Corn developed over the last five decades by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa plant breeder James Brewbaker is feeding millions of people around the world.
“Plant breeding is a wonderfully optimistic science because you do sometimes make these contributions,” said Brewbaker.
Brewbaker was hired by UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources in 1961 and has spent much of his career breeding corn and other plants at UH’s Waimānalo Research Station. He has banked seeds from thousands of varieties, which he crossbreeds for desirable traits, such as better flavor, disease resistance, high yield and ability to thrive in a specific environment.
“We genetically modify,” said Brewbaker. “We borrow genes here and put them there.”
Thanks to Hawaiʻi’s climate, Brewbaker, his students and fellow researchers can plant corn every day of the year and test new varieties. That allows researchers to study multiple generations of plants in a single year.
“Everything goes faster and the problems we try to resolve just go like that,” said Brewbaker.
Among other accomplishments, Brewbaker was instrumental in developing the seed corn industry in Hawaiʻi, now the state’s leading agricultural commodity, and has authored more than 280 publications on a variety of crops. His first book, Agricultural Genetics, has been translated into seven languages. Then there is his proudest achievement.
“My students have been my greatest joy—52 masters and doctorates,” said Brewbaker and his students are currently working all over the world. “You go to Thailand, they call me the grandfather of sweet corn. My student Pulan is the father.”
Anticipating retirement as he nears his 90s, Brewbaker established a million-dollar endowment for graduate students studying plant breeding.
“I believe it is one of the best ways to spend the money I have saved,” said Brewbaker.
He is regularly being recognized for his lifetime of research, education and national and international service. Brewbaker says he plans to keep working in the cornfields of Waimānalo as long as he can.
“I love my job. I love this absolutely beautiful place.”