• Mary-Dell Chilton | Episode 12 | The Mother of Modern Agriculture

November 22, 2016

Agriculture has changed since the days my grandparents farmed.  According to the American Farmland Trust, we lose 40 acres of farmland every hour.  EVERY HOUR.  Once that land is gone it never comes back to agriculture.  It is paved, built on, changed forever.  Also, Rural America—which is about three-quarters of our country—has slowed in population growth for over a decade.  The problem is that more and more young people are leaving rural America and moving to urban and suburban areas for jobs.  Just as the farmland is lost, once that connection to rural America is lost, it is almost never regained.  Farm operations are dwindling too. In 2015 there were 2,067,000 farm operations. In 2011 there were 2,131,240.  That is a loss of 64,240 farms in just 4 years.  

So, the number of farmers are shrinking, the amount of land to grow food on is shrinking, yet the population is growing.  According to Wikipedia, “The global population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion in 2012. It is expected to keep growing, and estimates have put the total population at 8.4 billion by mid-2030, and 9.6 billion by mid-2050.”

I am the first to tell you that FarmHer supports all growing methods, sizes of farms and types of agriculture and I firmly believe there is a place for everybody in our food system. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of mouths to feed in this world and not enough food to go around.  I will always be an advocate of teaching people how to help themselves by growing their own food.  I also think we should all support our communities and the farmers in them by buying local when you can.  But there are people around the world who don’t have the luxuries we have in deciding where their food comes from, or even if they have food at all.  

To feed a growing population, we need a mix of teaching, sustainability, new and old methods and last but not least, the potential offered by science.  Let’s go back to 1981 where a young scientist named Mary-Dell Chilton was working in a relatively new field of biotechnology in crops.  The goal: To create a genetically modified version of corn that could resist drought, weeds, bugs, all while producing a higher yield.  All things that are important to producing more food for all of the reasons I spelled out above.  Mary-Dell didn’t just work on it, she did it.  Working closely with a team of others, that she heavily credits, she created the very first genetically modified corn.  That discovery has led to an entire industry built around these types of crops and the potential of feeding more people with them.  

Mary-Dell was interested in science from a young age and has a brilliant mind for the subject.  Now in her 80’s, she still comes into her lab at Syngenta daily.  There she continues to work with her peers, often being the person they go to when dealing with tough problems or needing to unravel a mystery they might be working on.  She doesn’t mix her words which are straightforward and direct, nor does she boast even slightly about her accomplishments, but accomplished she is.  This is a woman who won the World Food Prize for her work in 2013 and is completely humble about her work.  

Mary-Dell is slight in her size, but her presence is huge.  Her accomplishments have the potential to be life-changing for people around the world. In the quiet, calm of her science lab she moves with purpose. She is everywhere in the Syngenta organization - from the minds of her co-workers to the height of the corn stalks being grown in the state-of-the-art crop lab on premises.  Agriculture is ever changing and it was an honor to meet Mary-Dell, the mother of modern agriculture and a woman who has changed our landscape, forever.

Watch Mary-Dell's episode preview here

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