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Fall/Winter 2010

All issues  >  Fall/Winter 2010  >  Jerry Glover, crop scientist

Photo: Jerry Glover

Jerry Glover examines a compass plant at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. This yellow-flowered perennial, a member of the sunflower family, is seen as a potential oil seed crop; plant breeders are currently selecting individuals of this species for larger, more numerous seed production. Photo by Jim Richardson, National Geographic.

World-Class Researcher

Jerry Glover Blends Philosophy, Science to Fight World Hunger

By Phyllis Shier, College of Liberal Arts

In December 2008, Nature named agroecologist and Washington State University alumnus Jerry Glover one of five "crop researchers who could change the world."

In June of this year, he was listed among National Geographic's "Emerging Explorers," a group of 14 "uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers, and storytellers" whose early career work is making a significant contribution to world knowledge.

His research developing perennial versions of annual crop plants [see sidebar] will have an enormous impact on sustainable agriculture, confronting societal issues of food shortage as well as the environmental problems stemming from current farming practices.

Synthesizing Philosophy and Science

How does one become so prominently recognized, twice, barely 10 years into a career?

Beyond two soil science degrees—a bachelor's in 1997 and a Ph.D. in 2001—and the energy, creativity, and natural curiosity inherent to Glover's personality is something he said has benefited him greatly: the bachelor's degree in philosophy he earned at WSU in 1998.

This background, Glover said, has helped him confront the complexities of his research with a process-based framework.

"A.N. Whitehead, he's certainly one of my favorites," Glover said of the British-American philosopher and mathematician known for his work in logic, philosophy of science, and metaphysics. Whitehead deviated from the "static mechanical approach to ecosystems science" of the mid to late 1920s, Glover said, to a "more fluid approach" known as process philosophy.

"That has been important to me in thinking about how ecosystems function," Glover said.

Glover's early philosophical interests ranged from Islamic Sufism and comparative religions to Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, which gave birth to the empirical investigative techniques of today's scientific method, and the Enlightenment philosophers whose worldviews eschewed religion for a more rational, science-based approach.

His life's philosophy has been influenced by investigating the great thinkers and views of the past.

Philosophy, Glover said, helped him to synthesize the knowledge he has amassed throughout his career at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, where he worked with other scientists, including his wife, phytogeneticist Cindy Cox (M.S. '00, plant pathology), developing perennial versions of the major grain crops.

Photo: Jerry Glover in a pit that compares roots
Jerry Glover in a pit that compares roots of wheat with those of intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial the Land Institute is domesticating for grain production. Photo by Jim Richardson, National Geographic.

Beyond Science: The Policy of Fighting Hunger

After years of working on developing sustainable agriculture that both fights erosion and makes some of the world's more marginal landscapes usable, Glover is on hiatus from his research work at the Land Institute to serve as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In that role he provides support to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), contributing to the federal policymaking process and learning firsthand about the intersection of science and policy. USAID offers international leadership and analytical support to further the research and development of President Obama's Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative.

As a liaison between USAID staff in various countries and USAID partners and funding recipients, Glover finds himself far from the Kansas farm fields and laboratories, in the urban environment of Washington, D.C. The global nature of his research, collaborating with scientists from China, Australia, Argentina, and Sweden, has prepared him for the interdisciplinary nature of international policy work.

"I review reports and proposals as well as write recommendations on the types of research projects USAID should invest in," Glover said. "I'm currently working on a research agenda proposal for the agency's efforts in Zambia, and I traveled to Nepal for meetings and field tours in early October."

As to the effect the fellowship will have on his research, Glover says his time in D.C. will allow him to expand his professional contacts and improve his chances of increased future funding.

"For me, one of the primary objectives is to better my understanding of international agricultural development work, including identification of priorities, limitations, obstacles, and opportunities," Glover said. "For the agency, one desired outcome of my presence is the use of my technical training to provide advice and analysis for their many agricultural projects."

Photo: Jerry Glover holds a clump of intermediate wheatgrass over his head, the roots trailing to his feet Jerry Glover shows the extensive root system of intermediate wheatgrass. This feature of perennial crops helps reduce soil erosion and nutrient depletion, making these plants a focus in sustainable farming research. Photo by Jim Richardson, National Geographic.
Finding Integrated Solutions for the World Hunger Problem

As science becomes increasingly collaborative and global, Glover's broad worldview has proven vital to his work with fellow researchers and colleagues and to advancing his career. The policy fellowship fully employs his interdisciplinary background and is renewable for another one to two years.

"Maybe at one point in the past science was an individual working on a very specific problem," Glover said. "Now it's very collaborative . . . especially where you are dealing with agriculture. Philosophy has really helped me to connect the dots of these different issues—from technology to people to our natural environment—so, in that regard, I feel it's just been indispensable."

The combination of liberal arts and science, Glover said, has also been crucial throughout the years to collaborating on agendas and "moving the ball down the field."

"If I had to give up some academic background, it would not be my philosophy background," he said. "It provides such a great general education culturally and in our relationship to the rest of the planet. I feel like it has benefited me greatly."

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The Problem of Agriculture

Grain crops (like wheat, rice, and corn) and oil seed crops (like soybeans and sunflowers) have provided the basis for civilization for the past eight to ten thousand years, Glover said.

Annual cereals, oil seeds, and legumes occupy roughly 68 percent of global cropland and provide 70–80 percent of our caloric intake needs. In essence, grains fuel human civilization, but they are a costly venture for farmers, who outlay significant capital and resources each year preparing fields, planting seeds, and cultivating fragile seedlings until they are mature and able to bear seed. Annual plowing mars the earth's surface and leaves farm fields vulnerable to erosion.

With root systems that reach only 12 inches into the soil, annual crops deplete the earth's nutrients more quickly and require a greater commitment of fertilizer and water than their perennial cousins, whose intricate root systems, such as that of perennial wheatgrass, grow as deep as 7 to 14 feet into the ground. Not only heartier than their annual counterparts, these plants also conserve water and infuse nutrients back into the soil, keeping the landscape rich and viable for years to come.

"Natural plant communities did this prior to agriculture," Glover said. "What we need are farm fields covered in crop plants that behave like the native plant communities."

Population Growth

As human populations have increased within the last 50 years and farming has moved to more marginal landscapes to mitigate food shortages, the lack of native plant communities has become an increasingly important issue. Annual crops' meager root systems are ill-equipped to hold soil in place over time on marginal landscapes, Glover said, leaving already limited topsoil in jeopardy of further erosion, making the land unsuitable for future farming.

"The Mediterranean region suffered complete soil erosion in places, and whole civilizations were destroyed because of it," Glover said, adding that with the continued growth of modern civilization, global soil degradation threatens the viability of human civilization.

Sustainable Solutions on the Horizon

At the Land Institute, plant breeders' hybrid crosses between annual wheat and perennial wheatgrasses are creating new crops that produce the larger seeds of annual crops but act like perennial wheatgrasses with deep root systems.

"My colleagues here at WSU are growing some perennial wheat hybrids that provide 70 percent yield of the annual wheat crop there, and they can beat annual yield with perennial wheat on marginal landscapes already," he said. But the same crop is not faring as well in the harsh summers of Salina.

"To get an accurate picture of viability, yield needs to factor bushels per acre over a period of time," Glover said.

He believes viable perennial wheat will be available for commercial agricultural uses in another 10 to 25 years. Oil seed crops, like mustard and sunflower seed plants, should be available in 10 to 20 years, and the maize program is in its very earliest state, with scientists having identified some perennial relatives and made some crosses. The institute is also collaborating with scientists from China on a perennial rice program that could be 20 to 25 years out, Glover said.

 

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