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the foundation
of civilization

Plant breeding:
the foundation
of agriculture

Global Plant Breeding

Informal Discussion: the Future of Plant Breeding (DRAFT)

Held at the ASHS / ISHS meetings, Toronto, Canada, Aug 13, 2002, 10-12 am

Raporteur: Ann Marie Thro, USDA,CSREES
Discussion leader: Michael Havey, USDA, ARS/Univ.Wisconsin

The meeting was an informal opportunity to share concerns and to brainstorm about possible actions to contribute to a strong future for public plant breeding. About 40 persons attended, mostly U.S. plant breeders with a sprinkling of international guests. This was a remarkable number, given several overlapping activities scheduled for that morning, suggesting that the topic is on the minds of many. A particularly important paper session was starting at 11, which motivated the group to get right to work.

    Discussion was lively. These notes are offered as a draft. Anyone noting errors or omissions, please comment to the list. Also welcome are any ideas that were thought of after the discussion.

The main action conclusion was to consider setting up an interactive plant breeding contact web site, as an alternative to an additional professional association, which would be too costly in funds and time. Needed are a host site and a webmaster. When I (AMT) get back from a short-term fellowship this fall, I will be glad to start looking into how these needs could be met (though not volunteering to be the webmaster! ). Any ideas or volunteers are welcome in the meantime.

Mike Havey opened the discussion with the classic formula, P=GxE (phenotype is the product of genotype and environment). Plant breeders in the 20th century worked mainly with phenotypes and environments. They developed methods for estimating heritable components of phenotype and made great progress. With the availability of new genomics techniques, students in the first years of the 21 century are mostly interested in genotype. Yet skills in working with phenotypes in environments will still be needed.

There is a “brain drain” from plant breeding per se to genomics and other sciences having more funding. How can gifted individuals be attracted to training in plant breeding?

  • Comments during the discussion:
    • Plant breeding will continue to be important because “quick fixes” don’t work in practice (the example of Flav’r Sav’r tomatoes, useful gene but wrong tomatoes)
    • There is a danger that all forms of genetic improvement will get “lost in the biotechnology controversy”
    • Ally with grower groups to create a strong state political voice (AMT comment: this can be highly effective, e.g. the rice growers of Arkansas have just funded an endowed chair of rice breeding. However, it would be insufficient as a sole strategy, since many crops from which public benefit could be derived, do not have large or wealthy grower associations)
    • Use “the net” (the electronic internet) to come together for discussions as a single group Plant breeders are split into agronomy and horticulture breeders. This makes it hard for us to speak with one voice. Few would have the resources to devote to an additional professional association, despite the need for some form of organization serving all plant breeding. Consequently we must look for other solutions, such as the web, to stay in touch as a profession.
    • Reinvent ourselves. Public perception is important. If “plant breeding” sounds old fashioned to the public, is it time for a new name? (what? Someone suggested “the basis of Civilization”-- well, that’s true, and powerful, but a bit awkward as a name for a discipline!). Some groups such as the National Science Foundation have been very successful in using name changes to create new interest, even when the activity stayed much the same. (Added by AMT after attending a Sept 4 briefing on the National Research Council report “The National Plant Genome Initiative: Objectives for 2003-2008” –even some of the genomics researchers are thinking it’s time to rename themselves! The pace of change accelerates . . . )
    • Tell people why they should care about plant breeding: Why plant breeding is essential for economic growth, national security. environmental preservation. genetic diversity, rural economics.
    • Comment during the discussion: “People wouldn’t have jobs sitting in air-conditioning and typing away at their computers, if it were not for plant breeding”.
    • There is a need to tell our story. We should document the contributions of plant breeding (and also document public-private collaboration in those contributions)
  • The discussion concluded with a request for proposed solutions or components
    of a solution. Proposed were:
    • More funding e.g. universities work with federal funding agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to link agencies Ag research budget requests to the President’s priorities e.g. national security
    • Especially, more funding is needed to integrate basic and applied plant genetics/plant breeding research
    • More awareness of plant breeding and (inseparable) of public agricultural
      research in general
    • Public ownership of decisions about plant breeding objectives
    • Balance between public and private roles
    • Recruit, not only in college, but at the high school level Advertising figures in several of these suggestions. How should/could plant breeding advertise? This is something outside our expertise!
  • As a point of information, it was noted that the FAO plant breeding newsletter is being reactivated this fall. As an FAO project, its primary purpose is to provide information andcontacts to plant breeders in developing countries. Although not a substitute for a U. S. (or North American) plant breeders’ contact point, this newsletter is a welcome mechanism for communication and cohesion among plant breeders in general.
    • The editor’s email is All are invited, even exhorted, to submit contributions.
  • Many thanks to ASHS and Mike Neff , ASHS Exec. Director, for the time slot and the room.
  • These notes are being e-mailed to all who attended the session. Please share with colleagues or with anyone I’ve inadvertently omitted.
  • Submitted 6 Sept 02
    • by: Ann Marie Thro
    • National Program Leader, Plant Genetics
    • USDA/CSREES/Plant & Animal Systems
    • Tel 1 202 401-6702, Fax 1 202 401 4888
    • Waterfront Centre, Rm 3443
    • 800 9th St., S.W., Washington, DC 20024 US


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Page citation: Wehner, T.C. Global Plant Breeding, 30 March 2005;
design by C.T. Glenn; send questions to T.C. Wehner; last revised on 30 September, 2009