Why you should care

Sunflowers are more than photo ops — they’re vital for pollination and saving the honeybees.

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Her shoes caked in mud, Febina Mathew pulls and pushes her way through a forest of sunflowers: thick, vibrant and sticky with sap. The sight of such sunny fields isn’t so uncommon in South Dakota, which contends each year with that other Dakota for sunflower capital of America, and whose counties are some of the biggest sunflower producers in the country. No, here in this Great Plains state, it’s Mathew who sticks out like a sore thumb: She’s the daughter of Indian immigrants, born and raised in Dubai, who arrived in the Dakotas in the dead of winter. “I couldn’t see where the plane was landing,” the 30-something says, recalling her first sight of snow.

Nearly a decade later, Mathew is still here, having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biotechnology and plant pathology, respectively, from North Dakota State University in Fargo — before heading south to tiny Brookings, population circa 23,895. Now a professor and researcher at South Dakota State, this transplant has been charged with a momentous task: saving the sunflowers from a cancer-like disease called Phomopsis that weakens the stems, collapses the plants and can decimate half, or more, of a season’s crop. “When they get the disease and it’s bad, it can wipe out the whole crop,” says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. “Finding varieties that are resistant is very important. Her research, using DNA technology, is an immense help to farmers as she narrows down the choices,” says Rick Vallery, executive director of the South Dakota Oilseeds Council.

Mathew’s mission comes at a time when sunflowers have never been more important. Their radiant heads are nectar and pollen bonanzas for many species reliant on pollination, including bumblebees, which were named endangered for the first time earlier this year. (If the honey-makers go extinct, you should worry: Roughly one-third of everything you eat gets an assist from bees, say experts from the National Resources Defense Council.) Although the sunflower industry is biggest in Russia and Ukraine, the plant is actually indigenous to North America. And while the U.S. sunflower economy is small — around $470 million in 2016 — its proponents say it could experience significant growth. Sunflower oil is being embraced as a health-conscious alternative to other cooking oils, and there’s increasing demand for the plant’s high-fiber seeds as snacks and livestock feed. “Especially as people are trying to reduce their saturated or trans fats, sunflowers are an oil that gives alternatives to food manufacturers,” argues Sandbakken.

When you have a calamity like a disease, all the hard work from the season comes to a complete stop.

Febina Mathew

Research under Mathew has already led to the discovery that two pathogens — Phomopsis helianthi and Phomopsis gulyae — are at the heart of the disease that started plaguing North American farmers around 2010. That work involved not just “microscoping, but a lot of DNA sequencing,” Mathew says. “It would be comparable to the FBI doing fingerprinting — they pick up the fingerprints, then use molecule technology to narrow down the criminal who committed the crime.” No fungicide treatment is available to treat the disease yet, although a similar European outbreak in the 1990s might provide answers, Mathew says. And she’s working with a USDA sunflower breeder in Fargo to start creating a Phomopsis-resistant specimen.

But the process could take a decade, and researchers like Mathew know that finding a full fix for a single disease can consume an entire career. “It’s not an easy game. It’s a gamble,” she says. And because the American sunflower industry is small — 1.5 to 2 million acres, compared to 77.5 million acres for soybeans, for example — “we don’t have multimillion-dollar budgets to work on this,” Sandbakken says. Another possible complication? “Today, we recognize two pathogens,” he notes, “but tomorrow there may be 10 pathogens. Then what do we do?”

Preserving the sunflowers, for Mathew, is more than economical; it’s philosophical. “We are dealing with a crop that was so dear to the United States at one point,” she says, noting that the native sunflower, unlike soybeans and other mass-produced crops, is essential to North American culture. And her work has been a cultural exchange: While most of the farmers she interacts with are as American as apple pie, her doctoral students are Bengali, and others Nepalese, all drawn to the Dakotas for their renowned biotech and agricultural programs.

In the end, Mathew’s work is a reminder that human needs extend beyond cultural barriers. She spends hours driving the backroad expanses of South Dakota, helping farmers, often for free, with short-term fixes (diagnosing diseases and sharing best practices for rooting out contaminated rows to save other crops) and long-term solutions (suggesting three-to-four-year gaps before reseeding, for example). Their plight strikes home: Despite growing up in cosmopolitan Dubai, her roots are in Kerala, a South Indian state where her father, grandfather and forefathers have grown rubber trees and tapioca, among other crops. “I know what it means to plant and wait for the crop to grow, and hoping it will be successful. But when you have a calamity like a disease, all the hard work from the season comes to a complete stop. I want to solve farmers’ problems — because that’s my job.”

* Correction: The original version misstated the population figures for Brookings.

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