Issue 14.3: June / July 2011

Hawai'i's King of Corn

Story by Kevin Whitton

Photos by Elyse Butler

 

Long before the arrival of GMO, Dr. James Brewbaker was creating stronger, more-disease resistant, more nutritious varieties of corn the time-honored way: by crossing specific plants to select for desirable traits. For decades, Brewbaker has kept meticulous records for those crosses, all recorded in the little notebooks he takes into the field. Here he stands amid stalks of sweet corn at the spot that has been home to his work from the beginning, UH's Waimanalo Research Station.

In 1929 plant breeder Harvey Brewbaker loaded his wife and 3-year-old son James into a 1926 Ford Model T and left the family home in Minnesota, bound for New Mexico. Brewbaker, who was fascinated by the Navajo of the American Southwest, was on a mission to research the tribe’s most important plant: corn. The family made steady, bumpy progress across the country and finally arrived in New Mexico. There, James explored as his father visited with tribal elders and discussed varieties of corn. When the young boy discovered two large piles of harvested cobs, one white and one blue, he navigated his way between them, sat down and curiously examined their hard kernels with his fingers. His father, taken by the moment, produced a heavy, boxy camera from his hip bag and snapped a picture.

 

It was a prophetic image, one that the now 84-year-old James Brewbaker still has today. He fondly retells the story of its creation—as he thankfully attributes his own lifelong career as a plant breeder and geneticist to his father’s curiosity about corn and other crops.

 


 

Far from the arid mesas of New Mexico, Brewbaker stands barefoot in the damp, red soil of Waimanalo. He is surveying rows of corn, a ritual he’s performed nearly every weekday for the last fifty years, save for academic sabbaticals and other work-related jaunts to cornfields across the state. He wears a green shirt with his initials “JLB” monogrammed over the pocket, khaki shorts and a widebrimmed canvas hat, and he is standing at the Waimanalo Research Station of the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

 

“Without any question, Waimanalo farm is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” says the loquacious researcher, better known to his colleagues as Jim. “Almost every morning I look at these hills, I look at Olomana, I look at these healthy cornfields, and I wouldn’t trade this for any office.”

 

He’s flanked on all sides by ten different hybrids, or varieties, of sweet corn, each of which he developed over a career at UH that has spanned five decades. Following in the footsteps of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who crossed pea plants in the late 1850s (and in the process revolutionized our understanding of genetics), Brewbaker crosses specific corn plants to select for certain traits. He does this by hand, by collecting and transferring pollen, and through intentionally manipulating the plant’s genes over many generations of crosses, he creates varieties of corn that exhibit the characteristics he’s seeking, whether they be resistance to a specific disease, the size of the ear or a sweetertasting kernel.

 

This morning, during his ritual assessment of the plot, Brewbaker notices small, black spots on some of the stalks. Nimbly, he kneels down to inspect the infection on an eight-foot-tall plant. Reaching into his black mesh utility belt, he pulls out a small, well-worn gray journal. With a pencil he makes brief notations on the plot, the hybrid and the hybrid’s parentage and adds his observations, all in markings legible only to fellow plant breeders and geneticists. He returns the journal to his belt and inspects the next stalk.

 

The small, black spots are a disease called stalk rot, and today is the first time Brewbaker has ever seen it in his field. Stalk rot is brought on by a combination of high temperature and high humidity: weather that’s uncommon in Waimanalo given the pervasive tradewinds. But Brewbaker isn’t cursing; in fact, he’s surprisingly jubilant about the intrusion of the disease. Now he has a new challenge— and an opportunity to research and breed a stalk rot-resistant hybrid variety of corn for farmers around the world.

 


 

To understand the advances Brewbaker has made, it helps to know something of corn itself. The plant was first cultivated by Native American civilizations, including the Mayans and Olmec of Mexico and the Cusco of Peru. But the corn these early farmers grew didn’t look anything like the fat, yellow ears Americans find in the supermarket today. Early corn, or maize, came in different varieties (or, as scientists dubbed them, “primitive races”) and had small ears and hard, colored kernels. Corn’s first cultivators, wise agriculturists, recognized that certain races gave higher yields, had better flavor and were more resistant to disease. These farmers also understood the role of healthy soil in corn production. They created future seeds from their best crops and planted in wellnourished soil.

 

Only in the last century and only by employing selective breeding for specific genes and traits has corn become a basic food for billions around the world. Corn is now one of the world’s three major crops along with rice and wheat, and corn byproducts are found in about one in every five items in the supermarket. From some two hundred races of primitive corn, three basic types of corn have emerged in our modern world: field corn, sweet corn and popcorn. Field corn comes in many shapes, sizes and colors, and its kernels are bulbous and full of starch. It’s the corn of commerce: fed to animals as silage; processed for biofuel; used to create highfructose corn syrup, cornstarch and corn oil; and even brewed into alcohols like bourbon—which Brewbaker proudly admits he enjoys. Sweet corn results from a mutation in a single gene that stops starch production in the kernel; it’s the classic corn on the cob, with kernels that are yellow or white. Popcorn has an extremely hard kernel; the moniker comes from the “pop” it makes when heat releases moisture in the kernel and it explodes.

 


 

Brewbaker has played a seminal role in the growth of corn as one of the tropics’ major crops. His passion for the plant was driven, he says, not just by his father, but by a higher purpose: From an early age, he saw the potential for feeding large, undernourished populations with corn bred specifically to grow in the tropics. In temperate regions, only a single crop of corn can be produced annually; in the tropics, Brewbaker was convinced, the yield could be much higher. He completed a doctorate in plant breeding and biometry at Cornell University in 1952 and headed for the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. There, laying the foundation for his successful breeding programs in Hawai‘i, he found that he could plant and harvest a single field of corn three times each year. Brewbaker stayed in the Philippines two years, and in that time met and married his wife and had a son. Then, from 1956 to 1961, he shifted gears and returned to North America to work as an associate geneticist with the Atomic Energy Commission, researching radiation genetics and gene mutations.

 

In October 1961, Hawai‘i came knocking. Brewbaker was courted by UH Manoa’s fledgling Department of Horticulture and asked to develop a sweet corn improvement program to help Waimanalo corn farmers who were desperately battling the maize mosaic virus. Brewbaker took on the challenge. In his initial four years at the Waimanalo Research Station, he conducted forty-four trials with seventy sweet corn hybrids at eight locations across the state. And he found one variety, Hawaiian Sugar, that was both commercially viable and resistant to the maize mosaic virus.

 

Hawaiian Sugar became the foundation seed in Brewbaker’s pantheon of supersweet corn. Across Hawai‘i today you can find Brewbaker’s signature hybrid varieties: Sweet Sarah, Sweet Jenny, Sweet Cynthia and Hawaiian Supersweet, also known as Kahuku Sweet Corn. All of these varieties produce year-round and all of them can be grown insecticide- and fungicide-free because Brewbaker bred them to resist Hawai‘i’s insects and diseases.

 

Through the decades Brewbaker’s goal has been to make better, stronger corn. To combat disease, he systematically developed hybrids to resist blights such as kernel and ear rot and rust, the dwarf mosaic virus and brown spot—and, he notes proudly, his fields have always been pesticide-free.

 

To combat hunger and malnutrition, he’s bred specific vitamins and nutrients into the corn. Brewbaker’s customary lightheartedness gives way to seriousness as he recounts statistics about world hunger: Two billion people are undernourished, one billion go hungry every night and 300,000 children in Africa go blind every year from severe vitamin A deficiencies. Brewbaker notes the three major deficiencies in the diet of tropical peoples: vitamin A, iron and zinc. He has long been working to bolster vitamin A in yellow corn.

 

“The secret of good plant breeding is pretty damn simple,” says Brewbaker, shaking a messy tussle of curly white hair under his full-brim field hat. “We look for the best mothers and fathers to give us the best hybrids. In the case of field corn, we are looking at total yield. In the case of sweet corn, we’re more concerned with how does it taste, the quality factors.”

 

Keeping track of the lineage of his hybrids is of utmost importance to Brewbaker, and he has kept meticulous records of his fields and his crosses, all in small, well-worn journals like the one he is carrying today; his records span his entire fifty-year career at UH. “At the Waimanalo Research Station we have two hundred plots,” he says. “In a typical month we plant about twenty plants in each plot, representing about four thousand plants in total. I get very familiar with each … knowing their pedigree and how their parents looked. It’s good fun.”

 


 

Brewbaker is not known solely for corn. When he came to UH, he also began a breeding program for Acacia koa and for the tropical tree genus Leucaena, which is used for wood, fuel, food and soil enrichment. His work with Leucaena over the years has been so successful— he has created more than eighty insectresistant hybrids now grown around the world—that outside of the United States he is as well known a tree breeder as he is a corn breeder.

 

Brewbaker is also the father of Hawai‘i’s seed industry. And that is no minor thing. Seeds are currently Hawai‘i’s largest crop by value, far ahead of sugar, pineapple or papaya. In 2009 the Hawai‘i seed industry earned $223 million. The vast majority of that—$214 million—came from corn seed.

 

Why seed? For the same reason that Brewbaker was so interested in traveling to the Philippines all those years ago: Given the steady heat and sunlight of the tropics, producers can harvest more frequently, thereby speeding up research and production.

 

It all began in 1965, when Brewbaker invited his colleagues Don Shaver, a breeder for CornNuts Inc., and Clarion Henderson of Illinois Foundation Seeds to “winter” on Moloka‘i. Shaver and Henderson were so impressed with their yield that they expanded their seed production. Within five years more than two hundred corn seed producers were established on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui and Moloka‘i, and the fledgling seed industry was boasting seed production “on the order of a half-million-dollar industry.” The following year, Brewbaker was instrumental in establishing the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, and in 1977 he founded Hawaii Foundation Seeds to manage collections of parent seed stocks for research and commercial use.

 

But over the years the whole picture of agriculture and food in America changed. By 1995 most of the two hundred seed producers had merged into five giant companies, the same five companies that run the corn seed industry in Hawai‘i today: BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Dupont/Pioneer and Syngenta. The swift shift from local farmers to national corporations was the direct effect of Monsanto’s invention of GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. Before Monsanto, breeders like Brewbaker bred corn conventionally—in other words, by crossing two different varieties of corn. Monsanto turned this model on its head by breeding corn hybrids that include borrowed sequences of DNA, called “transgenes,” from completely unrelated species. Monsanto patented Bt, a soil bacterium transgene that kills chewing insects, and Roundup Ready, a transgene that renders a plant immune to the herbicide Roundup, which Monsanto manufactures. The phenomenal growth of the seed industry in Hawai‘i has, Brewbaker says, been largely driven by the emergence of Bt and Roundup Ready corn, which are now staples in much of the produce that Americans consume.

 

You might think a conventional corn breeder like Brewbaker would balk at the creation of GMO corn—but surprisingly Brewbaker has welcomed its arrival. Unlike many who worry about the morality and consequences of mixing genes from unrelated species, Brewbaker sees Bt and Roundup Ready corn as miracle crops. The ends, at least as he sees it, justify the means: His goal has always been improving crops for farmers in the tropics, he says, and if GMO corn means more corn for hungry people, then it’s all right with him. He’d even be using transgenes himself now if he could, he adds; the only thing stopping him is that the patent is not available to the university. And so he will begin researching stalk rot the old-fashioned way, the way he has perfected in his halfcentury at UH. He will plant a plot of his ten favorite hybrids, infect the healthy corn with the disease to see how it fares, and from there he’ll begin to develop a stalk rot-resistant hybrid.

 

Fifty years in, he has no intention to retire. “They put up with me pretty well on campus,” he says. “You can write without question that a plant breeder is never a hundred percent satisfied, because you can always think of something you can improve.”