That's "why I get up every morning and come to work and why I sleep well at night. "

The challenges ahead for agriculture, in Nebraska and around the world, are unprecedented, said Baenziger.

He reflected on the last time in human history when the prospect of massive worldwide starvation was staved off by a Green Revolution led by Norman Borlaug and Henry Beachell. Now, 40 years later, with a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2043 — a wealthier population, by the way, that will eat the equivalent of what would feed 12 billion today — agricultural scientists are again racing the clock to help produce enough food.

The Green Revolution's improvements — synthetic fertilizers and a variety of herbicides and pesticides — likely have improved yields all they can, so future progress will depend mostly on genetic improvements by scientists. That will include transgenic crops, resisted by many consumers, and developing new hybrids.

First science

"For the first time, we're beginning to really tease apart our breeding systems so we can be more efficient," Baenziger said.

 He said the world's recognition of the challenge ahead in feeding itself is leading to a new respect for agriculture, which many have been unwilling to see as real science. In fact, Baenziger said, it's humans' "first science," the one that made all future progress possible.

"I think you're going to see some of the very best minds coming to agriculture," he said. 

In fact, Baenziger added, Socrates' words from some 2,500 years ago have never been truer: "No one can be a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat."

"We can never be complacent. We always have to be prepared for what the future brings," he said.

Baenziger considers himself an optimist, but even he said he's not certain the challenges ahead can be met. "We're asking agriculture to perform at a level that we've never seen before. "

But, he added, "failure cannot be an option, unless you're willing to accept starvation," Baenziger said.