These days it's all genetic engineering and cloning and gene splicing and recombinant DNA. Our friends at Monsanto market the herbicide Roundup and, quelle surprise, have blanketed the nation's bread basket with fields of corn and soybeans genetically engineered to resist Roundup.
Weed plants, on their own through natural selection, are evolving to resist Roundup. Science Daily, in a 2009 article, discusses a Purdue study of Roundup resistance in weeds. The story's links examine some other pesticide resistances and the evolution of super weeds.
Let me repeat that. The weed plants are doing it on their own. Through sheer chance. Can't we do something like that? Methodically. Breed and crossbreed our plants for the traits and characteristics we want.
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned plant breeding and hybridization?
Niels Ebbesen Hansen became the first head of the horticulture department at South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now South Dakota State University) in 1895 and served in that capacity until 1937. Hansen scoured the coldest, most remote regions of the globe to bring back hardy native species to cross with American varieties. He developed and introduced hundreds of varieties of alfalfa, forage grasses, fruits, and roses bred to thrive in the cold and dry conditions of the northern plains. This photo shows Hansen on his third trip to Siberia in 1908 and comes from the SDSU State alumni and friends magazine.
Born in Denmark in 1866, he came to America when he was seven. Hansen earned his master's degree in horticulture from Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames and was recruited shortly after to head up the hort program in South Dakota. Hansen's friend from Iowa State, James Wilson, became the United States Secretary of Agriculture and commissioned Hansen to be the USDA's first plant explorer in 1897. Wilson said of the appointment, "I have 12,000 men under me, but none who knows how to work like Hansen. There is only one Hansen."
Hansen's first expedition for the USDA lasted ten months and took him through Russia, Siberia, Crimea, Turkestan, and western China. He returned to South Dakota with five box carloads of plant materials. Among these were crested wheatgrass and Cossack alfalfa.
Alfalfa is a perennial legume with deep and spreading roots. The flowers are shades of purple to lavender in most cases but there are varieties with white or yellow flowers. It's widely grown for hay. Guess what. There's also Roundup Ready alfalfa. Details of Hansen's work in finding and testing varieties of alfalfa can be found in Cooperative tests of alfalfa from Siberia and European Russia. The South Dakota legislature appropriated $2,000 for the initial trials. Hansen offered ten plants to each of the first ten respondents from each county in the state. He wanted to test the alfalfas in all sorts of soils.
"The writer is a firm believer in the value of co-operative tests of any new plant, by the farmers themselves who are to make use of the plants on a large scale. A problem of so vast importance should not be reserved for any one man or for several men to solve. A better way is to ask the farmers to try a few plants, and then make up an opinion from their reports, giving my opinion only as a preliminary guide."Hansen included numerous evaluations of the alfalfas from the farmers who participated in the testing.
Though he is probably best known for his alfalfa breeding, Hansen did extensive work with fruits and flowers. He crossed cherries and plums from Asia and Europe with native prairie fruits to introduce varieties which thrive in South Dakota shelterbelts to this day. My favorite is the native sand cherry/purple plum cross. Sweet and juicy. My mother made the most delicious jelly from this fruit. Hansen introduced 72 varieties of hardy plums, cherries, and sandcherries.
Hansen did not coddle his plants. They lived under the prevailing conditions or they died. Here on the prairie, hybrid tea roses are annual plants. It takes determination, work, and just plain luck to bring them through the winter. Hansen developed 32 varieties of hardy roses able to grow and thrive on prairie homesteads. Here's my favorite, the Lillian Gibson rose.
Niels Ebbesen Hansen saw the need of farmers on small homesteads trying to survive in a harsh environment. He gave them the alfalfas and grasses to feed and fatten their cattle. He saw the desire for fruits and flowers on the prairie and hybridized varieties not identical to their eastern cousins but comparable.
We face similar needs today but instead of the lasting results of plant breeding and crossbreeding we get sterile genetic modifications. We need someone like N.E. Hansen. I feel our greatest challenge will come not from weeds resistant to herbicide. I believe it will come from the changing climate. Hansen searched the world for plant stock to breed for drought and cold hardiness. We will require plants able to grow and produce in extreme heat. Unfortunately, we no longer have extensive varieties of seed stock from which to breed the varieties capable of adapting to conditions. We've crowded them out with our GM monocultures. And of those that may yet thrive in remote corners ... what will a changing climate do to them?
From forage to flowers, Hansen changed the landscape of the Plains
N.E. Hansen papers
The Remarkable Dr. Niels Hansen
Niels Ebbesen Hansen biography
Reflections About N.E. Hansen and His Contributions to Alfalfa
Cooperative tests of alfalfa from Siberia and European Russia
New hybrid fruits originated in the department of horticulture