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the foundation
of civilization

Plant breeding:
the foundation
of agriculture

Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee

Subcommittee - Globally Competitive Agricultural System

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This is the report from the subcommittee on a Globally Competitive Agricultural System. It met as part of the Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee in Cary, North Carolina on February 7-9, 2007.

This report was prepared by:

  • Tom Blake
  • Jim McFerson


  • Introduction
    • Subcommittee of the Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee
  • How plant breeding can support this goal: A Globally Competitive Agricultural System

    A vigorous public and private plant breeding sector:
    1. Transforms US scientific resources and knowledge into technologies and products that enable US agriculture to compete in the global economy
    2. Supports international development to meet the global populatoin’s fundamental needs
    3. Enhances environmental stewardship and conserves natural resources locally and globally
    4. Contributes directly to food security, thus promoting  global political stability.

    A vigorous public plant breeding sector will be needed to ensure the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture through the improvement of total factor productivity (TFP), which accounts for all costs, including subsidies.

    Plant breeding is economically creative, acting as a catalyst providing paradigm shifts for creation of new industries and markets

    Economic Impacts
    Plant breeding is economically creative, catalyzing:
          Export trade
          New markets
          Value addition
          Energy independence
          More diversified economy
          Import substitution
    Successful plant breeding programs will not impact local ag economies, but snowball throughout the entire economy. This has especially high impact in the Third World, where such a high proportion of a country’s economy is ag-based. A few genes properly deployed can spur development of a range of related industries, e.g. high-value processed fruits and vegetables.
    Plant breeding can be seen as a catalyst, providing a paradigm shift for creation of new industries.
    Plant breeding is the main tool to increasing TFP. Increases in TFP drive improvements in exports, new markets, value addition, employment, energy independence, economy diversification.
    Genetic resources supplied by developed countries will be selected for local adaptation, and thus does not compete directly with American farmers.  Site-specific strategies and increasing diversity are critical tools for developing and disseminating new, often smaller release, cultivars. International partnerships in genetic resources and plant breeding generate a sense of stewardship and community.
    In Germany, return on plant breeding investment to society is considered to be 16-20%/yr
    Maximizing genetic potential is an image --- think Gatorade

    Plant breeding is the core impact science of agriculture. Educating domestic plant breeders promotes continued agricultural innovation. Educating the plant breeders of the world enables market penetration through introduction of plant products and industrial materials they encounter during their education
    Plant Breeding Education:
    1.  Promotes continued agricultural innovation. 
    2.  Enables market expansion through improvement of local economies and the global economy.
    3.  Offers insight for US agriculture into potential challenges and opportunities through interaction with international students and colleagues. 
    4.  Provides a global network through which knowledge and technologies are developed, disseminated, and implemented.
    5. Provides domestic and international students a broad, technically solid background to respond to challenges and opportunities in a changing world
    Education of third world plant breeders is critical, along with development of infrastructure.. More emphasis should be placed on making education accessible AND affordable.
    Universities are the educational catalysts that instill the knowledge and develop the analytical skills for a successful plant breeder.

    2. Unlocking Genetic Potential Enables Global Competitiveness
    People are key to plant breeding.  The national population of plant breeders has declined by () over the past 20 years. 
    Global networks are central to US agricultural competitiveness.  These networks enable identification of newly important genes and genotypes for domestic and international markets and production systems.
    Plant breeding unlocks genetic potential, maintains, expands and creates markets.  Plant breeders are the ultimate tool users, and the tools of molecular genetics provide excellent opportunities to improve our effectiveness.

    Repairing the division between breeding and molecular genetics:
    Plant breeding permits us to unlock genetic potential, key to maintaining, expanding and creating markets.  Plant breeders are the ultimate tool users, and the tools of molecular genetics provide excellent opportunities to improve our effectiveness.

    Partnerships to buiold and/or ways to find out what partnerships to build
    Discipline-oriented associations
    Commodity and producer organizations
    National Plant Germplasm System
    Seed trade organizations
    State Forestry Agencies
    State Development Groups
    Private sector (Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, etc.)
    Conservation Groups
    Rural Development Organizations
    Agricultural chemical companies
    Consumer groups
    Forest products and paper industry

    Proposed strategy and action plan

    Proposed two-year actions

    • PBCC leads a study to identify the relative roles of public and private sector plant breeding programs, and to identify gaps and solutions
      • NC1003
      • ERS
      • ASTA
      • Plant improvement associations
    • Invite PIPRA to present program to PBCC
    • Initiate NIFA research groups on specific market opportunities and training needs
    • Utilize USDA-FAS resources to develop public/private partnerships and enhance market opportunities
    • Make ARS accountable to CGC recommendations, identify germplasm conservation and utilization
    • Develop coordinated outreach and student recruitment team, develop a website for information on plant breeding opportunities nationwide.  Provide a link to CGIAR centers and national programs to recruit international students.  Use US grad students to provide content and recruitment counseling.
    • Encourage farmer participation in plant breeding programs nationwide to develop new and emerging market opportunities
    • Enhance PBCC outreach to horticulture and forestry breeders and industries
    • Engage marketing and consumer groups more actively to better identify emerging breeding objectives and promote plant improvement to the public
    • Link PBCC efforts to Global Partnership for Plant Breeding Capacity Building
    • Set priorities for increased funding for NRI translational genomics programs for specialty crops and work with CSREES to design RFPs


    Proposed five-year strategy and major five-year actions

    • Strengthen national research capacity
      • Provide more funding for graduate and undergraduate students in plant breeding
      • Engage the international community to complement plant breeding education
      • Develop relevant and effective training opportunities with international centers and national programs
      • Improve dialogue with processing industries and downstream users
      • Increase funding for plant breeding programs from NSF, NRI
      • Engage commercial plant improvement companies to support plant breeding training and to promote improved funding and funding stability
    • Strengthen the international and national germplasm resources systems and support transparent germplasm exchange
    • Engage the private sector, strengthen public/private alliances
    • Develop expanded focus on training of plant breeders for specialty crops and emerging markets
    • Multiply public cultivar releases to meet developing market opportunities
    • Proactively engage in the dialogue to create the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)
    • Expand cultivar evaluation networks to include more crops and environments
    • Support and engage with the Public Intellectual Property Research Association (PIPRA) which supports development of public IP for international good

    “Plant breeders worldwide are the transfer agents of knowledge and technologies to farm and marketplace.” H. Shands

    • Challenges to U.S. plant breeding include (1) the increasing affect of globalization on agriculture as manifested in the privatization of major crops, multinational seed companies, international trade, and international flow of labor; (2) the bifurcation of plant genetic research into applied plant breeding and plant molecular biology; (3) the failure to communicate the fundamental economic and societal need for adapted genotypes in a global and dynamic world, developed by plant breeding, but based more and more on the power of a genomics and a systems biology approach.
    • To mitigate the effects of globalization and the bifurcation of science on the future of plant breeding, investments in plant breeding must be strengthened at public universities to keep it united with public discovery research and connected internationally.
    • International partnerships are needed because (1) plant breeders need access to germplasm worldwide, (2) plant disease and insect pests are not restricted by international borders, (3) plant breeders need access to worldwide testing networks and (4) the U.S. derives long term economic benefits from such partnerships.


    “Plant breeders worldwide are the transfer agents of knowledge and technologies to farm and marketplace.” H. Shands
    We desire an agricultural system in the US that is competitive (economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and socially responsible) and a global agricultural system that provides national food security.
    Total Factor Productivity (TFP) is a useful approach to assess impact of plant breeding. It is essentially equivalent output per unit of input.
    Biomass/unit area is not the only goal of plant breeding, but that quality in its broad sense is as important.
    Plant breeding has historically been a primary contributor to increases in TFP.  In some cases genotypes improved for in TFP, also require improved inputs. This varies by crop.
    Focus of group: How does plant breeding contribute to TFP?
    In developing countries, TFP increases in livestock and staples can have a dramatic impact economically and politically.  National food security has a positive impact on national political stability.
    Global climate change now introduces another very large threat to the stability of ag production throughout the world.  Plant breeding copes with and exploits environmental variation --- thus, it is a logical and effective approach to this global threat.
    The research capacity that plant breeding offers is the ability to adapt to market changes due to national security needs, climate change, or evolving markets.
    Thus, investment in plant breeding is an effective investment. Countries that do so will be rewarded.
    However, in many countries, and even large regions, plant breeding doesn’t have a significant impact because an infrastructure does not exist. 

    The new tools of molecular biology and genomics currently preferentially benefit developed countries. Despite that, in the US, the bifurcation between basic” and “applied” is a problem. Plant breeders must take advantage of the rapidly growing knowledge base in genetics and genomics
    A fundamental challenge is lack of awareness of what a plant breeder does, and what the impact of plant breeding programs can be.

    Plant breeding permits us to unlock genetic potential, the key to maintaining, expanding, and creating markets.


  • Participating attendees in this workgroup:
    • Robert B. Bertram
    • James R. Mcferson
    • Harbans L. Bhardwaj
    • Tom Blake
    • Daryl Bowman
    • Ramon Molina Bravo
    • Joe W. Burton
    • Thomas Carter
    • Clay B. Cole
    • Rumen V. Conev
    • Adam Criswell
    • Ralph E. Dewey
    • Jesus A Espinoza
    • Gennaro Fazio
    • Dawn E. Fraser
    • Jessica Gaus
    • Jessie Gilsinger
    • Brent E. Godshalk
    • Irwin L. Goldman
    • James E. Grissom
    • Elliot L. Heffner
    • David S. Howle
    • Don C Jones
    • Petra Jorasch
    • Julia L. Kornegay
    • Roy K. Kreizenbeck
    • David S. Marshall
    • Per Mccord
    • Mark J. Messmer
    • Karen Moldenhaver
    • Charles D. Nelson
    • William Niebur
    • Pedro A. Pereira
    • Ron Qu
    • Joseph G. Robins
    • Graham J. Scoles
    • Michael J. Sligh
    • Mark E. Sorrells
    • Steven K. St. Martin
    • Charles W. Stuber
    • Shyamalrau P. Tallury
    • Gregory J. Traxler
    • Sant S. Virmani
    • Gary P. Whiteaker


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Department of Horticultural ScienceBox 7609North Carolina State UniversityRaleigh, NC 27695-7609(919) 515-7416

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