding agriculture.
“I am drawn to agriculture by the big-picture issues we face today, and I keep society as a whole in mind with my work,” he said. “Studying plant breeding at the U of I gives me the opportunity to create something new, that’s tangible and comes from the land. A career as a plant breeder helps all kinds of people, and it changes lives.”