Ronnie Coffman: Legendary plant breeder returning to his roots

By Joan Conrow

August 16, 2022

Can a person achieve as much in retirement as in a 50-year career?

Ronnie Coffman, the world-renowned plant breeder who today officially became professor emeritus at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, aims to find out.

But it’s not ambition or ego that drives him. Rather, it’s his ongoing commitment to ending world hunger and a sincere desire to support other researchers racing to help crops adapt to the ravages of climate change.

“Working over his long and distinguished career with Norman Borlaug and later at IRRI and Cornell, Ronnie Coffman has probably done more to promote food security for a growing population than almost anyone alive today,” said British author Mark Lynas. “I suspect that for Ronnie, ’emeritus’ is not just a euphemism for ‘retirement’, which is good news for everyone.”

We caught up with Coffman by phone as he sat in the Delta Sky Club lounge at JFK International. As usual, he was on the move, this time awaiting a flight to Stockholm, where he’ll begin a vacation cruise in Scandinavia with his wife before heading off to Beirut. Then it’s on to Nigeria for the annual NextGen Cassava stakeholders’ meeting.

“I have emeritus status, so I want to stay not too busy with the things I’m interested in,” he said when asked what’s next.

Though that list of interests is long, Coffman has his priorities defined, including “more personal time.” He has three grandchildren, and another on the way, and enjoys spending time with them. Scientific collaboration will also remain in the forefront.

Returning to his roots

“I want to return to my roots in plant breeding and help out however I can,” Coffman said. “I have a lot of friends and colleagues around the world, and I want to do what I can to help them, particularly in Africa, where there’s a real future major need for enhancing plant breeding.”

“Ronnie is a global force against hunger,” Eric Danquah, director of the West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) and professor of plant genetics at the University of Ghana, told Cornell CALS News. “Especially in Africa, his work has dramatically changed what is possible.”

Coffman has a long history of working in Africa, particularly with WACCI, which he co-founded to improve the region’s agricultural productivity and train the continent’s next generation of plant breeders and seed scientists.

“I’ve done a lot with WACCI, but climate change appeals for a lot more,” Coffman said. “That’s the main way you can adapt to changes that are already at work. The fix is in, as they say. The crops need to be adapted to that reality.”

He’ll also be facilitating a transition at NextGen Cassava, where he serves as principal investigator. The Nigeria-based initiative is an international collaboration that is developing improved cassava varieties for smallholder farmers and helping African students obtain advanced degrees in plant breeding.

Cornell researchers Maricelis Acevedo and Ronnie Coffman inspect wheat field. Photo: BGRI

Coffman wants to remain connected to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), which he helped organize two decades ago to fight rust, a devastating fungal pathogen that was endangering the world food crop. Coffman served as PI on two projects that attracted more than $100 million in funding and introduced rust-resistant varieties to India. The international collaboration also supports training for young scientists, farmer engagement and knowledge-sharing.

“I would like to see that sustained so we don’t get into a crisis situation again,” said Coffman. He was Borlaug’s only doctoral student, back in 1969 in Mexico, and was with him in the field when the legendary plant scientist learned he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another priority, which Coffman described as “a moonshot” and “more sentimental than practical,” is renewing Cornell’s relationship with the plant breeding community in the Philippines.

“Cornell has a long history there going back to 1962 with the Los Banos project that lasted 20 years,” said Coffman. He himself enjoyed a stint at the  International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños in the 1970s, applying Borlaug’s wheat strategies to rice that was cultivated widely throughout the world.

Positive impacts

Though Coffman, who became a Cornell faculty member in 1981, tends to emphasize the research, those who know him also talk about the man.

“He’s impacted so many people’s careers positively,” said Sarah Evanega, a plant scientist who worked closely with Coffman at BGRI before founding the Alliance for Science. She now works at Pairwise. “His humility is such that he is always willing to open a door for someone else before he walks through. Under Ronnie, plant breeding [at Cornell] came to gender parity. He’s not gender blind. He actively tries to create a more diverse group of collaborators.”

Coffman supported the core advocacy tenets of the Alliance, helped her navigate the institutional landscape and even served as interim director when she left the position last January, Evanega said. Unlike many scientists, he’s also a big proponent of communication, recognizing its role in getting research out to the intended beneficiaries, she noted.

“I’ve only known Prof. Ronnie Coffman for a short time, but my spirit immediately recognized the depth of compassion and visionary insight described by Wendell Berry in his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” said Sheila Ochugboju, executive director of the Alliance for Science. “I am privileged and humbled to have glimpsed the kindness and wit of this great man.”

Unlike Berry, who hand-writes his manuscripts for his wife to type up, Coffman has always been forward-leaning in technology, including its application to plant breeding. He helped bring crop biotechnology to Cornell, starting with BGRI, which proposed to find out why rice is the only cereal crop that is not susceptible to rust and transfer that genetic trait to wheat.

“He’s future-thinking, ahead of the curve,” Evanega said. “He’s typically the most tech-savvy person in the room.”

And given his wit, congeniality and down-to-earth nature, Coffman is also one of the most popular.

“If you brought together all the people who would like to celebrate Ronnie’s career, it would be such a diverse group,” Evanega said. “It would include people of all ages, all over the world, working across the full spectrum of agriculture.”