Ronnie Coffman, a pathbreaking plant breeder and scientific leader who for five decades has confronted issues of famine and food insecurity in some of the poorest and most remote places in the world, has been elected professor emeritus, effective Aug. 16.
A globally recognized expert on food systems and development, Coffman has dedicated his career to supporting smallholder farmers and empowering marginalized communities. Colleagues describe Coffman as someone whose capacity to bring people together on equal footing forged a new model for plant breeding and agricultural development for the 21st century.
“Ronnie dedicated himself to plant breeding to aid the poorest farmers who have the least resources,” said Susan McCouch, Ph.D. ’90, who was advised by Coffman during her graduate program at Cornell and is now the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS). “As a rice breeder, Ronnie developed improved varieties for farmers without access to irrigation, the ones working in the most challenging environments. He understood the hardships of living and working in those conditions.”
From first-generation student to pioneering researcher
Coffman himself grew up farming under difficult circumstances. Born in rural western Kentucky, Coffman was responsible for much of his family’s farm work from a young age while his father labored as a coal miner. With encouragement from his parents and high school teachers, Coffman attended the University of Kentucky, where, he said, “I found my calling in plant breeding.”
Eager to apply cutting-edge science to improve crops and combat hunger, Coffman entered Cornell’s influential Ph.D. program in plant breeding. As a doctoral student, Coffman went to CIMMYT in Mexico to work with Norman Borlaug, whose contributions to wheat breeding and the Green Revolution would earn him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
Coffman adopted many of the strategies Borlaug pioneered with wheat and applied and expanded upon them for rice. In the 1970s he took a breeding position at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines.
During that time Coffman traveled extensively throughout rural Asia to understand what farmers needed most from their rice plants. Coffman recalled working at one research field in Vietnam and being informed that they were only allowed in the field between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The other hours, the field was used by the Viet Cong, in an arrangement that allowed scientists from both sides of the conflict to continue work to breed improved rice varieties.
Rice germplasm Coffman bred would ultimately be cultivated on millions of hectares throughout the world. A book he co-authored — “Rice Improvement” — is still considered a primary reference for rice breeders. At IRRI he led efforts to reorganize plant breeding activities to bring together scientists from other disciplines, including agronomists, anthropologists, entomologists, geneticists, plant pathologists, plant physiologists and soil chemists.
“Ronnie dedicated himself to plant breeding to aid the poorest farmers who have the least resources." - Susan McCouch
One of Coffman’s most important and enduring contributions in the field of rice breeding, according to McCouch, was his establishment of the International Rice Testing Program. The program allowed rice breeders throughout Asia to collectively trial new varieties in diverse environments, accelerating the selection of top-performers.
“This kind of scientific collaboration is standard now, but it represented an innovation in distributed data collection that was far ahead of its time,” McCouch said. “It is in keeping with Ronnie’s management style. He cheerleads and promotes the people who are doing the hard work, while staying in the background himself. I think that humility is key to having other people buy into these collaborative projects.”
And his impact has been profound. Two years after the Vietnam War, Coffman received a note from a young Vietnamese colleague, Vo-Tong Xuan, who said the brown planthopper was destroying the rice crop in the Mekong Delta. The war-ravaged country had no pesticides to fight back, and Xuan pled for help. Coffman and the rice research institute had developed a variety resistant to the pest, but there was no reliable way to ship the seeds.
Coffman and his technicians prepared 1,000 envelopes containing 10 grams of seed each. For 100 straight days they sent off 10 envelopes per day to Xuan, by all available means — airmail, surface mail, and to various embassies in Manila — without receiving a response.
Three years later, Coffman visited Vietnam to help reestablish scientific ties in the country and asked to meet Xuan.
“As soon as he saw me, he shouted, ‘Ronnie, I got four envelopes!’” Coffman recalled. Xuan had carefully planted and re-transplanted every seed until he had enough to send every student in the university home with one kilogram. He then dismissed classes for the semester and told students to take the seeds home and plant them. In less than a year the rice was spread all over the Mekong Delta. Millions of people were saved from starvation because of those seeds, Xuan told Coffman.
“When you’re driving through a rural area, you see rice field after rice field and you realize how many people – rich and poor – depend on that crop,” Coffman said. “And when the varieties you created spread over those vast areas, and you know how much it contributes to the welfare of people, you really take a lot of pride in it.”
Leading transformational change at Cornell
Coffman joined the Cornell faculty in 1981 in the Department of Plant Breeding, where he helped expand and enhance international activities in research, teaching and extension. After serving as department chair from 1987 to 1991, Coffman took senior leadership roles at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), including associate dean for research for most of the 1990s. During this time, he dramatically grew the size of sponsored programs in the college.
“His innovations brought transformational change to CALS research and led to millions of dollars in extra funding for faculty,” said Dan Decker, professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment.
As associate dean, Coffman helped integrate administrative elements that had long been separate, creating synergies and new ways of thinking about research and extension.
“In the 1990s Ronnie introduced several innovative incentive structures to reward faculty competing for external grants. Many of those are standard today,” said Max Pfeffer, professor emeritus of global development who served as a senior associate dean and the college’s first executive dean.
In 2001, Coffman took on the role of director of International Programs at CALS. In an era when agricultural research investments stagnated, Coffman bucked prevailing trends by inspiring ambitious research programs devoted to improving staple crops and integrating plant breeding, pathology, genomic selection, and gender awareness. These programs were supported by more than $270 million in grant funding to Cornell from public and private donors, and his emphasis on communication and leadership development in Africa and Asia in coordination with global networks of partners helped to reshape the scientific direction for global agricultural research.
In 2020, Coffman took a leadership role in the new Department of Global Development, where he serves as international professor. He served on the executive committee during the department’s inception and as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted operations at Cornell and around the globe. He was also a member of the department’s leadership committee through spring 2022.
"One of the hallmarks of Ronnie's leadership is his unwavering support for the members of his team, and his persistent and very effective advocacy for them and their careers," said Lori Leonard, professor and inaugural chair in the Department of Global Development. "His generosity in that regard is remarkable and has left its mark on and well beyond Global Development."
A global force against hunger
Scientific advancement through coalition-building and empowerment served as a guiding principle throughout Coffman’s career. Working with Norman Borlaug and global partners CIMMYT, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) in the early 2000s, Coffman helped create the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), an international consortium of more than 1,000 scientists working to protect the world's wheat supplies.
The BGRI energized a global push to confront the fungal pathogen known as rust. When a new outbreak first discovered in East Africa in 1998 threatened 80% of the world’s wheat crops, there was “little capacity and very few resources to address the challenge,” said Sarah Evanega M.S. ‘03, Ph.D. ’09.
Coffman and Norman Borlaug quickly began organizing the few remaining international wheat experts around the world and, in 2005, launched the initiative to respond to the crisis. Coffman served as principal investigator for two projects, exceeding $100 million in total funding, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and what is now the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
“International wheat science went from just a handful of experts scattered around the globe, many of whom were aging, to a diverse, global community of pathologists, policymakers, economists and breeders, all working together to protect the world’s wheat,” said Evanega, who was hired by Coffman just out of her Ph.D. program at Cornell to manage the BGRI.
The BGRI catalyzed a wheat transformation in India, the geographical center of the largest contiguous wheat growing region in the world. Working closely with KV Raman, research professor of global development, and Kannan “Vijay” Vijayaraghavan of Sathguru, Coffman and Indian partners helped replace vast areas of wheat varieties susceptible to the rust variant with improved varieties. The work was facilitated by Coffman’s long-standing relationships in the country stemming in part from the operation there of the international agriculture and rural development (IARD) 602 course, a flagship CALS course that Coffman has championed since participating as a student in 1969.
Coffman’s leadership helped establish numerous other complex agricultural development projects spanning continents. He serves as principal investigator for the NextGen Cassava project that combines resources and intellectual talent in Africa, Europe, South America and North America to support modern cassava breeding in sub-Saharan Africa. He has also championed plant breeding efforts for various crops, such as banana in Uganda, as well as projects dedicated to gender, communications and biotechnology.
“Ronnie helped to amplify the prominence of plant breeding at Cornell for many years and spread the land-grant mission throughout the world,” said Mike Gore, Ph.D. ’09, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor and chair of the Section of Plant Breeding and Genetics in SIPS, where Coffman also holds a professorship.
Coffman’s desire to support and build capacity among African scientists also led him to help found the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana, a program that educates and trains the next generation of African plant breeders.
“Ronnie is a global force against hunger,” said Eric Danquah, director of WACCI and professor of plant genetics at the University of Ghana. “Especially in Africa, his work has dramatically changed what is possible.”
An inclusive leader, mentor and teacher
Coffman hired and advanced women scientists throughout his career and worked to create supportive systems to address their needs. Through the BGRI, Coffman and Evanega launched the Women in Triticum (WIT) Awards, which identifies promising young women scientists and provides advanced training and opportunities. More than 60 scientists have now received the honor.
When Coffman won the inaugural World Agriculture Prize in 2013, he donated the $50,000 award to Advancing Women in Agriculture through Research and Education, a Cornell initiative that seeks to empower women in support of agricultural development.
“Ronnie has served the global hunger fighting community in so many important ways,” said Barbara Stinson, president of the World Food Prize, who noted his contributions on World Food Prize’s Council of Advisors and chair for the World Food Prize Borlaug Field Award Jury. “We all appreciate his dedication and commitment to ending hunger.”
Coffman’s impact has been felt for decades and will continue for generations, Stinson said. “At heart, Ronnie is a teacher and a mentor with a profound capacity to do good. His is a big heart, and it's one that has dramatically changed the world.”
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