June 20, 2017
When it comes to agriculture, variety is much more than just the “spice of life,” it’s one of the keys to a successful and sustainable farm operation. Though consumers are generally aware of a few different types of farming (e.g., organic, conventional, integrated pest management), the reality is that each farm is unique and each needs access to a variety of seed options to ensure they have the best building blocks with which to grow their crops and their businesses. In order to help farmers and researchers develop these customized and locally adaptable seed stocks, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awards research and plant breeding grants to promising projects around the country each year.
On May 25, 2017 NIFA announced that it would award a total of $17.7 million through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program in fiscal year (FY) 2016 for 54 projects focusing on plant research and seed breeding.
Among the $17.7 million total, NIFA has awarded approximately $5.1 million for 18 new plant-breeding projects under the Plant Health and Production and Plant Products (PHPPP) “focus area.” Projects of note within this focus area include the following:
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is pleased that funding for this critical research area has increased by nearly $1 million over last year’s total award of $4.3 million; however much more support is still needed to close the gap between available grant funds and need for innovative research projects. Applying for federal grants is not an easy process, and many public plant breeders and researchers apply to programs like AFRI year after year – spending valuable time and financial resources – only to be turned down due to lack of program funds or to receive awards with multi-year delays before funding is released.
Going forward, NIFA should seek to expand this meaningful research as on-farm challenges increase. Public and private institutions across the country are working to address the changing needs of farmers (particularly in light of the serious challenges climate change presents to our nation’s growers); however, current funding levels are not sufficient to develop the new tools and resources that our food system requires.
The Future of Plant Breeding
Over the past 20 years, federal investment in public plant breeding and cultivar development has steadily declined. A recent study published by the Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies notes that this decline in funding is particularly puzzling when one considers the high return on investment (ROI) that programs such as AFRI provide:
Given the high ROI for public agricultural [research and development (R&D)] in general, and plant breeding specifically, the decline in funding is all the more troublesome when considering the social impact of such investments. Agricultural R&D leads to increased agricultural productivity and/or reduced input costs that have a positive impact on not just the farmer, but also the food industry and the general population. In addition, agricultural innovations often contribute to spillover effects that occur when successful research financed and developed in one geographic region has useful applications in other parts of the country or world. In plant breeding, public funding allows researchers to focus on crop types, geographic locations, and management systems that are not sufficiently profitable to warrant significant investment from private industry.
While large, private breeding and research institutions are an option for growers, it is critical that public programs are also adequately supported in order to give farmers a wide variety of choices when it comes to one of the most critical parts of their businesses – the seed. Public breeding and research institutions also tend to involve farmers more directly in their work, ensuring they are producing projects and products that provide real results that growers need. Many farmers also find that working with private breeding and research entities can be expensive and overly restrictive.
Fortunately, the need to invest in publicly available and regionally adapted seed varieties and plant research has been gaining steam on Capitol Hill. Recently, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on agriculture research needs to discuss the future of public breeding and how best to support our nation’s farmers and breeders/researchers in the years to come.
Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) also recently joined forces to create the bipartisan Congressional Agriculture Research Caucus. According to a release from Representative Panetta’s office, “[t]he Caucus is dedicated to topics related to agriculture research, innovation, and mechanization efforts” and “[a]s Congress prepares for the 2018 Farm Bill, the Caucus will provide a platform for Reps. Panetta and Davis to elevate challenges facing agricultural producers across the country.” NSAC applauded Representatives Davis and Panetta for the establishment of the Caucus shortly after its announcement, and looks forward to working with all present and future members of the Caucus to advance public plant breeding and research going forward.