The importance of food crops has come into sharp focus due to the recent climate crisis, and the war between Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, why have food crops become so important? CBT reporters will learn about corn which is one of the three major food crops.
Corn or maize, the third of the world’s top three food crops, was the most cultivated and produced crop, making it the No. 1 crop. In addition, corn is considered an important crop because it is large in the US market. About 1.5 billion tons of roasted corn and green corn are produced annually, of which a quarter is used for food, a quarter for livestock feed, a quarter for industrial use, and a quarter for bioenergy production.
CBT reporters interviewed Dr. Kim Soon-kwon, known as Dr. Corn, to learn about the importance of corn and the process of corn research.
Q1. Is there any special reason why you studied corn?
I graduated from Kyungpook National University’s College of Agriculture but failed the entrance examination for the Dept. of Agricultural Economics at Seoul National University and entered the Rural Development Administration’s crop test in 1969. While working as an intern at the Korea Institute for Unification of rice variety Tongil, I passed the research civil service exam, but there was no room left for rice breeding. However, there was a place in corn breeding in relation to the previous department, so my field of study became related to corn. However, in 1971, I went to study at the University of Hawaii (UH) as a scholarship student at the East-West Center (EWC) of the US National Assembly, and I was greatly shocked by the difference in development between Korea and the US It is a well-known fact that Korea was struggling at the time, while the US had been flourishing. Knowing that hybrid cone plays a decisive role in US prosperity, I thought that I should learn how to breed corn effectively, and save my poor country. Every month, I searched the library for information on what items Korea could export to the US to earn dollars, and develop the country, and conscientiously reported them to the Korean government. Then I trained in Sarcoma Research at the American Seed Company of the Illinois Foundation Seeds LTD. While interning with 100 young American students at the company, I was convinced that corn could save the world. I had a historical sense of calling to learn hybrid corn technology even if I died. That’s how I started studying corn.
Q2. What kind of research have you done mainly, and what are the benefits of this study?
The Korea Hybrid Corn Project agreed to the IITA, in Aug. 1979. When the corn green revolution was completely successful in Korea, we promoted IITTA corn research with the determination to pay off the debt our people have incurred around the world with corn. In 1979, it produced 1 million tons of corn a year, and the country that usually imported 1 million tons produced 8 million tons of corn a year, and exported 2 million tons to its neighbors. I think the first of the three biggest achievements is the successful breeding of the Maize Streak Virus (SR) strain. The first, enemy of African corn cultivation. Second, West and Central Africa adapted hybrid maize breeding success. In Nigeria, the former military president, His Excellency President Olusegun Obasanjo, learned corn seed technology from me and founded Obasanjo Seeds Co. The third achievement is the success of the Co-Survival Tolerance maize breeding of the Parasitic Witch weed Striga, which scientists in developed countries could not solve for 100 years. Due to the maize revolution that started in Nigeria in 2017, President Obasanjo recommended me for a Nobel Peace Prize. The UNFAO and the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture Dean and Duke University Former President have achieved research on Striga tolerance, that everyone has said to be impossible. This led to them being nominated for the Nobel Physiology or Medicine Prize.
Q3. You are the chairman of the International Corn Foundation. What kind of foundation is it? Could you give a brief explanation of the research and projects currently being conducted by the foundation?
When I visited North Korea in 1998, I witnessed a situation in which my compatriots were unable to farm due to natural disasters, historical floods, drought, and economic damage in the North. The International Corn Foundation (ICF) was established in Seoul to scientifically increase the production of 70 percent of its food. Currently the most important study is the Handong Black Corn study, which is effective in treating diabetes. Also, to combat climate change, giant leafy corn with seven leaves is focused on bm3 corn breeding, which increases bioethanol production by 20%. The latter is also thought to be groundbreaking as a by-product (corn stalk and leaf) livestock feed. In addition, we launched a national movement to feed 1 million North Korean children with honey vinegar corn (nutritive corn with a sugar content of 15%) developed by Kyungpook National University. For just KRW 10,000, it can provide nutrition to 20 North Korean children. It appeals to university students that they can feed 10 North Korean children for the price of a cup of coffee.
Q4. You said that the International Corn Foundation started researching corn a year before the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine in response to the request of POSCO International. Could you please update us on the progress of the study and future research plans or directions? Furthermore, securing food resources for various reasons, such as the deepening climate crisis, is an issue. What research or activities are needed to secure food resources in Korea?
It started before the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine began, with the request of POSCO-International, which dreams of a World Grain Trade. We imported 8 million tons of non-GMO Ukrainian corn a year and marketed it as food data. Three Ukrainian species of corn were collected, and they were tested in Ukraine by crossbreeding 150 species from the US and the other 50 species from China and Korea. The seeds that were crossed, however, are currently stored in the Pohang ICF storage because of the war. We couldn’t stop the study, so we planted these hybrid species in Pohang in the summer of 2022 and continued conducting the study. When the war ends, more than 1,000 kinds of corn are waiting to be planted in Ukraine. Although funding for research has been suspended, genetic resources for Ukraine are good ingredients that can also be used to develop corn in other countries such as Korea and China. The Korean government and POSCO also appeal to Handong University and the International Corn Foundation’s Ukrainian Corn Breeding to assist Ukraine after the war by charging them as little as possible.
Q5. What is the most memorable moment while conducting corn research and development?
I remember the tears that I shed in the early 1970s while studying and learning hybrid corn technology in the US thinking about my poor country, Korea. After learning hybrid corn techniques, I published eight SCI Ph.D. papers and the theory that crops should be symbiotic with polygenes. I also remember when the development of Suwon NO. 19 corn, which adapts to the Korean Peninsula with new technologies, dramatically increased the number of corn farmers in Gangwon-do, Chungcheong-buk, northern Gyeongsangbuk-do, and Gyeonggi-do, making farmers live well with corn.
I felt so rewarded when I saw the walls of the houses and the roofs changed, the farmers who used to ride bicycles, and the farmers who sent their children to school just until middle school, could now afford to send them to high school. I remember until now that Pyeongchang farmers nicknamed me ‘Dr. Corn’ because they said that if I visited their field where corn is planted, they could produce a few more bags of corn. In addition, I was fulfilled when farmers in Pyeongchang, Yeongwol , and Jecheon lived well.
A farmer in Jecheon refused to plant Suwon No. 19 corn because it had little kernel, but after I convinced him that it was real, he planted it. When he went out thinking that the corn would have fallen due to the wind at night, he was surprised at the corn standing firm and big ears hanging in each corn drop. He later confessed that he was surprised to see more corn grains than he imagined.
Q6. Lastly, please say a word for CBNU students.
Thinking about ‘Why was I born in the world?’ and ‘Why you’re spending time at CBNU to study?’ Think about how you can affect humanity by doing things that you can do best. The world can change because of you. Be positive about everything and try to make good use of it 24 hours a day. Have a sense of ownership that says, “I’m the master of the world.” There are so many things to do in the world, so try to find out what your historical calling in the world is rather than only chasing money. There are a lot of people, and countries that need your help. Imagine the day when CBNU will feel proud of you, and acknowledge your contribution to the world.
By Kim Si-eun | email@example.com
By Kim Ji-min | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Park Su-min | email@example.com