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the foundation
of civilization

Plant breeding:
the foundation
of agriculture

Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee

Summary of Annual Meeting, February 2007

(return to PBCC main page)

Sustaining Plant Breeding: Report on a National Workshop

This report was prepared by:

  • Jim Hancock, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University
  • Charles Stuber, CALS, Agriculture Research Service, North Carolina State University


A new national coordinating committee of US plant breeders (SCC-80) was recently established at a workshop hosted jointly by the Departments of Crop Science and Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University. The committee (SCC-80) will actively work to raise awareness of what plant breeders have done for the nation and how they can contribute to the future vitality of the US economy. The group will also seek to strengthen US plant breeding capacity by encouraging improvements in infrastructure and education. The new committee was established as a Land Grant University Multistate Project. The first slate of officers is:

The workshop was spearheaded by Ann Marie Thro, National Program Staff of USDA-CSREES, with the aid of a national steering committee of plant breeders. About 160 participants from all over the USA attended the meeting, representing both the public (140) and private (20) sector. The workshop came in response to concern about the steady decline in national plant breeding investment over the last 20 years, which has led to a significant reduction in the number of public plant breeders in the USA and a substantial weakening of University education programs. Several previous meetings have drawn attention to the decline in our nation’s plant breeding capacity, but their message was not nationally audible or sustained through the establishment of a permanent leadership group.

While the establishment of a coordinating committee was an important goal of the meeting, most of the workshop was devoted to discussing the critical role that plant breeders play in our nation’s future. The overall tone for discussion was set by a group of leading experts who presented talks on how plant breeding fits into six categories based on USDA Strategic Goals:

  1. Excellence in science and technology (Stephen Baenziger and Fred Bliss)
  2. A globally-competitive agricultural system (Ronnie Coffman, Robert Herdt and William Niebur)
  3. Competitiveness, sustainability and quality of life in rural America (William Tracy, John Navazio and Marcelo Carena)
  4. A safe and secure food and biomaterials system (James Holland and Thomas Isleib)
  5. A healthy well-nourished population (Linda Pollak and Philipp Simon)
  6. Harmony between agriculture and environment (Charles Brummer and Stephen Jones)

All of the speakers began their presentations with examples of how plant breeders have been successful role in advancing national goals. They reviewed several long-term studies that showed that most US crops have had steady, dramatic yield increases over the last 75 years that are due in a large part to cultivar enhancement and development.  These gains have come from genetic improvements in biotic and abiotic stress resistance, alterations in biomass partitioning patterns and improvements in plant architecture. In many instances, these cultivar improvements have resulted in reductions in pesticide use and the more efficient use of water and nutrients.

The speakers had many specific suggestions on how plant breeders can reframe themselves to more effectively capture public attention and contribute to the strength and stability of agriculture. Baenziger suggested that we need a better definition of plant breeding that emphasizes “science” rather than “art” if we want to achieve better recognition of our work. He also commented that it is critical that our university training programs are maintained and that we fully integrate the applied and basic approaches to plant improvement. Coffman felt that we need to more clearly define the role of plant breeders in generating global stability and world peace. Linda Pollak contended that plant breeders can describe themselves as food professionals, who can play a critical role in enhancing food quality, diversity, and nutrition. She also stressed that we can focus our breeding energies on consumers while not neglecting the producers. Bill Tracy emphasized the need to focus more on value-added traits as an important way to enhance crop diversity and enhance rural life.  Jim Holland reminded plant breeders that among the major challenges facing them are keeping pace in the constant struggle against ever-evolving pathogens and enhancing the biofuel capacity of our crops. Charles Brummer stressed the need for more niche crops with local adaptations; he indicated that we should develop completely new agricultural paradigms like perennial polycultures and multilines.

After the presentations, the participants broke into six subcommittees to discuss how plant breeders fit into each of the national goals. They were asked to answer three questions:

  1. How can plant breeding support the goals?
  2. What is needed to assemble a factual and compelling case?
  3. What partnerships should plant breeding build with others?

The subcommittees were then directed to develop an action plan for the next five years, as well as a two-year near term plan, which they presented to the whole group at the end of the meeting.

Out of the group deliberations, a number of common themes emerged. On the topic of how plant breeding can support national strategic goals, most groups felt that maintaining the genetic diversity of our crops is a critical goal, while continuing our efforts to develop well adapted varieties that are nutritious, productive, resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses, and that have a place in a value added economy. When asked to describe what is needed to assemble a factual and compelling case for plant breeding, the most common observation was that we need to more effectively communicate our numerous successes, the key being to let community leaders and decision makers know just what we can provide. On the topic of what partnerships plant breeders need to build, several groups felt that it will be important to more fully integrate food and health professionals into our breeding efforts. We also need to engage consumer groups and local agricultural communities much earlier in the research and development pathway.

In the action plans of the individual committees, there was a common call to accumulate success stories and make them available on a website that is attractive to students and the public at large. It was also felt that information about the role of plant breeders should be provided in pamphlet form to K-12, 4-H and Master Gardner Programs. It was suggested that plant breeders should develop symposia at cross-science meetings like AAAS, to more fully integrate our field into the scientific community and raise awareness of our contributions. A strong emphasis was focused on forming an international society of plant breeders, to put the interests of plant breeders at the fore. There was also a unified call to form partnerships with agricultural organizations that successfully lobby policy makers such as the Farm Bureau, American Seed Trade Association, Economic Developmental Councils and Commodity groups. It was pointed out by many groups that we must work harder to provide input when priorities are set for CSREES-NRI programs and the national initiative on specialty crops. We need to make ourselves heard on the type of products that will be of value to us and have an opportunity to share in the resources provided to develop them. A strong call was also made to strengthen the links between US plant breeders and the CGIAR Centers and International Programs, as a way to attract new international students to our programs and broaden the experiences of our domestic ones.

One of the last orders of business at the meeting, was the election of a chair and secretary for each sub-committee.  These individuals will provide sub-committee resources to the executive committee and make sure that the action plans of the various committees are fulfilled. These officers and their sub-committees were:

  • Excellence - David Stelly, Chair (Texas A&M University) and Craig Yencho, Secretary (North Carolina State University)
  • Global - Robert Bertram, Chair (USAID) and Jim McFerson, Secretary (Washington Tree Fruit Commission)
  • Rural America - Marcelo Carena, Chair (North Dakota State University) and Keith Woeste, Secretary (USDA Forest Service, Purdue University)
  • Nutrition/Healthy - Linda Pollak, Chair (USDA-ARS, Iowa State University) and Michael Havey, Secretary (USDA-ARS, University of Wisconsin)
  • Environmental - Charlie Brummer, Chair (University of Georgia) and Richard Pratt, Secretary (Ohio State University)
  • Safe and Secure Food - Travis Frey, Chair (Monsanto Inc.) and James Holland, Secretary (North Carolina State University)
  • A new committee for Education was also established by the executive group which will be chaired by Tom Stalker (North Carolina University), with David Knauft as sectretary (University of Georgia)

In addition to these officers, liasons were elected to a number of professional groups including:

  • Ronnie Coffman, Cornell University (International Plant Breeding Centers)
  • Bill Tracy, University of Wisconsin (Private Non-profit Breeders)
  • Steve McKeand, North Carolina State University (Forestry Plant Breeders)
  • Herb Ohm, Purdue University (CSSA Plant Breeders)
  • Linda Wessel-Beaver, University of Puerto Rico (ASHS Plant Breeders)
  • Greg Tolla, Seminis Vegetable Seeds (NCCPB)
  • Mark Hussey, Texas A&M University will be the Administrative Advisor of the Committee
  • Ann Marie Thro will be the CSREES representative

At the end of the meeting, the general consensus was that the future of plant breeding was brighter. US plant breeders now have an organized committee with a set of officers. A series of action plans have been developed that support the USDA goals and will elevate the public awareness of plant breeding. Clearly the success of the workshop will be measured by how well these plans are implemented, but for the first time plant breeders have a centralized and dedicated voice to support our science.

More information about this meeting and plant breeding in general can be found on the Global Plant Breeding website:


The membership of the planning committee was:

  • Baenziger, Stephen (Univ. Nebraska)
  • Brummer, Charles (Univ. Georgia)
  • Carena, Marcelo (N. Dakota State Univ.)
  • Coffman, Ronnie (Cornell Univ.)
  • Smith, Margaret (Cornell Univ.)
  • Hancock, James (Michigan State Univ.)
  • Navazio, John (Organic Seed Alliance; Prescott College)
  • Pollak, Linda (USDA-ARS, Midwest Region)
  • Smith, Stephen (Pioneer Hi-Bred International/DuPont)
  • Stalker, Tom (North Carolina State Univ.)
  • Stuthman, Deon (Univ. Minnesota )
  • Thro, Ann Marie (CSREES, USDA)
  • Tracy, William (Univ. Wisconsin)
  • Waines, Giles (Univ. California-Riverside)
  • Wessel-Beaver, Linda (Univ. Puerto Rico)
  • Whiteaker, Gary (Sakata Seeds America)

The membership of the local host committee was:

  • Stalker, Tom, co-chair (Dept. Crop Science)
  • Kornegay, Julia, co-chair (Dept. Horticultural Science)
  • Burton, Joe (USDA-ARS, Dept. Crop Science)
  • Holland, Jim (USDA-ARS, Dept. Crop Science)
  • Stuber, Charles (USDA-ARS, Dept. Crop Science)
  • Lewis, Ramsey (Dept. Crop Science)
  • Murphy, Paul (Dept. Crop Science)
  • Friedrichs, Martin (Dept. Crop Science)
  • Gilsinger, Jessie (Dept. Crop Science)
  • Wehner, Todd (Dept. Horticultural Science)
  • Yencho, Craig (Dept. Horticultural Science)
  • Barb, Jessica (Dept. Horticultural Science)
  • Criswell, Adam (Dept. Horticultural Science)
  • McCord, Per (Dept. Horticultural Science)
  • Molina-Bravo, Ramon (Dept. Horticultural Science)

The membership of the nominations committee was:

  • Wehner, Todd (chair) - horticultural crop breeders
  • Carena, Marcelo - agronomic crop breeders
  • Coffelt, Terry - agronomic crop breeders
  • Goldstein, Walter - NGO breeders
  • Tolla, Greg - private breeders
  • Woeste, Keith - forestry breeders
  • Thro, Ann Marie - CSREES representative
  • Hussey, Mark - Administrative advisor


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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