September 22, 2015
On September 21, one of the leading plant breeding experts in the country came to Washington, D.C. to discuss the importance of public funding for plant breeding research during two Congressional briefings for Senate and House staff.
Dr. William (Bill) Tracy is a professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he leads the largest public sector sweet corn breeding program in the world.
This week’s seminars were sponsored by the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (National C-FAR) and moderated by Juli Obudzinski, a senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Addressing a packed room of congressional staff, Tracy noted in his presentation that he has observed a severe downsizing in plant breeding programs housed within our country’s land grant universities over the past several decades. Based on a survey he completed last year, the number of researchers that focus on plant breeding at public universities has fallen more than 30 percent in the last 20 years, with estimates that public breeding capacity has diminished by as much as a half over the past 50 years.
As noted by other experts in the plant breeding field, Tracy believes that these public programs are now at risk of extinction, which would have severe implications for the U.S. seed system and the future of our food and farming system in the U.S.
While private seed companies have a distinct role to play in developing new varieties of larger and more profitable crops, support for publicly funded plant breeding programs allows researchers more independence to complete longer term and riskier projects, work directly with underserved local markets and minor crops, increase food security by using exotic germplasm, and respond to emerging threats, he said.
And because it takes anywhere from five to 20 years to develop a new variety of a crop before it’s available in the commercial seed market, Tracy emphasized that continuity is essential for successful plant breeding programs and projects cannot be stopped at the end of a grant cycle if money runs out.
“The power and implications of plant breeding cannot be over-emphasized,” Tracy said. “By predicting the future, we are actually creating the future.”
The loss of public plant breeding programs is largely a consequence of decreasing state support for land grant universities, he said.
When asked what could be done to reverse this trend, Tracy advocated for increasing formula funds to rebuild the capacity of public Land-Grant University breeding programs and increasing the portion of USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) dedicated to plant breeding. He also encouraged farmers to collaborate with public plant breeders through USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which has been spurring farmer-driven research innovations for over 25 years.
To read more about NSAC’s work on Seeds and Breeds, check out this recent report from the Seeds and Breeds Coalition which provides an overview of the state of our country’s plant breeding resources.
The seminar was part of National C-FAR’s Hill Seminar Series, which provides researchers with the opportunity to discuss the value of public investment in food and agricultural research. Information on future seminars can be found here.
Categories: Research, Education & Extension
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This sums up what is wrong with grant research programs (quote from above): “And because it takes anywhere from five to 20 years to develop a new variety of a crop before it’s available in the commercial seed market, Tracy emphasized that continuity is essential for successful plant breeding programs and projects cannot be stopped at the end of a grant cycle if money runs out.” It just does not pertain to plant breeding but a whole host of biological science research: water quality, disease control, insect control, plant community drift in various ecosystems and the implications of this drift, and the like are not 3- or 5-year projects to hire graduate students. Both the states and the federal government are penny-“wise” and dollar foolish about public research, agricultural or otherwise. Agriculture is a huge industry in the US, but we are not willing to spend the money to maintain our competitive advantage in the World.