the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Sharing rice and soybeans:

Alumnus cultivated collaboration to improve agricultural economies

By Landon Yoder ’04

A glance through Harold Kauffman’s passport would reveal passages to Haiti, India, China, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Colombia and nearly a dozen other countries. Noting his birthplace – he grew up on a farm in West Liberty, Ohio – and current Illinois address, one begins to see how Kauffman has connected his Midwest roots    to his professional pursuits, for the benefit of    the world.

Kauffman, a plant pathologist and professor, has spent much of his working life abroad, developing ways to improve the world’s production of food and coordinating agro- science exchanges between scientists intended to help developing countries improve their economic base. With animproved economy, developing countries can afford to import crops, as well as export. Between 60 and 70 percent of the population in developing countries is involved in agriculture, as opposed to less than five percent in developed countries; thus, improving the agriculture has a much larger impact on the population.

This path began for Kauffman when his sister, Ruth (Kauffman) Detweiler ’57, convinced him to go to Goshen College, where he majored in biological sciences. The late Frank Bishop, professor emeritus of biology, was Kauffman’s primary professor as he focused on agriculture. “That was really the strong foundation,” said Kauffman.

Kauffman graduated in 1961 and married classmate Jean Bachman, who graduated with a degree in nursing. Jean’s connections to a hospital in Haiti led to positions through Mennonite Central Committee for both Harold and Jean.

“You could say it was an accident or one of those divine things where God is leading,” Kauffman said. “It got us started in the whole international arena.”

The couple worked at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Des Chapelles, where Kauffman engaged in agricultural and community development projects that had a significant impact on his thoughts about vocation.

Experience doing service in his vocational area, Kauffman said, showed him that “by doing service I could help people, especially through science and technology. People need food – you have to look at the whole of life. You can’t just feed people spiritually. You have to provide sustenance also.”

He also saw that there was gap between what they could provide to the people they served and what was really needed to significantly increase the quality of life for Haiti’s citizens.

"No matter how much effort you put into a country, it is not sustainable if there isn’t a strong economic base and provide better opportunities for jobs and food. So, I knew I needed to get more training in a scientific area that would give me more expertise to be able to help.”

After a three-year term in Haiti, Kauffman entered graduate school at Michigan State University and completed a doctorate in plant pathology in 1967. Ready to get back into the field, Kauffman began work for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) where he was assigned to the All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project in Hyderabad, India. He describes this phase as “really the most exciting part of my career.”

IRRI, based in the Philippines, was the four-year-old project of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations when Kauffman arrived. “There were only 12 to 15 scientists when I joined,” Kauffman said. “Now there are sister institutions developed in other major crops, which has led to major increases in food production.”

Lead research at IRRI and collaborative projects across the globe, combined with new opportunities in genetics, “basically doubled rice production” during Kauffman’s work with rice in India and also in China.

“To be able to make such a difference and improve the lives of millions of farmers and consumers – because the cost of rice was much less as the production of rice went up – was probably the most significant part of my work,” said Kauffman.

Kauffman eventually moved from rice to soybeans. To advance the production of soybeans, he sought to broaden the genetic base. “The reason that is important is because as crops like rice or soybeans evolved in nature, they tended to develop more diversity,” he said. “Farmers tended to grow more diverse crops early on, but as farmers became more commercialized crops tended to become less diverse.” Broadening the genetic base helps to protect crops against disease, insects and large fluctuations in production.

Yet while international work to improve rice production was characterized by efforts to share research, soybean farmers and researchers demonstrated a different way of thinking about information sharing.

In the rice field “we had collaborative activities with governments and scientists all over the world,” Kauffman said. “I was very disappointed to see that the soybean world didn’t operate that way.”

Kauffman headed the International Soybean Program at the University of Illinois and sought ways to transplant the pattern of collaborative work in rice into the soybean field. However, he faced criticism for his ideas about international cooperation, both from soybean farmers and from financial contributors.

“ The United States is the world’s biggest producer of soybeans, and we don’t have to cooperate with anyone else,” said Kauffman. “My attitude was that we should collaborate with various countries.”

One means of broadening the genetic base of soybeans was to engage the Chinese government and Chinese scientists. “Most of the genetic diversity [in soybeans] is there; most of the soybean germplasm – seeds collected from a plant’s site of origin – came from China originally,” he said.

Kauffman took several university administrators and Midwestern farmers with him to China to learn first-hand about the benefits of cooperation and to exchange ideas with Chinese scientists. Said Kauffman, “The Chinese agreed to exchange some soybean germplasm, which they hadn’t done for 50 years because of Communist rule.”

The Chinese provided 2,000 varieties of soybeans for study by the International Soybean Program. According to Kauffman, the exchange has helped U.S. farmers broaden the genetic base of soybeans, while also producing a “modest yield advantage when combined with U.S. varieties.”

While Kauffman enjoyed numerous successes as the result of his work as the director of INTSOY, he continues to consider what else might have been accomplished. “Quite honestly, the work I was able to do in soybeans was much less than it could have been if we had understood the benefits of soybeans being used around the world,” said Kauffman. “My argument was if we increased markets we would increase benefits to small farms and developing countries. If developing countries don’t have a developed agriculture, they will not be able to import many food crops,” he said.

Kauffman observed that the mind-set that prevents cooperation in developing soybeans is parallel to that which perpetuates disparity between the rich and poor – the attitude that “you can help people to a point, but don’t let them become competitors,” he said.

Unless developing countries are given the resources to develop their economies to be on equal footing with the West, Kauffman said, there will not be enough resources to go around. “Simply put, we in the rich nations have to share more – and we’re not willing to do that,” he said.

In 1996 Kauffman entered the classroom as a professor in the department of crop sciences at the University of Illinois, where he has translated his professional experiences into lecture notes. He began a course, The Global Food Production Web, to help students understand food production in other countries and how international markets are related.

“ In the U.S., only three to five percent [of people] know a lot about agriculture, and urban people know essentially nothing,” Kauffman said.

Kauffman seeks to share his values with students and colleagues, which are rooted in his Christian faith. “As Christians, we have to share first of all. We not only have to share our values, but we have to share economic opportunities,” he said. “To think that we’re a special Christian country is just counter to what I have observed in living and working with friends around the world.”

His goal was to compose the class with half rural students and half urban students, and organize the curriculum around a variety of crops. “My main goal was to get everybody interested in one or two components of the global food production web by giving them the chance to choose something they were interested in,” said Kauffman.

“I have a lot of faith in the future, because every student in that class had a lot to offer me as I saw them get excited.”

This fall, article author Landon Yoder will begin an internship position through Mennonite Voluntary Service with World Vision International in its United Nations office, assisting in relating to WVI’s policy concerns to U.N. Ambassadors. He will live at Menno House in Manhattan.

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