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Operation Oilseed

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
filed under: Research and Development

The sunflower, which is native to the southern United States and Mexico, has been cultivated since about 3000 BC. Used by Native Americans for both edible and non-edible purposes, the plant was introduced to Europe by early Spanish explorers, where it spread eastward and northward.

In the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great introduced sunflowers to Russia as an ornamental plant. By the beginning of the 20th century in Russia, sunflowers were a major oil crop and breeding efforts began, most notably by Vasilii Stephanovich Pustovoit (1886–1972), director of the 100,000-acre (about 40,470 hectares) V.S. Pustovoit All-Union Research Institute of Oil-Bearing Plants in Krasnodar, Russia, in the northern Caucasus.

Pustovoit’s feats as a plant breeder and scientist were made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had to conduct his experiments according to the faulty scientific direction of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898–1976). Under Lysenko, science in the Soviet Union was guided only by ideology and the science of genetics was denounced as reactionary, bourgeois, idealist and formalist. Plant breeders were not allowed to make crosses or to put bags over flower heads so plants could self-pollinate. Despite this difficulty, Pustovoit developed his “method of reserves” that satisfied Lysenko.

In the meantime, back in its birthplace of North America, the sunflower was used for little more than birdseed and silage. In 1964, the Canadian government licensed a high yield, high oil Russian cultivar developed by Pustovoit at Krasnodar called Peredovik, some of which found its way into the hands of Richard “Dick” Baldwin, a past president of the American Oil Chemists’ Society.

Baldwin, then vice president and director of research at Cargill, Inc., spoke recently to Inform Magazine, the monthly business and scientific publication of the AOCS, about his role during the height of the Cold War in the creation of the international sunflower industry. What follows is his story.

One day I got a call from Sam Aronoff, who was the manager of Cargill’s flax plant in Columbia Heights, Minn. He said he had some high oil sunflower seeds that he had obtained from someone at the Morden Experiment Station in Morden, Manitoba, Canada. He wanted to know what he should do.

No high oil sunflower seeds had ever come to this country before, so I said, “For goodness sakes, Sam, get them planted!”

I hired a geneticist, got the mere handful of seeds to him, and we opened an experiment station near Moorhead, Minn. Then I got to thinking about it in the spring of 1966. I was responsible for Cargill’s plant breeding program as well as 100 other things, so I had a pretty good idea what plant breeders do. I called Sam and said, “You know that if the Russians were going to let any of that seed out of the country, they have better seed at home. I think I could go and get it.”

Sam replied, “Bully for you – go hop on a plane!”

So I went to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., at a time when not many Americans actually went into the embassy building. I asked to talk with the agricultural attaché and we had a nice, friendly chat. I was just trying to get acquainted.

Finally he asked, “What in the world do you want from us, Mr. Baldwin?” but I didn’t want to tell him exactly. So I said I’d like to visit some Soviet agricultural experiment stations. When he asked which ones, I suggested corn breeders, wheat breeders, grape breeders, sunflower breeders, sorghum breeders . . . right on down the list.

“Nobody, but nobody has done that,” was his reply. “No Americans have ever been there.”

But he was an agronomist and wanted to foster collaboration among researchers, so he said he was game to help and pulled out a book listing a couple hundred agricultural stations. I chose 13 I would like to visit, and he gave me the names of the stations along with their addresses and directors’ names.

Amazingly enough, 11 of them answered with an invitation to visit their stations. So I had a travel agent I knew take the invitations to the new Intourist Office (the official Soviet travel agency) in Chicago. Nobody had done anything like this before. Even as the Intourist staff said it wasn’t possible to get from here to there, they managed to arrange a tour of seven of the stations.

Now I needed an interpreter, so I called a man in Geneva, Switzerland, who represented Cargill in the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union. He was pleased by the challenge; we met up in Moscow and proceeded to visit stations.

I had purposefully left Krasnodar for the final visit, where we were received with a great welcoming. They were just wonderful to us. We met with Pustovoit himself, who was responsible for making sunflower a crop in the U.S.S.R, where it was used for much of their cooking oil. The Soviets recognized his importance to agriculture by honoring him with the highest award ever given – the Hero of Socialist Labor. He was one of the few to receive that award twice.

A young woman who was a librarian at the Institute spoke fluent English, and so acted as our interpreter while we were there. She’d never seen an American before. They showed us around and told me everything they were doing to get high oil seeds. They had started in about 1940 with striped seeds with 28% oil, and were up to 30% by 1950. By 1956, the oil content had reached 35%, by 1960 it was 39.8%, and in1965, it was 43.8%. Those were the seeds I was after – the ones Sam Aronoff had gotten were only about 35% oil.

So I continued chatting with Pustovoit, and finally said, “Undoubtedly in your back room you have higher oil seeds than what is in production by farmers.” Sure enough, he agreed that he did and was clearly very proud of them.

I asked if I could see some, and Pustovoit came back with about 2 oz. of seeds. “These are about 45% oil, and are one of our latest varieties,” he told me.

When I asked if I could have the seeds, Pustovoit indicated that the Soviet Minister of Agriculture would never allow such a gift. Instead, Pustovoit gave the packet to the young librarian-translator, and she began chewing on them, spitting out hulls. After a bit more conversation, we walked out of the office, and she gave the packet to me.

We promptly hopped into the car, headed to Moscow, and immediately went to the U.S. Embassy. We put the seeds in the diplomatic pouch headed for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Quarantine Station. By the time I got home to Minnesota, they were sitting on my desk.

Between 1965 and about 1973, Baldwin made 13 trips back to the Soviet Union and to Krasnodar. In 1967, Cargill purchased several thousand pounds of so-called “breeders’ seeds,” which were sold to seed companies all over the Soviet Union. That purchase helped the U.S. geneticists who were busy trying to improve the high oil variety by further selection and by hybridization.

Krasnoda, Russia continued to be important as a source of sunflower innovation. Vasilii Pustovoit’s daughter, Galina, was the first to recognize the potential of using wild species as sources of disease resistance. Another scientist at Krasnodar, K.I. Soldatov, developed a high oleic variety that was distributed worldwide in the early 1980s and was the starting point of today’s NuSun® mid oleic sunflower. – Catherine Watkins. Reprinted with permission from AOCS/Inform

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