‘Lots of people said to tell you they wish you were running for president,” I said to Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, when I met with him last month.
Daniels laughed. “When people said that in 2012, I would ask, ‘Is the field that weak?’” He sighed and shrugged. “But this year, I’m not really sure what to say.”
Although he doesn’t want to lead the free world, Daniels is quickly emerging as a leader in the world of academia. In 2012 the former Office of Management and Budget director (whom George W. Bush nicknamed “The Blade”) and two-term Indiana governor became Purdue’s president. He wasted no time in putting his executive skills to work.
Daniels immediately announced a tuition freeze, which is now in its fifth year. The Class of 2016 is the first in Purdue’s recent history to graduate without ever experiencing a tuition hike. New investments in innovations like flipped classrooms (students watch lectures on their own and then meet in the classroom to complete homework and research) have big swaths of the West Lafayette campus under construction. He cut his own salary and tied a portion of it to performance reviews.
Unlike many of his ivory-tower counterparts, Daniels can be seen exercising in the student gym or watching Boilermakers football games from the student section. “He’s not your typical college president,” said one Purdue staffer. And Daniels’s approach is not going unnoticed. Last year, Fortune magazine named the Hoosier one of the world’s top 50 leaders, joining global luminaries like Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Daniels wants to add another title to his uber-impressive résumé: pro-GMO (genetically modified organism) advocate. At a U.S. Department of Agriculture dinner earlier this year, Daniels gave an impassioned plea for folks to drop the niceties and fight back against those who want to demonize and even ban this crucial farming technology:
We are used to and only comfortable with polite and civil [dialogue] . . . [but] we are dealing here, yes, with the most blatant anti-science of the age. It is inhumane and it must be countered on that basis. Those who would deny with zero scientific validity the fruits of modern agricultural research to starving or undernourished people — or those who will be, absent great progress — need to be addressed for what they are, which is callous, which is heartless, which is cruel.
Daniels was referring to a coalition of GMO foes — including U.S. organic companies and environmental groups — that are stoking worldwide fear about genetically engineered crops. From demanding warning labels on food to ripping up GMO test crops in developing nations, by opposing these crops that can help millions of malnourished children and subsistence farmers, these activists are undermining food security for a world population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050.
By opposing crops that can help millions of malnourished children and subsistence farmers, activists are undermining food security for a world population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050.
Thanks to the magic of modern genetic engineering and precision crop breeding, promising advances are being made on crops that can withstand drought and flooding, resist lethal crop diseases, and even boost the nutritional value of food. For example, Purdue plant geneticist Torbert Rocheford has invented a variety of orange-colored corn packed with carotenoids to ameliorate Vitamin A deficiency in poor countries. He proudly grows this corn in a campus greenhouse and it’s already available in a few African nations.
But activists are so blinded by ideology and self-interest that they are essentially dooming millions to suffer and die from hunger. Daniels hit this spot on: “How can you say to the hungry of this earth — how can you say to those who don’t enjoy the luxury that we all do and that the developed world in general does — ‘Sorry about your luck.’ You know this is an indulgence of the rich and it is not just scientifically indefensible, it is morally indefensible.”
It was the swift kick in the overalls that the agriculture community needed and deserved. GMO advocates have been mostly unwilling to enter the fray with anti-GMO activists. Daniels thinks it’s time to go on the offensive. “When you hold so many moral high cards on something that’s best for the environment and for humanity, you have to be willing to mix it up,” he told me. “People with a direct self-interest are actively misinforming the public. We need to counter that in a more forceful way.”
He isn’t afraid to mix it up himself. When the CEO of a major food corporation approached him about sitting on its board of directors, Daniels confronted him about the company’s recent decision to eliminate some GMO ingredients. “I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea. He became very defensive about it and the conversation didn’t go well after that. And I never heard back from him.”
Daniels has more big plans for Purdue. The school — already the top biological/agricultural college in the country — is investing $20 million in plant-science research and aims to be a global leader in that discipline. This summer, the school will open the Indiana Corn and Soybean Innovation Center, a 25,000-square-foot facility with a 1,000-acre field to test the genetics of thousands of plant varieties. It will allow researchers and students from across several disciplines to collect data on crop breeding (it will even use drones).
For Daniels, improving global agriculture is a humanitarian mission. “This isn’t about making money. This is about millions of people, and life or death.” At a time when the pro-GMO movement lacks a strong voice and leadership, Daniels may have found his most important role yet.
— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer in Orland Park, Ill., and a contributing author to the Genetic Literacy Project.