King of the Corn

This university professor is one of Hawaii's intellectual treasures

March, 2003

Pushing aside thick leaves of corn with his weathered hand, Jim Brewbaker strides purposefully through the field, warmed by the Waimanalo sun. He pulls down a leaf of corn. “Look, you can tell this one is not doing so well. The virus has reduced the length of leaves and stalks,” he says, pointing to the gnarled leaves pockmarked by disease.

Further down the row, Brewbaker pulls down a leaf from a taller, fuller plant. “This one has resistance. You can tell. Look at how healthy it is,” he says, tearing off a piece of corn from the stalk and husking it with a swift motion. Brewbaker then pulls out a time-worn, bound notebook filled with penciled marks. The low-tech tool holds the genetic code of the cornfield. In that book, Brewbaker keeps records of which hybrid varieties are planted in what row, how many times they have been crossbred and what traits they carry.

The battered notebook holds knowledge attained through four decades of painstaking genetic manipulation that has brought pest resistance to strains of corn now used to feed millions of hungry people in tropical regions of the world. Brewbaker has also helped hungry Hawaii corn lovers. His research saved the sweet-corn industry in Hawaii from destruction wrought by the corn-stunt virus. Brewbaker identified the single gene that carried resistance to the virus in a variety of corn from the Caribbean and hybridized Hawaii sweet corn to carry that gene. Today, most of the varieties of super-sweet corn grown in Kahuku and Waimanalo trace their roots back to Brewbaker’s fields.

In fact, Brewbaker is one of the Islands’ intellectual treasures. Not that you would ever glean this information from the exceedingly modest 76-year-old University of Hawaii professor, whose elfin appearance and twinkling eyes belie a biting wit. The son of an agricultural researcher, Brewbaker grew up on a ranch in Colorado and obtained a Ph.D. in plant genetics from Cornell University in 1952. His early career centered on studies of clover genetics and the effect of radiation on genes in living things.

In 1961, he took a job at the newly organized Department of Horticulture at the University of Hawaii. He was asked to work on improving sweet-corn crops and thus began a long-term love affair with the green, leafy crop. In 1966, Brewbaker convinced seed-crop growers to begin winter seed-growing operations in Hawaii. At meetings of the American Seed Trade Association, Brewbaker touted the benefits of Hawaii’s relatively mild climate compared to warmer Puerto Rico and colder Florida. He also explained the three-harvest-per-year growing potential of the Islands.

Today, the seed industry generates $34 million per year for Hawaii, according to Greg Edmeades, a research fellow at the Kauai-based seed company Pioneer Hybrid. “Jim was instrumental in starting that and sustaining industry interest as well. Without his efforts, it might have taken much longer to happen,” Edmeades says.

Perhaps more important has been his research into growing corn in the tropics. Corn is eaten throughout the developing tropics. It is the primary human feed crop in East Africa and is a key crop for the poor in tropical Latin America and Southeast Asia. But growing corn in the tropics is no easy thing. The winters of the temperate zones stop the population growth of many insects, including the corn borer (a notorious caterpillar that mows through stalks and kernels and turns them into brown mush). Further, farmers in the tropics rarely have the cash to pay for expensive pesticides used to control corn borer infestations.

To that end, Brewbaker carefully created hybrid variations of corn that resist pests and diseases, such as maize mosaic virus, to allow growers in developing countries to cultivate corn with simple farming methods. Rather than using sophisticated laboratory genetic engineering, Brewbaker has long relied on the time-worn method of natural crossbreeding, which occurs when different varieties of corn are grown next to each other. “Every plant in my field is genetically engineered by me in a way that a high-school student could do,” Brewbaker says.

Though most of his work has been in corn, Brewbaker also has compiled the largest seed collection of Hawaiian koa trees in the world. His research in fast-growing trees has created varieties of hardwoods widely used for cultivation in Australia and the Philippines.

Through the years, Brewbaker has published 250 articles, as well as five books. He has also won numerous awards, including the prestigious International Inventors Award, presented to him in 1986 by King Carl Gustav of Sweden. His legacy will live on indefinitely through a network of graduate students found working in dozens of countries around the globe in Mexico, Nigeria, Thailand and Korea.

Brewbaker wangles sabbaticals to go and work with his former students whenever possible and has lived in Australia, Mexico and Asia, among other places. But his heart lies in the Islands, where this man has carved out an outsized Hawaii role for a crop that the world needs and Islanders crave.

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Alex Salkever