NSAC's Blog

A Need for More and Better Targeted Plant Breeding Research Grants

February 11, 2016

Photo credit: USDA

Photo credit: USDA

A sustainable, localized, and resilient food system depends on the availability of seeds that are compatible with a variety of unique growing systems and climates. Organic farmers, for example, have different approaches to managing weeds and pests on their farms than traditional producers and therefore require seeds that are bred for their particular type of farming. In order to achieve an adequate supply of diverse seed types, including alternative crops that don’t have large commercial markets but play a very important role in conservation, support for public sector breeders is essential.

Federal research programs like USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) are a key source of potential funding for these vital public plant-breeding and cultivar development programs. Last week, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced the latest round of AFRI funded research projects dedicated to plant breeding related topics.

Too Little Funding, Too Little Focus on Breed Development

In the next year, NIFA will provide nearly $4 million to 11 institutions to conduct research on technologies and methodologies to improve and develop new plant varieties.

While this is a somewhat larger investment than in years past, the sustainable agriculture community remains frustrated by the focus of the AFRI plant-breeding program on research that relies on expensive technology and methodologies. Much of the recently funded AFRI plant-breeding research has done little to develop new plant cultivars or crop varieties that farmers can purchase from their local seed suppliers.

Additionally, the relatively small investment of $4 million represents just over 1 percent of the total annual AFRI budget – $325 million for fiscal year 2015 (FY15).

NSAC and our partners in the Seeds and Breeds Coalition have been urging NIFA to increase its investments in public plant breeding research that actually works for sustainable farmers. Specifically, we have requested that such research lead to new cultivars and varieties that are locally and regionally adapted, meet the needs of farmers in adapting to a changing climate, and work in a diverse range of production systems, including organic and other diversified sustainable systems.

Of the 13 plant breeding awards announced last week, very few, if any, are truly focused on developing new crop varieties. The vast majority of the funding will instead be directed towards research that focuses on developing new methodologies and technologies to improve breeding. While NSAC considers this type of research worthwhile, we believe that priority should be given to projects that explicitly have cultivar and new variety development as primary outcomes.

The ongoing skew of research funding toward methodological and technological proposals calls into question how well the AFRI program is actually serving the needs of existing and next-generation farmers and plant breeders.

More Support Needed for Next Generation of Plant Breeders

The next generation of public plant breeders stands ready to take the reigns from quickly diminishing population of senior public plant breeders. Without adequate funding to support their research, very few young researchers will be able to support a career in public sector plant breeding.

We are also disappointed that this most recent round of awards includes very few early career or female researchers. This year, like previous funding rounds, the vast majority of funding has gone to established researchers, largely male, with backgrounds in molecular biology and genomics.

NSAC will continue to work with USDA and our champions in Congress to redirect critical research funding into public sector breeding programs that support the development of new varieties that better meet the ever-changing needs of farmers. We will also work to ensure that this funding supports the next generation of breeders who want to serve the public good by making sure that all farmers have access to the best seeds possible.

FY15 Plant Breeding Research Grants

FY15 grantees who received funding through AFRI’s Plant Breeding Program for projects focused on cultivar development and conventional, field-based breeding include:

  • University of California, Davis will receive $350,000 to conduct breeding research in an effort to improve alfalfa yields by exploring ways to allow the plant to go dormant during the fall and extend the growing season for the crop. Alfalfa is an  important forage and cover crop that provides high quality animal feed and offers numerous environmental benefits to farming systems – including nitrogen fixation, control of soil erosion, and disruption of pest and weed cycles.
  • University of Hawaii, Honolulu will receive $150,000 to ensure the sustainability of taro root production through marker-assisted breeding for increased resistance to Taro Leaf Blight – a disease that has caused steep declines in taro production in recent years. Taro is an important root crop globally, and was the fifth most-produced root crop in 2013. This research project will employ field-based plant breeders using conventional breeding methods, and will aim to develop markers for disease resistance to improve yields and production for taro.

For a full list of grantees, click here.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Organic, Research, Education & Extension

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