Roger Beachy grew up in a traditional Amish family on a small farm in Ohio that produced food “in the old ways,” he says, with few insecticides, herbicides or other agrochemicals. He went on to become a renowned expert in plant viruses and sowed the world’s first genetically modified food crop—a tomato plant with a gene that conferred resistance to the devastating tomato mosaic virus. Beachy sees no irony between his rustic, low-tech boyhood and a career spent developing new types of agricultural technologies. For him, genetic manipulation of food plants is a way of helping preserve the traditions of small farms by reducing the amount of chemicals farmers have to apply to their crops.
In 2009 Beachy took the helm of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a new research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he controls a $1.5-billion budget for pursuing his vision of the future of agriculture. In the past year Beachy’s institute has funded ambitious agricultural research, such as a massive genomic study of 5,000 lines of wheat and barley, alongside unexpected projects: a $15-million behavioral study on childhood obesity in rural states, for one.