CFANS proposes building expansion

The dept. hopes to honor Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

by Hailey Colwell

Norman Borlaug is one of a handful of University of Minnesota alumni who have won the Nobel Prize.

But few are aware of his accomplishments outside of faculty members and students in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

In an effort to honor Borlaug — who is credited with saving more than two billion lives with the creation of disease-resistant wheat varieties — CFANS faculty members are requesting $21.8 million in funding to expand the Stakman-Borlaug Cereal Rust Center through endowments for faculty members and graduate students.

Because the center currently has no physical office space, faculty members also want additional funding to create a new building that would unite the different departments that make up the S-BCRC in one location and house a wheat- gene bank.

“Since Borlaug is probably one of the most illustrious graduates from the University of Minnesota, we thought that there ought to be something more significant to honor his legacy at his alma mater,” said Brian Steffenson, professor of plant pathology and a leading member of the S-BCRC.

In the 1960s, Borlaug introduced disease-resistant wheat varieties in Mexico, India and Pakistan, preventing the loss of crops from a wheat disease called stem rust. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1970 and died in 2009.

There is already a building on the St. Paul campus named after him.

Steffenson said the S-BCRC funded a fellowship program in Borlaug’s name in the past but wanted to do more to promote students and faculty in Borlaug’s field.

The S-BCRC is searching for private donors to fund about $20 million in endowments for faculty members in four CFANS departments, Steffenson said. An additional $1.8 million is requested in endowments for graduate students in each department, as well as funding for visiting professorships.

Steffenson said it’s not yet clear what a possible gene bank building would cost, as the building plans are in their preliminary phases and no space has been specified.

 “It’s a long process,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Borlaug’s legacy

Ronald Phillips, a retired Regents professor in agronomy and plant genetics, worked with Borlaug for many years at the University.

“He was one of my idols,” Phillips said. “I don’t have very many, but he was one of them.”

Though the Nobel laureate received all three of his degrees from the University, Phillips said not very many Minnesotans know about Borlaug or his work.

“We’re all concerned that his legacy be promoted at the University,” he said. “Very few people really have heard of him, even in Minnesota, and it’s a real shame.”

Phillips served on the committee that came up with the idea to build the new Stakman-Borlaug Cereal Rust Center. He said the center would be an appropriate way to honor Borlaug’s legacy.              

He said he appreciates the center’s recognition of Elvin Charles Stakman, a mentor who helped Borlaug secure a research position in Mexico that led to his discoveries in cereal rust.

“When Borlaug got the Nobel Peace Prize and he wrote out his speech ahead of time, he wrote Stakman a letter and said ‘You know, really, you’re the person that should be getting this rather than me,’” Phillips said, “So he had a tremendous respect for Stakman.”

CFANS Dean Allen Levine said finding funding for the Borlaug center is a top priority.

“It’s one of our major centers that we’re trying to build in the college,” said Levine, who said he will help fundraise for the center.

He said Borlaug’s work is essential to the University’s past and future.

“The legacy is really important to our college,” he said. “With the danger of having another wheat rust destroying a large portion of wheat crops in the world, it’s really important for us to work on ways of stopping this from spreading.”

In 1999, a new strain of stem rust found in Uganda — Ug99 —began to spread across East Africa. In an effort to prevent this strain from destroying wheat crops around the world, researchers in the Departments of Plant Pathology and Agronomy are researching ways to breed disease-resistant wheat.

Godwin Macharia, an agronomy doctoral candidate from Kenya, is conducting screening tests for wheat genes that can withstand Ug99, which threatens Kenya’s food security.

“Wheat is an important crop not only for the world but also for my country,” Macharia said.

He said having a gene bank on the St. Paul campus to store the University’s wheat varieties would be useful for future research.

“We are discovering plants that have resistance to stem rust and other rusts,” he said. “It’s important that we conserve those in a gene bank, and then people here … and even elsewhere can use those now and in the future in developing varieties.”

Macharia said he appreciates Borlaug’s education of people in developing countries.

“I’m here from a developing country,” he said. “I’m learning all the skills that I need to be a plant breeder, and I hope I can be able to carry his legacy from here to Kenya, to Africa and to the world.”