Thursday, November 14, 2013

The View from Rural Route 8: Purpose

Glory be. Could several stories coming out of Kansas State University be a sign that someone is remembering the missions of a regents-guided, tax-backed institution and, in this case, the land grant Lincolnesque ideals and the high calling to improve our lives? For many the purpose of their favorite university seems to boil down to a championship contending football or basketball team. Witness college colors and logos worn by hordes of admirers who for reasons never attended a college or university. Also witness in the last 20 years an incredibly high rate of inflation aimed by colleges right at the taxpayers and consumers who wanted to send their kids to college so their offspring would experience all the refining intangibles college life was said to offer and also earn a meaningful degree that would open doors leading to well-paid professional career. The costs were so evil that now the college debt incurred by students and their families is a national political issue and certainly a national disgrace. What then is this good news? In no particular order, there are three news announcements that might hearten old guys like me who want people to have enough food and freedom to make life better. That's what public universities should do--make life better for all. Help out. Lift up humanity. The first story surrounds combining efforts of the famous wheat genetics bank (WheatGeneticsResourceCenter) at KSU and its 14,000 strains of wild wheat genetic materials with those from other public and private entities to develop new wheat varieties in half the 13 years it takes now. The combination will be in the new KansasWheatInnovationCenter and managed by none other than Bikram Gill, distinguished KSU professor of plant pathology and long time director of the wheat germ plasm bank. I met him years ago when he took the reins of the wheat bank, where he since has won global renown. The second item was the opening finally of the new feed technology center, a $16 million project that brings a state-of-the-art milling and product manufacturing learning center to the nation's only undergraduate feed science and management program in America. The new center is much more than a mill, of course, but it comes from a successful California feed milling family, the late O.H. Kruse and his son and grandson, both of whom came to KSU to learn feed science. The facility replaces two older campus mills. The third story is truly moving. KansasState has been chosen to lead the effort to develop a wheat that will be resilient against climate changes in south Asia, where 20 percent of the world's wheat is grown in tropical and sub-tropical places, for 4.5 billion of the world's population. Production there has stagnated, compared to other places where it has been improving by 1 percent a year. Climate models now predict that South Asia yields will decrease 10 percent for each rise of 1 degree in annual temperature. Climate experts are saying now that current wheat varieties and farming practices will cause production to drop by up to 30 percent unless new varieties are developed. That will be the job of the five-year, $5 million project that is funded by the federal Agency for International Development.
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