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Release: New Report Finds Farmers Harmed by Decline in Nation’s Public Seed Supply

October 31, 2014

New Report Finds Farmers Harmed by Decline in Nation’s Public Seed Supply

Contact: Juli Obudzinski, (202) 547-5754, jobudzinski@sustainableagriculture.net

October 31, 2014, Washington, DC — A much-anticipated analysis of the state of our country’s plant and animal breeding infrastructure and seed supply was released today, marking the first such analysis in over ten years.  The proceedings from the Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture were published today by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a farmer-based non-profit organization based in Pittsboro, NC and member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

In the proceedings, RAFI and other key stakeholders within the agricultural research community express their increased concerns about farmers’ limited access to seed, the narrowing of our country’s agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity, consolidation within the seed industry, the decline in public cultivar development, and how these trends are impacting farmers’ abilities to confront the unprecedented challenges of climate change and global food security.

“Everything starts with seeds, and the continued growth of sustainable and organic agriculture and local, healthy food systems across the country – along with farmers’ ability to meet the challenges of climate change and food security – depends on this critical first building block,” says Juli Obudzinski, Senior Policy Specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

“Over the past 25 years, there has been a steady decline in investment in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation’s land grant university system and USDA research facilities,” Obudzinski continues.  “This slow atrophy of public funding to support improved plant varieties means that farmers have been left with fewer and fewer seed choices over the years and are ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs.  For example, farmers in many regions of the country currently rely on seeds that were bred for other regions of the country or that no longer meet changing climatic growing conditions and pest and disease pressures.  Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage.”

Key findings from the proceedings include:

  • Shrinking Public Funding For Developing Better Seeds – Public funding for breeding research has shrunk, resulting in significantly fewer breeding programs and fewer actual plant and animal breeders developing publicly available varieties.  Over the past 20 years, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs.
  • Fewer Seeds Means Less Biodiversity And Resiliency – As fewer crop varieties are developed and offered by commercial seed companies, farmers have been left with fewer seed choices and farms across the country have become less diverse, making our country’s farm sector increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable climatic conditions.
  • Concentrated Seed Ownership Limits Farmer And Consumer Choice – Consolidation in the seed industry has negatively impacted the development of new varieties, limited farmer choice, and decreased the genetic diversity of our global seed supply.  Three firms now control over more than half of the global seed market, up from 22 percent in 1996.
  • Restrictive Patents Prevent Seed Sharing And Strip Farmers Of Control – Private seed companies and universities use utility patents and licensing agreements that restrict the use of the seeds they develop, resulting in a decline of farmer and researcher access to developing and improving new varieties.
  • Almost No Public Seed Developers Are Left – The number of public breeders continues to decline, but they are vitally needed to train and support the next generation of breeders tasked with addressing future agricultural challenges.  For example, there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s.
  • Few Regional Partnerships – There is a need for new and innovative partnerships to address more regionalized and farmer-driven approaches to developing new varieties that meet the needs of farmers in responding to growing markets and challenges.
  • Aging Seed Storage Systems Mean The Loss Of Public Seed ‘Brain Trust’ Forever – Our country’s germplasm banks – where seeds are stored in the public trust – have been critically underfunded and under-staffed for decades, forcing a triage decision-making approach as to which seeds will be saved and which will be lost forever.

In response to these mounting challenges, the proceedings put forth the following key recommendations for action:

  • Develop a comprehensive national plan to restore funding and institutional capacity and support for public breeding programs at our nation’s land grant institutions;
  • Address the vulnerability of our agricultural systems by encouraging and rewarding agro-biodiversity on farms and in our commercial seed choices, in order to increase resilience against shifting and unpredictable climatic conditions and ensure farmers can choose well-adapted seeds;
  • Empower farmers to save and share their seeds, encourage the development of more independent regional seed companies who can help farmers respond to local and regional market demand and climate conditions, and address the negative impacts of consolidation and concentration in the ownership of seeds, including the enforcement of antitrust laws;
  • Increase farmer and researcher access to and innovation in the development of improved varieties, and take steps to reverse the negative impacts of utility patents and restrictive licenses;
  • Increase the number of public breeders in each U.S. climatic region with a focus on renewed institutional capacity to support the next generation of public plant breeders;
  • Develop new partnerships and models to address more regionalized and participatory approaches that more deeply involve farmers in the breeding process; and
  • Strengthen our country’s seed storage systems (public germplasm collection and storage) by revitalizing long-term funding to protect this critical ‘brain trust’ of seeds and increasing germplasm access and sharing at both the national and international level.

The proceedings released today capture the discussion from a two-day summit held in Washington, DC in March 2014.  The summit brought together over 35 breeders, researchers, farmers, academics, and representatives of germplasm banks and non-profit organizations to discuss the state of our nation’s seed supply and develop recommendations for reinvigorating public breeding research and increasing seed availability in the country.

“The challenges we face in our U.S. and global food systems urgently require us to shift our focus toward building greater resilience into our agricultural systems,” says Michael Sligh, the Just Foods Program Director with the Rural Advancement Foundation International.  “Our current systems are too genetically uniform and have far too short cropping rotations – thus leaving our agricultural systems very vulnerable.”

The proceedings include 8 scientific papers authored by well-known breeders and researchers in the field, including Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder with the University of Wisconsin; Major Goodman, a corn breeder with North Carolina State University; Michael Mazourek, a vegetable breeder with Cornell University; David Ellis, the head of the Genebank Unit at the International Potato Center in Peru; and Charles Brummer, the Senior Vice President Director of Forage Improvement at the Noble Foundation.

The former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, also presented a paper discussing the unique opportunities for galvanizing public and political support for this issue.

NSAC and RAFI are both members of the Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture Coalition, a collaborative that advocates for increased support for public sector plant and animal breeding research, which has slowly atrophied over the past 25 years.

Further commentary is available on NSAC’s blog; the full report and executive summary can be downloaded for free on RAFI’s website.

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