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A Critical Moment for a Resilient Food System

This article was originally written in 2012 by Claire Hermann. This updated version was published on May 20, 2013 to reflect the 2013 Farm Bill process.

The full Senate is taking up the 2013 Farm Bill debate this week, and, right now, there is no language in the bill that will reinvigorate classical breeding and research that results in publicly owned varieties. If the Senate Farm Bill goes through in its current form, American farmers and researchers looking for publicly owned crop varieties will find themselves with almost no options.

As new diseases, climate conditions, pests, and weeds threaten farmers’ crops – and as new market opportunities appear – farmers need to be able to choose varieties that thrive in their regional conditions. Researchers need a base of diverse, publicly available traits to draw from to meet these needs. Diversity is the key to resilience, and classical breeding is the best tool we have to cultivate crop diversity.

The 2008 Farm Bill gave the USDA a mandate to support classical plant and animal breeding and public variety development. Congress recognized the obvious benefits of classical breeding techniques: They are cost-effective, time-tested, and critical for the development of the complex, diverse traits that farmers need to adapt to changing conditions. Unfortunately, the USDA has not adequately responded.

Right now, the overwhelming majority of federal research dollars go to developing patented crop varieties through genomics research. These projects require large budgets and usually focus on a few major traits in the major field crops.  Alone, they are not enough to protect American farmers and our global food supply.

Senator Jon Tester is introducing a 2013 Farm Bill amendment that aims to reinvigorate classical plant breeding and public cultivar development.  This could be our best chance to protect research funding for public, classical breeding – and the American farmers and global food security that depend on it. It has obvious benefits for researchers and consumers, and it’s good for every American farmer, no matter what kind of crop they choose to grow.

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