NSAC's Blog

Organic Plant Breeding Research Grant Announced

December 3, 2014

As farmers across the country close down their market stands and prepare their fields for the coming winter, they have very important decisions to make for the coming year – including what crops to plant and what seeds to order for the next growing season.

And just as consumers make important decisions about what type of food and farming systems they want to support each time they go to the grocery store or farmers’ markets, farmers also face important decisions about what seeds they will plant and which varieties will do well on their farms and meet the demands for specific retail markets.

And that’s why farmers and consumers alike should be excited about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent announcement that over $6 million will be awarded this year to support research related to plant health and production – including breeding for organic research that is the first step in developing new and improved varieties that farmers need to be successful and meet the growing demand for sustainable food.

These grants were made possible through the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI) – a large federal research program that awards grants to academic, non-profit, and research institutions on a competitive basis to fund research that addresses critical challenges facing farmers across the country.

In total, 19 grants were awarded for Fiscal Year 2014, accounting for $6.5 million in funding to support research to improve plant health and production. Grants ranged in size from $33,000 to $500,000 and were awarded to institutions in 13 states.

Of those, nine grants totaling $3.6 million were devoted to plant breeding research projects that aim to develop new and improved varieties, including fruits and vegetables (like blueberries, carrots, and tomatoes) and those that perform well under organic production systems.

NSAC and our members are especially excited about the focus on organic breeding research in this year’s awards, including the following research grants:

  • Organic Seed Alliance (Idaho, Oregon, Washington) – This non-profit research organization based out of the Pacific Northwest received a $33,000 grant to organize a regional summit that will seek to identify priorities and opportunities to advance organic plant breeding in the Pacific Northwest. This summit will follow a similar format as the Seeds and Breeds Summit that was held in Washington, DC earlier this year.

“This project will foster regional organic food production by engaging public and private breeders, organic farmers, and organic food industry stakeholders to identify and address gaps in genetics for the Pacific Northwest. We feel engaging stakeholders in the planning process of plant breeding ensures we are truly focusing our public research to address relevant needs. We are pleased to see AFRI support a project that fosters classical breeding for regionally-focused and organic agriculture. We are happy to partner with Washington State University, Oregon State University and the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides to co-host this important symposium.”   — Micaela Colley, Executive Director, Organic Seed Alliance

  • Cornell University (New York) – Plant breeders at this public academic institution will use a $33,000 grant to conduct an organic breeding needs assessment for the Northeast. The project will bring together stakeholders in the region in order to develop a vision for future organic vegetable breeding and discuss what research and outreach will be necessary to support the continued growth of organic vegetable production in the Northeast. The conference will focus on identifying priority traits and production challenges specific to organic farmers in the Northeast, and also discuss gaps in educational outreach of existing research and successful techniques.
  • University of Wisconsin – A research team at this public Land-Grant University was awarded a $500,00 grant to determine the most effective and efficient strategies for breeding vegetable varieties that perform well under organic farming systems. They will compare selection of carrots and snap beans under both organic and conventional systems in two different climates with two different growing conditions (Wisconsin and Oregon).

AFRI was newly reauthorized in the most recent Farm Bill, and includes a specific priority on conventional (or field-based) breeding research, including the type of research that will be funded by the University of Wisconsin breeding project. And while, NSAC is pleased with these three research projects that support breeding for organic production systems, more funding is urgently need to restore our nation’s public breeding programs – as stressed in the recent Seeds and Breeds Summit Proceedings, published earlier this fall.

NSAC will continue to advocate for increased funding for public plant and animal breeding research – specifically research that addresses the needs of farmer growing for local and regional markets or using sustainable or organic farming systems, and also provides farmers with the tools to adapt to a changing climate.

To read our recent post on why seeds matter for organic farmers (and consumers!), check out NSAC’s blog.

Additional resources:

USDA Press Release (Dec. 1, 2014)

List of Summaries of Funded Projects

Categories: Organic, Research, Education & Extension

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