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the foundation
of civilization

Plant breeding:
the foundation
of agriculture

Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee

Description of Plant Breeding CC and its Activities

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  • Statement of Issue and Justification
    • The Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee will be a forum for leadership regarding issues, problems and opportunities of long-term strategic importance to the contribution of plant breeding to national goals. The committee will create the only regular opportunity to provide such leadership across all crops. The nature of plant breeding as an integrative discipline par excellence will be reflected in multidisciplinary committee membership.
    • The past decade has brought major changes in the U.S. national plant breeding investment. Both the numbers of plant breeders, and their distribution across sectors and crops, has changed. In order for administrators and other decision makers to understand the implications of the changes and respond most effectively for the future, there is need for a clear analysis of the role of plant breeding for meeting national goals.  Although recent changes in investment are the impetus for this committee, the need to articulate the role of plant breeding in meeting national goals is likely to be on-going regardless of immediate circumstances.
    • Declining national investment in plant breeding. Between 1990 and 1994, plant breeding investment declined by 2.5 scientist/years (SYs) in state agricultural experiment stations (SAESs) (Frey, NPBS, 1996). It is likely that the declining trend in public sector breeding started earlier (James, 1990). Private sector plant breeding increased over the 1990-94 period by 32 SYs per year (Frey, 1996). Trend data for 1990-1994 for the federal Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is not available. It is likely that the substantial increase in the private sector kept overall national investment on the increase in spite of public sector declines.
    • In contrast, between 1994 and 2001, national investment decreased overall. In the SAESs, it declined by 15 SYs per year, and in the private sector by 16 SYs per year. There was in increase in plant breeding investment in ARS of 6 SYs per year, but the net overall decline was 25 SYs per year (Traxler et al., 2005). This was a loss of about 8% of total national public and private plant breeding SYs in the seven years since 1994. The decline in classical plant breeding is likely underestimated because marker development and other breeding-related molecular genetics is included in the 2001 plant breeding data.
    • From about the mid-1980’s to the present, education of plant breeders has become concentrated in a small number of universities (Guner and Wehner, 2003). Slightly over half of all plant breeding graduate students are international students.
    • Earlier national panels and committees relevant to plant breeding.
      • National panels recommending public emphasis on basic research: For over two decades, prominent national panels (e.g., Rockefeller Foundation, 1982; NRC 1989, 1996, 2000, 2003; NIFA 2004 ) have recommended that federal funding for agricultural research concentrate on creating opportunities for basic research.  These panels have recommended competitive grants held to relatively short-term accountability (3-5 years), with broad eligibility including entities not associated with comprehensive agricultural R&D programs.  These recommendations were motivated by a search for ways to enhance the independence, quality, and national accountability of science for agriculture. Particularly in the earlier reports, agricultural research was seen as so accountable to near-term needs of farm clientele, that it would be unable to take advantage of advances in molecular genetics.  This, it was felt, limited ability to conduct forward-looking research to retain global competitiveness of US agriculture, a goal seen as benefiting all citizens.
      • The National Plant Breeding Study (NPBS) and the Plant Breeding Task Force. The NPBS Task Force was drawn from the state, federal, and private sectors (Frey, 2000). The Task Force’s objectives were to provide recommendations for the next decade for major issues facing plant breeding  (Frey, 2000). They recognized new trends impacting plant breeding, including changes in the application of intellectual property rights (see, for example, Price, 1999) , and the arrival of molecular tools for plant breeding. They noted that the public sector is critical for education; availability and value-adding uses of genetic resources; integration of molecular tools; breeding for specialty crops; and development of alternative crops for preparedness when changes in the societal or natural environments impact U.S. agriculture.  These are long-term activities with inherent risk, such that the private sector is unable to invest in them. Solid public research and education must come first. To address these needs, the NPBS Task Force recommended:
        • A plant breeding education task force
        • A task force on public-private collaboration for efficiency
        • Two national R&D plans:
          • ‘Genepool enrichment of U.S. crops’ (recommended $50 mil./yr funding)
          • ‘Breeding programs for minor crops’ (via the Fund for Rural America).
    • The NPBS was a milestone in the self-understanding of modern plant breeding.  Its data are respected and widely used in research.  The Task Force recommendations continue to challenge us today.  For a range of reasons, however, its recommendations did not materialize.  It is likely that the obstacles could have been worked through had there been a stable committee structure in place to “learn” from experience, explore alternative ways to achieve the most important goals, and –most important of all—pass on responsibilities to successors.   Unlike a multi-state committee, the NPBS depended on the heroic efforts of the Task Force and lacked a way to carry on when the individual members could no longer devote the level of attention required.
    • Approach: Structure and continuity in support of leadership. A multi-state committee structure will provide a way to focus and sustain leadership for strategic issues in plant breeding. Such a committee will also provide visibility for plant breeding in databases of state and federal research, where presently it is largely invisible (hundreds of projects involve plant breeding but most are, rightly, titled according to the objectives rather than the methods used). Most importantly, a coordinating committee structure allows the contribution of many individuals from all sectors, and provides for continuity.
  • Objectives
    1. Enhance communication between plant breeders in different sectors and crops
    2. Assemble information about the U.S. plant breeding effort
    3. Describe plant breeding in terms of national goals
    4. Identify research and/or education priorities
    5. Other activities related to leadership and strategic planning for plant breeding, as identified by the members
  • Expected Outcomes and Impacts
    • A stable forum for identifying and analyzing issues of strategic importance to plant breeding.
    • A broader understanding of the role of plant breeding for meeting national goals
    • Resources for leadership, for example:
      • Materials for communicating about the role of plant breeding for meeting national goals
      • Strategies for responding to challenges and opportunities for plant breeding
  • Internal and external linkages
    • SAES linkages. All four regions--Northeast, North Central, Southern and Western--and a range of horticultural and agronomic crops, were represented on the initial eight-person SAES drafting team that prepared the first draft proposal in early 2005 to obtain the S_temp number for the Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee. This subsequent draft reflects the input of many more SAES researchers as well as federal and private sector researchers. Appendix E lists the state reps formally nominated by their experiment station directors to date. Every SAES has been invited to name an official representative. Response may depend on how much a state invests in, or perceives benefits from, plant breeding.
    • Inter-sector participation. To gain the perspective required to achieve the goals of this committee, participation from all sectors will be essential. Bona fide plant breeders and multidisciplinary colleagues from all sectors are invited. The email list of persons who have asked to receive information about this committee as it develops includes about 140 names as of February 2006 (a number equivalent to about 7% of the plant breeders in the U.S) and is still growing. The composition is roughly 65% SAES (all regions), 1% ARD/1890 universities, 15% federal, and 15% private sector participation. Private sector representation is diverse, including small and large seed companies serving both conventional and organic farmers, and commodity groups.  About 25% of current participation represents horticultural crops, 0.8% forestry and 7% multidisciplinary participation. The remainder, the largest group, represent agronomic crops. A small team that is organizing the national workshop includes agronomy and horticulture plant breeders from the SAES, federal, and private sectors.
    • Multi-disciplinary participation. Multi-disciplinary participation will vary depending on specific work plan items as decided by the membership.  Agricultural economics and plant pathology have been represented since the early organizing sessions. Additional disciplines that may be invited to participate include but are not limited to plant physiology, animal science, human nutrition and diet, rural development, marketing and trade, ecology, and others.
  • Education Plan
    • The education plan of this multi-state committee will build on the work of the NPBS Task Force, and on the recent work of a symposium/workshop on education for plant breeding organized in Marcy 2005 by the Plant Breeding and Genetics Group at Michigan State University (Hancock, 2005). The committee will seek strategies to implement the recommendations of these groups regarding content and resources for formal education of plant breeders.  It may also consider outreach to enhance awareness among the general public who are often unaware that they are stakeholders in plant breeding.
  • Literature cited
    1. Frey, K. J.  2000.  National Plant Breeding Study-IV: Future priorities for Plant Breeding. Special Report 102.  Iowa Agricultural and Home Economics Experiment Station.
    2. Frey, K. J.  1966.  National Plant Breeding Study-I: Human and Financial Resources Devoted to Plant Breeding Research and Development in the United States in 1994.  Special Report 98. Iowa Agricultural and Home Economics Experiment Station.
    3. Guner, N. and T. C. Wehner.  2003.  Survey of U.S. land-grant universities for training of plant breeding students.  Crop Scio.  43:1938-1944.
    4. Hancock, J.  2005 (unpublished report).  Summary of a symposium on plant breeding and the public sector.  Plant Breeding and Genetics Group, Michigan State U.  March 9-11, 2005.  East Lansing, MI.
    5. James, N.J. 1990.  A survey of public breeding programs in the U.S. Diversity 6:32-22.
    6. National Research Council (NRC), Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.  2003.  Frontiers in Agricultural Research:  Food, Health, Environment, and Communities.   National Academy Press.  Washington, D.C.
    7. National Research Council (NRC), Board on Ag. and Nat’l. Resources.  2000.  National Research Initiative:  A vital competitive grants program in food, fiber, and natural-resources research.   Nat’l. Acad. Press.  Wash., D.C.
    8. National Research Council (NRC).  1996.  Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities.  Public service and public policy.  National Academy Press.  Washington, D.C.
    9. National Research Council (NRC), Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.  1989.  Investing in research:  A proposal to strengthen the agricultural, food, and environmental system.  National Academy Press.  Washington, D.C.
    10. Price, S.  1999.  Public and private plant breeding.  Letter to the Editor, Nature Biotech. 17(10):938.  Oct. 1999.
    11. REE Task Force.  2004.  National Institute for Food and Agriculture:  A proposal.  (“NIFA”) (“The Danforth Report”).  Report of the Research, Education, and Economics Task Force of the USDA.  July 2004.
    12. Rockefeller Foundation.  1982.  Science for agriculture. (The “Winrock Report”).   New York:  The Rockefeller Foundation.
    13. Traxler, G. A. Acquaye, K. J. Frey , A. M. Thro.  2005.  Public Plant Breeding Resources in the US:  Study Results for the year 2001.
    14. USDA REE.  USDA Research, Education, and Economics 2003-2008 Strategic Plan              (


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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