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Scientists worry about reduced funding for plant breeding

An agronomy/crop science blog addresses concern that public sector funding for plant breeding has been declining for 30 years.

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A blog post from scientists and agronomists expresses concern for the limited amount of money being put into publicly funded plant breeding research. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)

Upper Midwest farmers generally understand the importance of plant breeding programs. Now, information from a blog sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crops Science Society of America reinforces a long and growing concern in agriculture:

U.S. public sector ag investment for plant breeding programs continues to decline, according to the blog written by Kate Evans, a Washington State University professor, and Michael Coe of the Cedar Lakes Research Group .

"The bottom line is that the struggle to maintain adequate funding hampers public breeding programs," the authors wrote.

According to the blog: "Several studies over the past 30 years have looked at the status of breeding programs. Each showed that U.S. plant breeding capacity is at risk. Budgets and personnel availability continue to decline, despite the development of new plant breeding technologies.

"Our most recent survey cited above, in 2018, updated this information. The data indicates a significant reduction in public breeding program personnel over the last five years, and aging program leaders. Many programs report that budget shortfalls and uncertainty endanger or constrain their ability to support key personnel, maintain core infrastructure and operations, and make use of current technology," the blog said.

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Not only is public funding for plant breeding falling, "The current funding model of short-term grants (1-, 2- or sometimes 5-year awards) is particularly challenging for breeding programs which require typically a 7- to 12-year process, or far longer," according to the blog.

The blog notes that many factors, including taste, size, cooking ability, yield, disease resistance and more, potentially affect the crop breeding process. Growing seeds, and then evaluating them for desirability, takes time, with multiple rounds of breeding lasting nine to 13 years needed to reach the desired goals, according to the blog.

Public vs. private funding

The blog also addresses what the authors see as major differences in publicly and privately funded planting breeding research .

"Private breeding programs usually must focus on large multinational commodity markets with a potential to generate large, near-term financial returns on private investment. Given these pressures, private companies may find it difficult or impossible to address smaller national or regional markets or longer-term needs," according to the report.

In contrast, " Public plant breeding programs frequently target such longer-term goals, many of which address food security issues. the blog said. "This requires a lot of research, and significant risk that some efforts won’t pan out. But these trials can create new, superior seedlings which make it possible for public breeding programs and private breeding companies to produce important new crop varieties.

The American Society for Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America describes its members as "researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world."

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