Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee
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Nation’s Plant Breeders Take a Stand
(news release from the meeting in Raleigh, February 7 to 9, 2007)
United States plant breeders are joining forces to address an alarming decline in interest and funding for plant breeding. Nearly 160 plant breeders from the public sector (universities, experiment stations, and the USDA), from the private sector (seed companies, agricultural commodity associations, and NGOs), and international representatives met in early February in North Carolina to explore ways to restore the vitality of this critical component of the nation’s science, technology and business.
The numbers of plant breeders, particularly at public universities have decreased substantially over the last 20 years, said Ann Marie Thro of CSREES, USDA. Surveys in 1996 and 2005 show that breeding of some important specialty crops, e.g., vegetable and fruit crops, has been reduced dramatically. Additionally, as public breeding efforts on all crops have declined, so too has the ability of university programs to educate and train future breeders. There is strong demand in the private sector for plant breeders with advanced degrees and for support scientists at all educational levels with training and experience in breeding-related activities, e.g., field and laboratory scientists, noted Fred Bliss of Seminis Vegetable Seeds. With large numbers of breeders nearing retirement in the next decade, the supply of new breeders is not likely to meet demand in the private sector where two-thirds of the U.S. breeders are employed.
At the three-day workshop in North Carolina, breeders formed a national coordinating committee that will work with U.S. Department of Agriculture programs to strengthen the nation’s plant breeding capacity by encouraging improvements in infrastructure and education. The committee, chaired by Dr. Stephen Baenziger, a plant breeder at the University of Nebraska, will also raise awareness about the contributions of plant breeding to science and technology and stress the value of new plant varieties developed by breeders to economic and rural development, environmental stewardship, human and animal health, and emerging opportunities in bio-fuels.
While establishing a coordinating committee representative of a cross-section of U.S. breeders was a primary goal of the meeting, most of the workshop was devoted to discussing the critical role of plant breeding in the nation’s future. Leading experts presented talks on the contributions of plant breeding to the strategic goals established by USDA for American agriculture and rural communities.
Plant breeders play a critical role in using science and technology to develop, test and deliver new plant varieties to the world’s farmers and producers of all plant-based products. Concomitant with the rapid advances in molecular genetics and manipulation of plants at the molecular level through genetic transformation, classical breeding programs and professional breeders are needed more than ever to assure full integration of emerging technology with effective development and distribution of new products.
While staffing to capture funding opportunities in molecular biology has increased at public universities, support for plant breeding in the public sector has dwindled. Ability to address future societal needs will depend on using all scientific resources wisely. The expression of many critically important plant traits, such as crop yield, is a complex interaction between the genetic make-up of the plant and the environment of the production sites. The improvement of these traits rests not only on manipulation of individual genes but also on use of classic hybridization, selection and testing to determine whether the new progenies contain the desired combination of traits from their parents.
Plant breeders point to comparisons in long-term studies that show most U.S. crops have seen steady, dramatic yield increases over the last 75 years that are due in a large part to genetic improvement from selection and development by plant breeders. When combined with better production practices, these improvements have resulted in reductions in pesticide use, more efficient use of water and nutrients, and higher profitability. The development of new crop varieties has, in other words, made farmers more productive and profitable while also lowering food costs.
The meeting was held in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and was hosted by faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University in nearby Raleigh. The meeting was co-organized by Dr. Ann Marie Thro of the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a team from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, NC State University, and other plant breeding organizations. Thro is National Program Leader for Plant Breeding and Genetics with the Plant and Animal Systems Unit of the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.
More information about this meeting and plant breeding in general can be found on the Global Plant Breeding Website: http://cuke.hort.ncsu.edu/gpb/index.html
Dr. Stephen Baenziger, Professor, University of Nebraska, 402.472.1538 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Philipp Simon, Professor, USDA-ARS, University of Wisconsin, 608.262.1248 or email@example.com.
Dr. Todd Wehner, Professor, N.C. State University, 919.515.5363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Ann Marie Thro, National Program Leader for Plant Breeding and Genetics, Plant and Animal Systems Unit, Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES), U.S. Department of Agriculture, 202.401.6702 or email@example.com