Sylvan Wittwer: Feeding the World’s Hungry

By Giles H. Florence, Jr.

Associate Editor

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    Sylvan Wittwer has taken personally the Savior’s invitation to feed the hungry. Emeritus professor and director of agricultural research at Michigan State University, Brother Wittwer has devoted his life to improving food production around the world.

    Influenced greatly by his vocational agriculture teacher, Elmer A. Graff, during high school in his native Hurricane, Utah, Sylvan was convinced early in his life that food production would be a critical matter for the world’s growing population, especially in developing nations. Motivated by an intense desire to find ways to improve food production, Sylvan went on to become a world authority on international agricultural development.

    Dr. Wittwer’s career is distinguished by his forty-five years as a teacher, with awards ranging from those given him by his students to those given by institutions such as the V. I. Lenin All Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the USSR; his fifty-five trips to more than forty countries as a consultant, speaker, or task force member; his book Feeding a Billion: Advancing Frontiers of Chinese Agriculture, co-authored with three Chinese experts (now in Chinese and Japanese translations, and soon to be in Arabic); and his even more recent publication The Greenhouse Effect, in which he takes issue with climatologists, meteorologists, and other environmentalists concerning the environmental influences of the rising levels of atmosphere carbon dioxide. He contends that increases in carbon dioxide will have many beneficial effects.

    At a time in life when most professionals begin to slow down, Brother Wittwer seems to have merely shifted gears. His teaching and advising is no longer in the classroom or the laboratory. It’s in the rice paddies of China, on the mountain slopes of Belize in Central America, or in the wheat fields of India.

    Wherever he goes, Sylvan Wittwer solves problems. He attributes his ability to solve complicated and often worrisome problems to an optimism born of his faith in a Father in Heaven, whom he believes placed us on the earth to work out our salvation and have dominion over the resources he provided. Temporally, that means we can and should find solutions to the inequities in resources and opportunities among the world’s populations, he says. “Just because some parts of the earth have richer minerals, longer growing seasons, better rainfall, or more fertile soils doesn’t mean the rest of the world should suffer,” he explains. “Our task is to use every advance in technology at our disposal to enrich the resources we have and the quality of life for every member of the planet.”

    Sylvan spent five years as an agricultural adviser to the Executive Yuan in the Republic of China (Taiwan). He also made six visits to the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), usually accompanied by his wife, Maurine, researching and studying the agricultural developments there. He believes China’s achievements in agriculture can and should be a model to emerging nations. He points out in Feeding a Billion that as recently as a decade ago, tens of millions of Chinese faced the threat of starvation. In 1980, they imported twelve million tons of grain; now they have become self-supporting. They feed 1.1 billion people, 22 percent of the world’s population, on 7 percent of the earth’s arable land. This, he insists, is a “hallmark of success in food production and agricultural reform.” Since the agricultural system China uses now is one of the oldest, largest, and most primitive systems, he considers this reform one of the most striking examples of development in the world.

    Brother Wittwer’s book explains how this turnabout occurred and outlines principles the rest of the world, including the United States, could find useful. As he points out, the Chinese are committed to a system with a high-labor and low-capital input. The U.S. system is just the opposite. With both nations committed to the common goal of raising the yield per acre, he implies they may have much to learn from each other.

    Himself a pioneer in the research and development of new techniques in agriculture, Dr. Wittwer has advocated the use of plastics as a soil mulch for both water conservation and weed control. He has also reported on the favorable effects of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on food production. As conditions have changed throughout history, he explains, our resource bases have changed. Faced with new challenges, we devise new technologies—like fiber optics, plastics, and lasers.

    Because of this kind of optimism in seeking solutions to global problems, many in his profession have looked to him for encouragement. One of his colleagues recently wrote: “I recall in the 1960s, when there was much pessimism relative to the world’s ability to feed a rapidly expanding population in this century, I heard [Sylvan] predict exactly what we are seeing now—food overproduction on a worldwide scale. He gave many of us a renewed feeling of confidence that our efforts were not being wasted.” (John F. Kelly, Horticultural Reviews, ed. Jules Janick, West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University, 1989, 10:xi.)

    Brother Wittwer takes such praise in stride. He does not see his efforts or his ideas as important in themselves. Nor do they make him important. He believes simply that when we live the gospel, our work can be consecrated for good in the world.

    While he taught at Michigan State University, he and Maurine served in many ways in the Lansing Michigan Stake, where they reared their four children. He served as a bishop, then as the stake president, and later as a patriarch. When he and Sister Wittwer recently spent two years in Belize, advising the government on agricultural development, they both served in the branch and district in every way they could.

    “I was privileged to give a hundred patriarchal blessings while we were there,” he recalls with pleasure. “Maurine transcribed the blessings and served in the district Relief Society presidency. We have left copies of the Book of Mormon in the hands of people we’ve worked with everywhere we’ve been.”

    Sister Wittwer remembers being asked if she could play the piano, since there was usually no accompaniment for hymn singing in the six branches. “I only knew how to play four songs,” she said regretfully, “so we sang four songs; and I gave music lessons, teaching others to play the piano.”

    For Sylvan Wittwer, being an advocate of responsible husbandry of the earth is a matter of valuing the instructions the Lord gave Adam and Eve in the garden about a righteous dominion—to dress it, keep it, and replenish it, that we may feed ourselves and each other both physically and spiritually.

    Photography by Jed Clark