Weizmann professor finds merit in papal document on climate change

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Professor Emeritus Jonathan Gressel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, said during a visit to St. Louis last week that he sees merit in the recently released papal encyclical by Pope Francis, which said man-made climate change is a major issue that must be addressed worldwide.

Gressel, a native of Cleveland who was born in 1936, earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1962. He immigrated to Israel in 1950 and joined what is now the Department of Plant and Environmental Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

He is an editor of the journal Plant Science and associate editor of several other plant science journals. He was president of the International Weed Society and has taught transgenic biosafety through the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

The Jewish Light caught up with Gressel at the Frontenac Hilton St. Louis hotel where he was interviewed as part of an effort to revive the St. Louis Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, which was active here in the 1970s.

Your visit to St. Louis is unusually timely, with Pope Francis having just released his papal encyclical on climate change. Have you had a chance to review this document, and do you support its basic findings and conclusions?

I’ve read aspects and parts of it, some of which relate to the kinds of things that I’m interested in. He says a couple of things. First of all, that there will be more global warming. In addition, and of importance, he says that we must address how to reduce greenhouse gasses produced by human beings and their domesticated animals.

Supporters of the belief that human-caused greenhouse gasses are the main cause of adverse climate change insist that most American scientists think this is true. Is there a similar consensus among Israeli scientists?

Let’s put it this way. Warming has increased in the period since I went to high school. The Industrial Revolution added to the problem, and it continues to grow to this day. There is some disagreement on the exact extent of the increase, but there is no significant disagreement among Israeli scientists that it is occurring.

Has the Weizmann Institute of Science worked with Monsanto and the Danforth Plant Center over the years?

Yes, I have made several previous visits to St. Louis starting in 1962 and have had many discussions with the people at Monsanto and the Danforth Plant Center, both of which are doing significant work in areas in which I am interested and involved.

What about Israel’s relationship with the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden?

During the long service of retired Missouri Botanical Garden director Peter Raven, I had many occasions to meet with him and remain in close contact on issues of plant science and cooperative efforts. I am sure that the close relationship is continuing under Peter Raven’s successor.

How can the agricultural and plant science breakthroughs developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science help push back against drought, crop failures and the resulting famines such disruptions may cause?

My research and that of my colleagues at Weizmann have included the prevention of herbicide resistance in weeds, genetic engineering and crops. We have worked on root-attacking weeds, especially for developing countries. We have been successful in eliminating and controlling root-attacking parasitic weeds, which has halved the yields of 100 million farmers in Africa. We have found strong receptivity to our efforts in countries like Kenya, Angola and Mozambique. We have also developed crops that can thrive on very small amounts of water. Israel developed drip irrigation, solar and wind power, from its earlier days since we faced conditions of extreme drought and water shortages. We are pleased to share our findings with other nations.