Decline in plant breeding programmes could impact food security

Public plant breeding programmes are declining across the US. A team of scientists led by Kate Evans, a Washington State University horticulture professor who leads WSU’s pome fruit (apples and pears) breeding programmes, found that public plant breeding programmes are seeing decreases in funding and personnel.

The study was published in the journal Crop Science. Evans and her colleagues conducted a survey of 278 plant breeding programmes around the country. Public programmes are chiefly federal programmes, like those run by the US Department of Agriculture, or based at public research universities.

In the surveys, respondents estimated a 21.4% decline in full-time employee (FTE) time for programme leaders over the past five years and an estimated 17.7% decline in FTE time for technical support personnel. The researchers also found that retirement looms for a significant number of plant breeding programme leaders. Over a third of the responding programmes reported having leaders over the age of 60 and 62% are led by people over 50.

This decline is concerning because plant breeding has a direct impact on food security, Evans said: ‘Plant breeding plays a fundamental part in the long-term food security of this country. The tremendous increases in food production over the past century are largely due to plant breeding, and the world’s population is only increasing.’

The focus on food security has received more attention in the last few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved around the world, she said: ‘Plant breeding is a long-term, sustainable way to address concerns over having enough food and keeping our food sources secure,’ said Evans, who is based at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee.

Plant breeding takes on many forms, from breeding disease tolerance, increasing production, introducing new delicious varieties, or improving drought tolerance. ‘It could be a disease, a pest, climate change, any number of things,’ Evans said. ‘We do not live in a stable environment, and there are many different ways to deal with that.’

Plant pathogens, like bacteria, and pests are always adapting, so varieties of crops that were bred to naturally fight off a disease start to lose their defences. Plant breeding programmes help growers stay ahead of those potentially harmful adaptations. Another impact of declining breeding programmes is losing those with a local focus.

‘In Washington, for example, our cereal breeding programmes are very focused on local production,’ Evans said. ‘They breed wheat that grows very well for eastern Washington.’ Another example is the citrus industry. Citrus greening disease has been devastating to growers, particularly in Florida, when trees produce bitter, green, and misshapen fruit. Plant breeding programmes are working hard to develop varieties that naturally repel the pest that causes the problems.

One reason that plant breeding programmes are declining is an expense. It takes many years to develop a new variety of a crop, Evans said. And funding a programme for that long requires significant investment. ‘We can’t rely on grants because those are often only for a few years,’ she said. ‘You can’t do anything in plant breeding in three years, it requires long-term sustained funding to get a programme going.’


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