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Part 3: The Seed That Fed Humanity

February 20, 2017

At the turn of the 19th century, wheat farmers faced a seemingly impossible challenge: how to keep up with the ever-increasing demand of a growing population, with little new land available for farming? The answer to this question was found in 1830 on the dry seabird islands off the coasts of South Africa and South America. Farmers realized that the seabirds’ droppings, called guano, rich in natural fertilizers, improved the condition of the soil. And so the great ‘guano rush’ began.

Guano made a vast difference to Europe’s wheat yields, but towards the end of the century, when its reserves started to run out, farmers looked to science for an antidote that would help overcome their problems.

In Germany, in 1909, two scientists, Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber, succeeded in producing ammonia, a substance that was supposed to improve the soil fertility and consequently, the quality of wheat. The only problem was that adding this white powder to the soil caused the wheat to grow taller and thicker than usual. It would grow, fall over in the wind and rot. A new, shorter variety of wheat was required.

Cecil Salmon, an American wheat expert, collected 16 varieties of wheat in Japan at the end of World War II. One of these was Norin 10, which only grew half as tall as most wheat varieties.

Salmon sent this back to the US, to a scientist called Orville Vogel, who began crossing Norin 10 with other wheat varieties. By 1952, this new grain had reached Mexico, where an American biologist, Norman Borlaug, crossed it with fungus-resistant crops. Just ten years later, 95% of Mexico’s wheat was of Borlaug’s variety, and the country’s wheat harvest had increased by 600%.

Borlaug took his wheat to India in 1965, when many experts feared that millions of people would starve to death. Thankfully, this type of wheat thrived in India’s conditions, quadrupling the yield and making the country self-sufficient by 1974.

Today, thanks to these scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, crops such as wheat, rice and maize are used to feed the world’s population. In addition to its role as a global merchant and processor, LDC continues to manage the journey of wheat and other grains from farm to fork, true to our founder’s humble beginnings.

To learn more about our strengths in Grains, please visit the dedicated page on our website.


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