Tropical Agriculture Expert Donald Plucknett, 75

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007

Donald L. Plucknett, 75, an expert in world food matters who in recent years was the president of his own agricultural research and development firm, died of leukemia Sept. 3 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was a resident of Annandale.

Dr. Plucknett, who had an extensive career in tropical agriculture, worked at the University of Hawaii for 20 years. He continued to gain recognition for his work with the U.S. Agency for International Development and as a senior adviser to the World Bank. He wrote or edited 20 books and more than 200 articles.

He was a contributor to two significant books on the global weed problem: "The World's Worst Weeds" (1977) and "A Geographical Atlas of World Weeds" (1979).

In another of his major works, "Genebanks and the World's Food" (1987), Dr. Plucknett and his co-authors warned that the international decline of genetic diversity produces record harvests but creates crops that are delicate and defenseless against nature's threats.

They said that such events as the 1840s Irish potato famine and the 1980 Cuban boatlift -- which occurred soon after a fungus destroyed 90 percent of the tobacco crop in Cuba and left thousands unemployed -- might have been caused by nations' failures to cultivate enough plant varieties. In the United States, 12 million citrus trees were destroyed in 1985 by citrus canker in Florida, where only a few seed types are grown.

More effort should go into maintaining "gene banks," which preserve a wide variety of seeds, the authors wrote.

In 1985, Dr. Plucknett told the Christian Science Monitor: "The loss of genetic diversity, particularly in crop gene pools, may well be the single most serious environmental problem facing mankind."

He was born in DeWitt, Neb., and served in the Army Field Artillery Corps during the Korean War. He was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu and attained the rank of lieutenant.

He received a bachelor's degree in 1953 and a master's degree in agronomy in 1957, both from the University of Nebraska. He received a PhD in tropical soil science from the University of Hawaii in 1961 and taught agronomy and soil science at the university.

While on loan from the university, he worked in senior assignments with the USAID. He was chief of soil and water management at the Technical Assistance Bureau from 1973 to 1976; deputy executive director of the Board for Food and Agricultural Development in 1978 and 1979; and chief of agriculture and rural development in the Asia Bureau in1979 and 1980.

Dr. Plucknett joined the World Bank in 1980 and until 1983 served as senior science adviser to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which aims to increase food production and reduce poverty in developing countries through scientific research and research-related activities.

He was a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy, Soil Science Society of America, Crop Science Society of America, American Association for the Advancement of Science and Linnean Society of London.

He enjoyed traveling, reading and writing on a wide range of subjects, especially genealogy. He also loved singing, writing and performing music.

In 1989, he published a book of poetry, "The Roof Only Leaked When It Rained," which recalled his days in Nebraska.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Sue Plucknett of Annandale; three children, Karen LesCallett of Fairfax City, Roy Plucknett of Springfield and Tel Aviv, and Duane Plucknett of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two brothers; seven grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

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