Decline of public breeding (Editorial)
Public plant breeding programs are declining across the United States.
A Washington State University recently surveyed 278 public plant breeding programs around the country.
Public programs are chiefly federal programs, such as those run by the USDA, or based at public research universities.
In the surveys, respondents estimated a 21.4-percent decline in full-time employee time for program leaders over the past five years and an estimated 17.7-percent decline in full-time employee time for technical support personnel.
The study was published in the journal Crop Science.
The Washington State University team — which is led by horticulture professor Kate Evans — also found that retirement looms for a significant number of plant breeding program leaders.
More than a third of the responding programs reported having leaders over the age of 60, and 62 percent are led by people over 50.
Meanwhile in the private sector, large agriculture companies are expanding their research and development of new crop varieties using gene editing technology along with traditional breeding methods.
Bayer announced plans last year to invest more than $27 billion over 10 years in crop development.
In June, Syngenta announced plans for a new Research and Development Innovation and Customer Experience Center on 90 acres in central Illinois.
The company also opened a new $30 million Trait Conversion Accelerator in Nampa, Idaho, last year.
This decline in public breeding is not a new phenomenon.
Past surveys in 2013 and 2005 show a drop in classical breeding programs and public breeders down by 30 and 34 percent, respectively.
But it remains concerning for multiple reasons.
Thriving programs at USDA and Land Grant Universities have a direct impact on food security, maintain a high level of genetic diversity, and are focused on meeting the needs of their local constituency.
“Plant breeding plays a fundamental part of the long-term food security of this country,” Evans said. “The tremendous increases in food production over the past century are largely due to plant breeding, and the world’s population is only increasing. Plant breeding is a long-term, sustainable way to address concerns over having enough food and keeping our food sources secure.”
The focus on food security has received more attention in the last few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved around the world.
However, it could be a double-edged sword.
The pandemic-induced economic recession and federal and state expenditures needed to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 could translate into more cuts to breeding program budgets as policy makers search for ways to right the ship.
The private sector is already making a number of outstanding achievements in technology, employing thousands of talented agronomists and researchers scientists to improve production and conservation of resources.
But we would all lose if public breeding programs, a hallmark of the Land Grant mission, were to disappear.
Their survival is hinging on the support of farmers; using the public cultivars, providing feedback and, perhaps most important, advocating the programs’ importance to administrators and legislators.
Without the consistent drum of support banging in their ear, policy makers will be more likely to nix the funding for such a project that takes a decade or more to yield results.
“We can’t rely on grants because those are often only for a few years,” Evans said. “You can’t do anything in plant breeding in three years, it requires long-term sustained funding to get a program going.”
Through the pandemic, agriculture has been rightfully deemed essential.
If those who are in the industry deem the public breeding programs essential to their business, they must let it be known in the hearing rooms of legislatures and meeting rooms of higher learning that they must be preserved.
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