Top researcher looks to jobs that lie ahead
PASCO, Wash. — R. James Cook sees many agricultural problems he wishes he could work on.
“In many ways I wish I was just starting out, with all that I know now,” the celebrated Washington plant pathologist said. “It would be so much fun.”
Cook received the prestigious Wolf Prize for agriculture in 2011 for his 40 years researching plant pathology and crop and soil sciences at Washington State University and USDA Agricultural Research Service. Now retired from WSU. he operates the Plant Health International website, which is an information source for farmers, researchers and students.
Cook delivered the keynote address during the Far West Agribusiness Association winter meeting in Pasco, Wash.
“My goal has always been to provide enough information for farmers and agribusinesses to make the right decisions,” he said.
Cook would like to research why grass seed grows better when fields are burned. He believes the diseases pythium root rot and rhizoctonia are involved, and the burned field leads to better conditions for the crop.
Pythium and rhizoctonia pathogens occur in the soil for multiple crops, although Cook primarily focused on their effects on wheat roots throughout his research.
Wheat seeds without a seed treatment will be 40 to 50 percent infected in the embryos within the first 24 to 48 hours after being planted into moist soil, Cook said.
Pythium removes root hairs, which Cook said was a major discovery, as it eliminates the wheat plant’s ability to reach out for the nutrients it needs to thrive.
Cook used soil fumigation as a check and research tool to see what wheat with healthy roots would look like and help distinguish disease sources. It helped him fight the pervasive idea that wheat monoculture diminishes yields because the soil selectively depleted the nutrients, when the crop is depleted of its roots.
After conducting further research, Cook also fought against the long-standing idea that “toxic straw” was affecting wheat yields in stubble-mulch farming, finding the same results when he used oatmeal or grass clippings. Cook found that pasteurizing the soil eliminated pythium, and said work is being done currently at WSU to find resistance to pythium and rhizoctonia. The discovery helped usher in direct seed and conservation tillage systems.
“I’ve learned one thing: whoever gets there first with an explanation for something, it’s really hard to replace it with a different explanation,” he said.
Even though he emphasized crop rotation as the best way to control diseases, Cook spent the bulk of his career studying continuous wheat plotting.
“That’s the scientific frontier,” he said. “We know we can control these root diseases for the most part if we wait long enough.”
Cook sees a need to research diseases in the field instead of the laboratory. The molecular biology field is attracting researchers interested in working in the lab, so that they don’t know how to conduct a field plot or test, he said.
“My whole philosophy was to test my hypotheses in the field first and then if they were verified, take work to the lab to study in more depth,” he said. “When you do field research, you take a risk just like a farmer takes a risk — how many experiments did I lose from winterkill, from elk eating my wheat or other things that can go wrong. It is a challenge but it’s certainly interesting and I found it to be a lot of fun.”
Plant Health International: http://planthealthinternational.com
Far West Agribusiness Association: http://www.fwaa.org/