The Last Aggie Joke

Texas A&M is going to save the world. No kidding.

August 1975By Comments

Dr. Gary Smith was clearly concerned. The meeting had begun at 2, and here it was nearly 3:30 with his turn to talk nowhere in sight. A genial man with a shiny bald head, he sat with three of his fellow professors from the Animal Sciences division of Texas A&M, waiting to explain their new discoveries to the visiting reporter. Dr. Smith waited patiently while Dr. Tom Cartwright (this is the kind of place where all PhDs are called “Doctor”) gave his chart-and-lecture presentation on the Herd Dynamics theory of cattle management. He began to fidget when Dr. A. R. “Tony” Sorensen elaborated upon the new frontiers in bovine reproduction. Finally, unable to sit still any longer, he bolted from the room when Dr. William Ellis started in on the nuances of ruminant digestion.

Five minutes later he was back again, but seeing that Ellis was still going strong, he slipped out the door and returned just in time to explain his own “Texas A&M Tenderstretch” system, a new way of suspending freshly killed beef carcasses so as to cut down on the effects of rigor mortis and make tough meat more tender.

“I sure hope you’ll excuse me for running in and out like this,” he said as he began. “Some of my students are working on a project over in the next building, and I like to see how they’re coming along. They’re making a 55-foot frankfurter. It’ll be a world record.”

Yes, there are big doings out in Aggieland. They have world-class hotdogs, and the buns to match. They have hermaphroditic cucumbers, they have two-story onions. They are making highways out of garbage and peanuts into milk. They have the spittlebug on the run. They are counting insects by computer, they have peered into the recesses of the pine-beetle’s antennae. They are growing lettuce in moon soil, so as to be prepared when the first lunar farm gets underway.

Under that farmland sky, amid the gentle zephyrs from the swineyard and the music of the marching Aggie band, there is a miracle underway that has nothing to do with beating the University of Texas in football. If the Family of Man ever has reason to thank our state, it will not be for the Astrodome or the chicken-fried steak, but for oft-ridiculed, much-maligned Texas A&M. The university best known for its shaved-headed, brown-shirted Corps and a massive inferiority complex is producing the innovations that will feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and, not incidentally, enrich the people of Texas. The last shall be first, and the lowly Aggie shall earn the thanks of all.

Some people have no respect for historical cycles. For more than a year now the rest of the nation has been seething about Texas’ prosperity during these officially declared Hard Times. And if Massachusetts and Connecticut, with their brown-out summers and their long unemployment lines, feel a generalized ill will toward the people of the sunny and booming Southwest, imagine the special edge of resentment that Harvard and Yale, now moaning for relief from whatever source they can find, would feel twisting in their entrails if they knew what was happening at Texas A&M. For, in the middle of national academia’s darkest hour, the Aggies are lolling in the sunshine of big funding and fast growth, outstripping even their traditional Southwestern rivals in the bigger-is-better sweepstakes.

The fastest growing university in the nation right now is conveniently located between Houston, Dallas, and Austin; there were 21,463 Aggies last year (a quarter of them women), which is 34 percent more than just two years ago. Not only have the Aggies swollen in number, they have also improved in quality. One hundred and twenty-nine National Merit Scholars enrolled at A&M last fall, more than any other public institution in the state. (Overstepping itself, A&M claimed for a while that it had more of these prize students than any other university in Texas; when Rice got news of this, it asked for, and received, a formal apology from A&M’s president.) While College Board scores have been declining through the nation, at A&M they have been rising (some say they could not fall), to a mean of 1057 for last year’s freshmen.

More germane to our story is the boom in A&M’s research projects. When the 1973 returns for research allocations came in, the Aggies had cracked the National Science Foundation’s Top Twenty chart of universities receiving research and development grants. A&M’s $33.2 million that year was more than any other school in the South or Southwest, and was exceeded in the upper reaches of the chart only by such traditional feeders at the public trough as MIT and the University of Michigan. (Significantly, while A&M was 20th in the overall standings, it was number three in industry-supported research.) The final rankings for 1974 are not yet in, but A&M’s $37 million, an 11 percent increase in one year, is almost sure to move the Aggies even further up the charts.

At a time when the federal government seems to sponsor research projects in direct proportion to their pointlessness and obscurity, the work done at College Station seems admirably concrete. There is an almost infinite variety to the projects underway at A&M, from basic research into the biting habits of the shark, to development of a new typewriter which will supposedly foster linguistic unity among the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. About one-third of the research budget goes to the Texas Engineering Experiment Station and the Texas Transportation Institute, the latter having pioneered many of the most important highway-safety innovations of the last decade, including breakaway sign posts and padded abutments. The TTI, which is now branching out into such alien fields as mass transit and railroad planning, was also behind the experimental garbage highway built near Houston, a project which was working fine until city incinerators were shut down to cut pollution, thereby creating one of the less likely of our modern shortages, a dearth of burned garbage. Ever adaptable, the men of TTI have turned to another raw material sure to be abundant in coming years—the sulphur which smokestack “scrubbers” remove from the factory exhausts. Tests indicate this sulphur could be a cheap and sturdy substitute for asphalt in road construction.

The list goes on and on: the Aggies are deeply involved in medical research, a good deal of it in cooperation with the Baylor College of Medicine. They are working on leukemia drugs, on cyclotron treatment of cancer, and on a variety of bioengineering devices designed to make life easier for the handicapped patient. (These include special cushions that ring a buzzer when a patient has been sitting on one portion of his body too long, reminding him to move and therefore avoid bedsores; and plans for artificial limbs which can be attached directly to the wearer’s skeletal frame.) They are even creating an institute of comparative veterinary and human medicine.

Landlocked A&M is, improbably enough, one of the nation’s first four “sea-grant” colleges; and has one of the strongest oceanography departments anywhere. Its researchers are exploring the sea for minerals and sources of protein. When oil tankers crashed off the Strait of Magellan last year, it was an A&M researcher who flew to the scene to survey the effects.

The Aggies are trying to predict earthquakes and tornadoes; they are plumbing the earth for new sources of geothermal energy. And, in direct response to one of the major worries of modern man, they are working on computers which should take away some of the risk when air traffic controllers guide airplanes into port.

For all of this diversity, the Aggies’ heart—and half of their research money—is in the soil. A&M has the good fortune to be the home and headquarters office of the state Agricultural Experiment Station, part of a federal network set up nearly a century ago. There are 36 “research units” scattered throughout the state in places like Beeville and Weslaco and Chillicothe, but the central ganglion for the system is right in College Station.

Many of the people involved in this work show a somewhat unseemly haste to point out that the people of Texas may be shortchanging their own agricultural future. As one flyer points out, “little Connecticut” invests $12.30 of state funds in agricultural research for every $1000 of its modest farm income, while big Texas invests only $1.30. Nonetheless, 1973 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that Texas led all other states in federal funds available for agricultural research, its $4.98 billion narrowly edging out North Carolina, while in overall state and federal funds it is second only to California.

For anyone who has ever slaved the summer days away over a pitiful stand of tomatoes and beans, the result of all this research money is a spectacle of never-ending delight. There are also many more projects underway than the few I will discuss (and, strictly speaking, the first of these is not “agricultural” research but “food engineering”). These three however—oilseed research, sorghum improvement, and cotton breeding—illustrate not only the conceptual joys of research, but also some of the more tangible benefits the world may expect from Aggie miracle workers.

The Marvelous Tamunuts

Journalism is a harsh mistress. In her service, men have been known to abandon hearth and home, track down the most elusive quarry, even dine with politicians. But never before, for me at least, had it involved eating tamunuts.

“Tamunuts,” Dr. Karl Mattil said, as he tossed them across the desk at me. The object of his comment was a handful of darkish pellets enclosed in a small polyethylene sack. Several cards were attached to the sack with a lot of home-lettered propaganda explaining just what the contents were. “They’re really toasted glandless cottonseeds, but we couldn’t call them that,” Dr. Mattil went on, quite jauntily. “Try one.”

I live to tell that tamunuts (after Texas A&M University) are not at all bad, though not quite the equal of Dr. Mattil’s cottonseed-chocolate chip cookie. Such a testimonial would be considered faint praise by the men of A&M, for they have set their sights higher than enticing mere journalists to choke down their wares. The tamunuts are part of their plan to feed the world.

Both Dr. Mattil and the tamunuts are affiliated with the Food Protein Research and Development center at A&M, the tamunuts as products and Dr. Mattil as director. He is a lean man in his fifties, and at first glance his thin lips and precisely parted hair give him an air of fastidiousness like that which radiates from photographs of T.S. Eliot. After just a few minutes of listening to his schemes, however, it becomes clear that the more appropriate photographic image is that of Andrew Carnegie beaming in front of a blast furnace, for he and his colleagues are can-do men of the first order.

The can-do ethic is not one of the classic agrarian attitudes, since even the most highly mechanized Iowa farmer must have a minimum of patience with nature’s slow processes and a maximum of fatalism about the thousand woes to which his crop is prey. Dr. Mattil explains this discrepancy by pointing out that his work is not “agriculture” but “food engineering,” a distinction (to mix the metaphors) like that between shaping human souls at a Montessori school and shaping them at a Marine Corps boot camp.

Dr. Mattil comes naturally by his role as drill sergeant to undisciplined farm products. Before joining A&M seven years ago, he had spent nearly a quarter of a century in the research division of Swift and Company, working on new formulations for shortenings and vegetable oils, and finally supervising a team which ran a desperate, losing race to develop the first textured vegetable protein. He retains a certain disdain for the high-minded public-interest types who detest the “agribusiness giants” like Swift, and who, even as they berate the United States for failing to feed the hungry of the world, are suspicious of every devious plot to introduce synthetic foods into their diet. “You can get grant after grant to do another study of how malnourished the children of Latin America are,” Dr. Mattil said. “But it seems that nobody’s interested in supporting work that will actually do something to help people.”

If truth be told, helping the people of the world was not exactly the prime motive behind the founding of the Food Protein Center. It sprang instead from the same well-established political tradition which gave the world the Food for Peace program when the U.S. had farm surpluses, and cut it off when the surpluses vanished—namely, getting the American farmer out of a jam. In its original incarnation, as the “Cottonseed Processing Laboratory” in the 1940s, its purpose was to find new, more profitable uses for that humble agricultural by-product, the cottonseed. Over the years, its work has expanded to embrace other locally produced “oilseeds,” such as peanuts, almost always with the goal of helping Texas farmers unload their products at a profit. But, as if to prove that every cloud has a silver lining, starvation and death throughout the underdeveloped world have recently given the Aggies an ennobled role in the front ranks of the world’s hunger fighters.

In most parts of the world, the “food shortage” is really a protein shortage. The significance of the A&M center’s work is that, for many poor countries, the greatest opportunity for increasing supplies of protein comes not from the miraculous soybean, hitherto heralded as the answer to all problems, but from the oilseeds growing in their own back yard. “Soy protein is fine for Japan, Germany, England, France—the countries that have the cash to pay for it,” says Dr. Mattil. “For the rest, it’s a question of making the best use of what they’ve got.” What most of them have are the very oilseeds on which Aggies have been working all these many years.

Dr. Mattil gave one example of how the Aggies were helping others help themselves. At this very moment, an Aggie team directed by Dr. Robert Hagenmeir is in the Philippines, setting up a plant which should help the country make better use of a major crop, coconuts. The coconut, standard fixture of many tropical reveries, is the world’s largest oilseed, and a surprisingly rich source of protein. As the world’s largest producer of these enormous seeds, the Filipinos produce enough protein to satisfy one-sixth of their total needs—if only they could find a way to recover it.

Before the arrival of the Aggies, nearly all the protein was lost because of the crude way the commercially valuable oil is extracted. (This oil, by the way, is one of Europe’s favorite ingredients for margarine. American gourmands are denied this item because, once again, of the mysterious workings of politics. Back in the days when the margarine lobbyists were fighting their death-battle against butter, they realized that they would have a far greater chance of winning political approval if they could avoid the dread taint of being a foreign industry. They promised to use only domestically produced oils in the production of margarine, which left coconut oil out. That is why when you confront coconut oil in this country, it is likely to be in shampoo or fine soaps.)

It is a long way from the coconut grove in the Philippines to the stick of margarine in Europe, and the way is fraught with perils for the Filipinos. When the coconuts are ready for harvest, they are split open with machetes, and the white meat is pulled out by hand. The meat is then left to dry in the sun. As it dries, it is subject to the depredations of birds, rats, mold, bacteria, and similar pests. This is not unduly worrisome to the Filipinos, for usable oil may still be pressed from the dried meat, which is called copra. If the copra is not too badly contaminated, the residue is fed to animals in the developed countries. But more and more frequently, customers have rejected the copra, and all its valuable protein has simply been thrown away. (“The Filipinos think that the rising rejection rate is some kind of insidious CIA plot,” Dr. Mattil says. “They think we’re trying to hold their prices down.”)

Meanwhile, as all this protein is going to animals or down the drain, the Philippines has to import massive quantities of protein for its own people, mainly in the form of dried and condensed milk. The awkwardness of the arrangement is that to import each pound of imported protein, Filipinos must export three pounds of coconut protein. Clearly there had to be a better way.

The A&M project attempts to plug that protein gap with a new oil-extraction process. It works on the principle that protein dissolves in water, and oil does not. The coconut is ground up into a fine emulsion, mixed with water, and then placed in a centrifuge. The oil skids off in the centrifuge, and—after a number of purifying steps—out the other end comes what Dr. Mattil calls “a product similar in composition to, and with many of the same properties as, nonfat dried milk—but with a sweet coconut taste.” It is high in protein and ready to be introduced to whatever its taste would not be a drawback—in ice cream, for example. “I don’t think it will be difficult to get it into the food supply,” Dr. Mattil says. “The best milk companies, even some of the beer companies, which have the best distribution and marketing systems in the country, are interested.”

And serendipity has even lent a hand. The only drawback to the process was that, while it produced a lot of protein, it also yielded a lot of tough, apparently unusable coconut fiber as well. “We didn’t have any idea of what to do with the stuff, but now fiber is coming into its own,” says Dr. Mattil, referring to the recent medical findings that the low-fiber American diet works a variety of evils on the American colon. “This may turn out to be a big export item too.”

Since so few Texans make their living growing coconuts, this is an unusual application of Aggie talent—and might not have been undertaken at all were it not related to work underway in the closer-to-home discipline of peanut technology. Although the United States is berated, with some justice, for its voracious consumption of animal protein, we have taken one step toward efficient use of vegetable protein that no one else has dared. The U.S. is the only major country where people consume most of the peanuts; elsewhere, they are squeezed for oil and the dry remainder fed to animals.

Even so, the peanut growers have grown restless. No matter how many peanut butter sandwiches our children eat, we do not consume all the peanuts we grow. American farm policy has deliberately kept the federally subsidized domestic price for peanuts well above that on the world market, and, until quite recently, has left us with large surplus stocks which became grist for the oil-and-cattle feed mill.

Even worse, from the peanut industry’s point of view, was that a great deal of the peanuts did not make it even as far as the cattle yard; the villain was the loathsome threat of “aflatoxin.” There is a certain kind of mold which attacks many crops when they are stored, but which had a particular affinity for peanuts. It thrives in high humidity, and when it grows it produces a substance of extreme toxicity, called aflatoxin. So terrible is the threat of aflatoxin that all shipments of peanuts in this country are inspected, once when they leave the farm, and again when they reach the packing house, for traces of aflatoxin down to the parts-per-billion. If any is detected, the oil can be salvaged, but the meal must be destroyed. There is a cure for aflatoxin—sodium hypochlorite, which is the main ingredient of common household bleach—but no one knew how to disperse it evenly enough through the peanuts to neutralize all the poison.

No one knew, that is, until the Aggies came on the scene. A water-separation system (similar to the one which is now the pride of the Philippines) was developed for peanuts by Khee Choon Rhee, a scientist at the Food Protein Center who is described in A&M press releases as “small” and “intense.” Because of his system, we may soon have peanuts in our milk.

In Rhee’s system, the peanuts are ground into fine powder, which is then mixed with water. The protein dissolves but the oil does not; and when the emulsion goes into a centrifuge, the oil goes sliding away. In the meantime, the aflatoxin has been neutralized (one hopes and prays) by the sodium hypochlorite dissolved in the water.

Simple? Elegant? Ah, yes—but the surprise is still to come. What is left over when the process is completed is one of the more technically bizarre items in the entire Aggie repertoire. It is a peanut-protein substance which, as Dr. Mattil describes it, is “bland, colorless, very soluble in water, and [has] a low viscosity index.” What this means is that it is ideally suited for use in liquids, and what that means, Dr. Matill will explain:

“I always go back to the market . . . you have to ask, where is the demand? Worldwide, we know there is a growing demand for dairy products, and a shrinking supply. In the United States the per capita production of milk is declining, but the demand for dairy products continues to rise. There is a gap that has to be filled.

“The latest figures I saw indicated that the growth market in fluid milk was two per cent milk—the low-fat type. Now, what’s the easiest way to make two per cent milk? Right, you dilute whole milk. But the FDA says you can’t do that. You have to replace the proteins and minerals, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Now, if you use soy protein to do that, you get a product that’s like a milk shake in texture. But we think we can do it with peanut protein. It’s got better solubility, it’s got the mouth feel, the viscosity, the bland flavor. It’s a real opportunity.”

Milk is only the beginning. There is cheese—“people are crying for cheese. I know pizza manufacturers who are substituting meat for cheese”—yogurt, anything from the dairy case. It must be admitted that, symbolically, peanut milk is one of the less enticing blessings of the future, and one hopes that labels will tell us the difference. But unless we are ready to take unlikely steps—cutting demand for dairy proteins, enormously increasing our dairy herds—there may be no alternative.

Unless, of course, it is the tamunut. This item brings us back (puff puff) to the beginning of our story, and the original purpose of the “Cottonseed Processing Laboratory.” For years cottonseed oil has been a staple of the American kitchen, and its flour has gone to feed the people of South America in uplifting high-nutrition, not-always-popular products like “Incaparina.” But the cottonseed’s usefulness, as food for animals and for people, was severely handicapped by an apparently unavoidable feature of the cottonseed. In standard varieties of cotton the seeds—like, indeed, the rest of the plant—are covered with dozens of tiny, dark pigment glands, which contain a substance called “gossypol.” Gossypol turns cotton oil the color of ox blood and gives the flour an orange-brown hue; it is also poisonous when eaten in any quantity.

But twenty years ago, researchers (from elsewhere than A&M) discovered among the Hopi Indians of the Southwest a type of “glandless” cotton whose seeds were free of gossypol. They developed these plants into a usable commercial breed, and this innovation has given the Food Protein Center the start it needed. One of the first uses was simply to toast the seeds, which yielded a product with an indefinable but vaguely pleasant nutty taste, since christened “tamunuts.” While research is underway to make a high-protein concentrate from cottonseeds, the A&M projects are primarily concerned with immediate commercial outlets for the seeds and flour. According to Dr. Mattil, a businessman in Waco is offering growers a premium to plant the glandless seeds, which have certain disadvantages when it comes to pest resistance. He then plans to toast the seeds making them into tamunuts, and sell them at 35 cents per pound to candy makers, cookie bakers, purveyors of pecan pies, and others who are used to paying $1 per pound and more for the nuts their products require.

I have eaten an ersatz Baby Ruth prepared in this fashion by Dr. Mattil and Dr. Carl Cater, the Julia Child of the Food Protein Center, and I will testify to its wholesomeness—as I will to the quality of a chocolate chip cookie made of glandless cottonseed flour. Obviously, these processes will not restore health to every swollen-bellied babe of the Sahel, but they will bring the Texas farmer a larger share of the dollar and open up one more source of protein that was not there before.

The Sorghum Also Rises

Near the end of a long day at College Station, the Virgil of this tour, an affable young PhD from the public relations department named Dudley Smith, is hustling his visitor on to—what this time?—an interview with Dr. Leonard Pike, world-famed breeder of triple-cross cucumbers (a high-yield, commercially successful innovation too complicated to explain in this story). The guest has kept Dr. Pike waiting for at least an hour, and he feebly mumbles his apologies. “I got tied up with the sorghum men. They wouldn’t stop talking. I hope you understand.”

A smile spread across Dr. Pike’s face. From the other side of the room an assistant says, “Those sorghum people. . . .” The effect is clearly conveyed, that Certain People have let success go to their heads.

The accomplishments of the sorghum people are not to be minimized, even if the straight story about them can be obtained only at considerable personal cost. From the electron microscope to the experimental garden plot, from the trail of Dr. Rooney to the Sorghum Family Chart, the reporter must trek to come home with the story. His imagination must carry him to Puerto Rico and faraway Ethiopia, although the trail begins closer to home, in the Cereal Quality Lab at College Station.

The first things a visitor to the Cereal Quality Lab notices are the unusual objects hanging from the rafters, apparently small brooms of different shapes and color with various amber-to-brown grains stuck on the end of the fibers. The reporter was gazing at this crazy-quilt profusion, this surplus of variety, and wondering—as he often does when killing mosquitoes—whether God really intended to create all the things for which he has been given credit. These reveries had reached the tsetse fly and Ronald Reagan when speculation was cut short by the entrance of a swiftly moving object, later identified as Dr. Lloyd Rooney of the sorghum program.

Although Rooney’s bearing was genial (like, indeed, everyone’s at A&M) and his eagerness to help unlimited, it soon became clear that the very volume with which he dispensed information would be the reporter’s greatest handicap. Rooney was scheduled to leave for India almost immediately, and in his haste to tell the whole sorghum saga before departing, he slipped into mile-a-minute doubletalk that left the reporter reeling.

First he ran to the sorghum chart, on which, as far as the reporter could make out, contented little grains were portrayed as they went about their business. One heart-rending scene was portrayed, in which a family of grains was broken up when the children were sold down the river on the auction block. From his left ear, which was poised two inches from Dr. Rooney’s mouth, the reporter took in an indistinct stream of words.

“. . . we grow out the F2, then select and backcross with some of the original light-sensitive exotics. . . .”

From somewhere Rooney came out with photographs taken through the electron microscope.

“. . . these globular structures here signify the greater lysine concentration in the protein. . . .”

Rooney disappeared momentarily, and then was back, with still more photos.

“. . . the high-lysine strain in sorghum is similar to the Opaque II corn. . . .”

“. . . foliar leaf disease. . . .”

“.  .  .  greatest breakthrough since cytoplasmic sterility and hybridization. . . .”

The reporter was on the ropes when Rooney used his final feint, a timely phone call from his wife asking when on earth he was going to come home. Rooney slipped out, eventual destination Hyderabad, mission accomplished, reporter confused.

For many journalists this might have been the end, but the reporter, who had tracked senators and CIA men through the tangles of Washington, D.C., was not to be stymied by the sorghum breeders of Texas A&M. Not long after his humiliation at the hands of Dr. Rooney, he had run two of the prime figures to ground in the very same Cereal Quality building. They were Dr. Fred Miller, one of the chief plant breeders, and Don Sullins, a research associate who, while still a graduate student, had taken pictures with the electron microscope which have given the breeders an enormous advantage over the cruder old-fashioned techniques. From them, the following tale was extracted:

Like Idi Amin, sorghum comes from northeast Africa. The first grains made their way to the New World shortly after Columbus did, and by the time agriculture had established a firm hold in Texas, so had sorghum. Texas now produces nearly half of the nation’s crop, and in this state sorghum has been the backbone of the feedlot industry. Outside of the United States sorghum is a major human food, with only 25 per cent of the crop being fed to animals. In the United States, less than one per cent goes directly to human consumers.

Sorghum has posed quite a variety of problems for the Texas producer, many of them connected to its exotic origins. For reasons which will be explained more fully in a moment, these plants from the equatorial zone had an annoying tendency when transplanted to the soil of the Texas High Plains; instead of putting out an efficient seed head after producing a modest amount of greenery, they seemed to grow leaves forever, soaring ten, twelve, fourteen feet into the sky (when they didn’t fall over of their own weight) before deigning to produce grain very late in the season. Over the years, Texas farmers had used catch-as-catch-can methods of selection to find those strains that were somewhat more stubby than their fellows. But it was only with the pioneering generation of sorghum breeders, led by Mr. Grain Sorghum himself, J. Roy Quinby of A&M (who later joined the Pioneer Hibred Seed Company of Plainview, where he is now Geneticist Emeritus) that sorghum production left the Stone Age and moved into the modern era of high technology.

It is perhaps worth recalling that Gregor Mendel’s theories of genetics and heredity are about a century old (they were published in 1866) and that his findings were not generally accepted in the world of plant breeders until the early 1920s. Not long after that, Quinby and his associates began the work that would lead them to the first great breakthrough in sorghum production—the creation of a hybrid sorghum.

Not an easy task, mainly because the male and female portions of the sorghum plan are so numerous and so close together that it is virtually impossible to keep the plants from fertilizing themselves. The only obvious way was the agonizing tedium of removing the several hundred male portions of every plant one by one—a prospect which understandably retarded work on the hybrid-sorghum frontier. For a while Quinby and others attempted to cope with the problem through the “hot water emasculation” process, a Rube Goldberg affair which involved covering the flower head of the plant with a big metal cup, pouring in water hot enough (118°) to kill the pollen—but not the one degree hotter that would kill the ovules as well.

This method had its limited usefulness, but the hybrid era did not really get underway until 1952, when researchers discovered “cytoplasmic male sterility”—that is, plants which could not fertilize themselves, and were therefore easy to crossbreed, because their own male portions failed to develop. What happened next is history. As Texagreport, an annual publication of the experiment station, put it in a recent feature on Quinby, “The hybrids completely changed the face of the grain business in Texas and other states and led to new prosperity undreamed of only a few years before.”

The coming of the hybrids was a first great step; the second, going on even as you read, is the production of a race of supersorghums. This involves incorporating a wide variety of desirable traits—resistance to the dread downy mildew and midge, increased digestibility through alterations in the internal protein-starch configurations, and improved protein quality through the creation of “high-lysine” sorghum.

Each of these traits has its particular advantage. For each kind of insect resistance that is built into the plant, there is another kind of pesticide that need not be applied (here environmentalists and agribusinessmen work hand and hand). Greater digestibility means that a ton of grain feeds more cattle—or people. And, for both the human and bovine consumers of sorghum, the high-lysine varieties are an important step forward, because they greatly increase the amount of usable protein in the grain.

The high-lysine sorghum is one of the 16,000-odd varieties housed in the “World Collection” of sorghum in Hyderabad, India. “The excitement these days is the introduction of all those exotics,” said Dr. Miller. “We haven’t begun to touch them yet.” The high-lysine strain turned up in a variety that Ethiopian farmers have deliberately nurtured over the years. “A farmer there would be sure to plant one-seventh of his field in his variety,” says Dr. Miller, “and he would be sure to scatter it all though the other crop, so his neighbor wouldn’t do his harvesting for him. Then they mixed it in with other grains when they ground it, because they seemed to know it was good for them.” The Ethiopian name for this variety, according to Dr. Rooney is translated as “honey that melts in your mouth.”

The problem with this strain, from the American point of view, is that it produces little, shriveled red grains, instead of the plump, bursting globes to which American producers have grown accustomed. (“This shriveled grain will weather severely, which means it is of no practical consequence in temperate zones,” said Dr. Rooney, in one of the interludes when the reporter understood him.) Also, like other tropical varieties, it grows to monstrous proportions if planted directly into Texas soil. To be sure the reporter had not missed this point, Dr. Miller pointed to a bundle of long stalks propped in a far corner of the room, sorghum stalks, apparently, and each twice as tall as a good-sized man. “That’s what happens,” Dr. Miller said. “They’re no good to anybody like that.” The explanation for this phenomenon will now be revealed.

After spending so many millennia in regions near the equator, sorghum has become accustomed to days and nights of roughly constant length, and will flower and produce fruit only when the length is just right.

“In the Northern Hemisphere, days are long during the summer growing season,” Dr. Miller said. “You have to wait until fall, when the days are getting shorter, before the plants will flower. Until then, they just put out vegetation.” By this time, of course, frost is just around the corner, drought may have struck, and the various insect pests have had several months to establish themselves in Texas soil.

Scientists have found two sets of genes responsible for this behavior. One set of four genes controls the plant’s height; another set, whether the plant is early or late in maturity. Most commercial varieties grown in this country have at least one or two “dwarfing” genes, as well as those dictating early maturity. The task is to convert the exotic strains to the same tame status, and that is done through an ingenious cooperative relationship between A&M and experiment stations in Puerto Rico.

When a shipment of promising exotics arrives at College Station, it is shipped off to breeding grounds in Puerto Rico, along with seeds from a squat, early-maturing, domestic line. There, both seeds are planted alongside each other, and both grow until they flower. (Puerto Rico being in the tropics, the Ethiopian varieties feel right at home.) Then the two strains are cross-fertilized, and the seeds from that cross make up a hybrid F1 generation. Students of Mendel’s law will recall that these F1 seeds will produce identical-looking plants, all displaying dominant traits. When the F1 generation fertilizes itself, the seeds from that union are the F2 generation. Students will also recall that plants grown from these F2 seeds will not be identical, since some recessive traits will have a chance to emerge. As soon as the seeds for the F2 generation are ready, they are sent back to Chillicothe, Texas, and planted in thousands of test plots. About 95 per cent of the plants that grow from this generation will be tall and leafy—but a few will be short.

These shorter, earlier plants are carefully observed and selected, and their seeds are sent back to Puerto Rico to begin the cycle all over again. On this second go-round, the selected seeds from Texas are planted next to another set of the pure exotics. Both are grown out, crossed for an F1, self-pollinated for an F2, and sent back to Texas.

This cycle goes on five times; on each successive round, the short, early plant which is grown alongside the pure exotic in Puerto Rico has a little greater proportion of the exotic’s genetic traits. By the time the five cycles are over, the breeders have a plant virtually identical to the one they brought in from Africa—except that it is short and early, and ready to take its place among the crusaders against famine.

There is more to be said about sorghum—about, for instance, the electron microscope with which Don Sullins peers deep into the mysteries of branched starch structures and globular lysine concentrations—but there is not room to say it here. Those interested in pursuing further work in the field, and possessing suitable College Board scores, should contact the Admissions Office, Texas A&M, College Station 77840.

Them Old Cotton Fields

The reporter was no slouch. He had read a book. It was put out by the National Academy of Sciences, and it made him start worrying again about where he was going to find things to eat in his old age. The point of the report was that there are no more Green Revolutions on the horizon. Farm yields would still go up, but not in any impressively bountiful way. “No foreseeable quantum increases in yield,” was the official way of putting it.

“I hear there are no foreseeable quantum increases in yield,” the reporter asked Dudley Smith, hoping he sounded natural. “What about that, huh?”

Smith turned around, eyes wide. The reporter speculated that if Smith ever lost his job at A&M, he could earn a living as a movie double for Alan Arkin. Smith recovered his composure and said, “Let’s find out.”

In the ensuing tour, the reporter was introduced to Dr. Leonard Pike and his “two-story onions” (Smith’s phrase), hypothetical crops, to be shaped like soup cans, which produce far more onions-per-acre than standard varieties. Dr. Pike also had several varieties of path-breaking cucumbers curling about his greenhouse, many of which had the potential to greatly increase yield. They included a “hermaphroditic” model, strangely puffy and globular in shape. The reporter knew the parallel was inexact, but every time he looked at those cucumbers he could not help thinking of fleshy eunuchs in a Persian harem tent.

The tour was eventually to include mass-reproduction experiments with cattle and new techniques for quantum increases in forest yields. Closest to realization, however, and where the reader’s own tour will end, is the cotton breeding work discussed by Dr. George (“Alva”) Niles.

There are few crops these days with a less savory reputation than cotton. Unlike those wholesome staples, wheat, corn, and rice, cotton too easily calls to mind Ole Massa in his linen suit, and, crop dusters unloading tons of poison on unsuspecting sharecroppers below. Public relations is a serious problem for the cotton lobby in Washington, for self-respecting Northern politicians, even with their new-found enthusiasm for the “farm problem,” cannot easily bring themselves to support the modern inheritors of Simon Legree.

If the cotton industry knew what was good for it, it would send Alva Niles and his color-slide projector on a nation-wide tour. His story tells how cotton, symbol of the worst of high-technology agriculture, may soon represent the best.

Dr. Niles is a sunburned man with hair cut in the early Parris Island manner; on the day of the presentation he was wearing a bright yellow shirt with a turquoise-studded bolo tie. After the visitors were comfortably seated in the dark, he began flashing slides that might have been taken of the grounds around Tara: tall, waving cotton plants at the end of the season, fluffs of white among the darkened foliage—all that was missing was the crew of singing cotton-pickers, backs stooped in the sun.

“This is your standard Delta variety of cotton,” Dr. Niles said. “It has a long growing season, and of course many pests. Insect control for this cotton is very costly. There is the cost of the chemicals, the cost of the application, the environmental limits, the health hazards. And the insects are becoming immune.”

Suddenly the slide changed. On the screen were pitiful little wooden twigs, perhaps a foot high, densely covered with white cotton bolls. The overall impression was of a collage of Q-tips.

“One of the ways we are trying to increase yield is with ‘short-season’ varieties. These dwarf plants grow and set their bolls in a very short time, about 130 days instead of the 180-190 for standard varieties.” The virtues of this quick growth are several, he continued. “This variety has a shorter exposure to inclement weather and insect pests. They need less water and less fertilizer. They can be harvested more cheaply.” Dr. Niles was reluctant to say just how much the dwarf plants might save the cotton grower, but suggested that they might reduce the overall cost of operation by several dozen percentage points.

From this point on, the slide show became more engrossingly bizarre. “Pilose” cotton appeared on the screen, with a superfluity of tiny hairs, followed by its “glabrous” counterpart, whose smooth, hairless stems were utterly exposed. Dr. Niles displayed the “fregobract” leaf structure, and varieties of “nectarless” cotton. The point of these variations was to protect the crop against the Four Horsemen of the cotton growers’ apocalypse: boll weevil, boll worm, bud worm, and fleahopper. Not all of the features can be incorporated in the same plant, and in some cases they have contradictory effects. Pilose cotton, for instance, has greater resistance to the fleahopper, but makes the plants more vulnerable to boll worm and budworm. The most effective weapon against the boll weevil seems to be short-season variety, which has most of its crop made and ready for harvest by the time the weevils become a serious threat. All this means that the growers must decide which pests pose the greatest menace in their area, and choose a breed accordingly. Dr. Niles showed pictures of fields where the new breeds had been adopted, with significant effects on yields.

Perhaps more significant was their effect on pesticide consumption; for, after decades of applying steadily larger quantities of pesticide in an effort to kill the bugs, the growers now have a way of breeding in resistance, of growing cotton without poisoning half the wildlife in the United States.

“Does that make you feel better?” Dudley Smith asked when the show was over. The reporter admitted that it did.

Related Content