Press Release: Public Variety Research a Priority, Farm Groups, Researchers Say

June 12, 2012

CONTACT: Michael Sligh, (919) 641-9341, [email protected]

This year’s Farm Bill should direct more research dollars to classical breeding projects that result in finished, publicly owned plant and animal varieties, according to a letter from more than 100 farm organizations and scientists.

The letter supports the Tester Amendment to the Farm Bill, which would reserve five percent of the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s funds for such projects.

The 2008 Farm Bill mandated that the Initiative prioritize this kind of research. Yet between 2009 and 2011, the Initiative only funded one grant, out of 127, that fit the description.

“The amendment has obvious benefits for researchers and consumers, and it’s good for every farmer, no matter what kind of crop they choose to grow,” says Michael Sligh, Just Foods Program Director at the Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA.

“Classical breeding is a proven, cost-effective complement to genomic techniques. Without federal support, we are losing public seeds and breeds, a critical resource for American farmers and researchers and for the stability of the global food supply,” Sligh said.

Todd Leake grows wheat and soybeans with his brother on 2,000 acres in Grand Forks County, N.D.

“Soils here are on the alkaline side, and the growing season is short,” Leake said. “I depend on my state’s land grant university for crop lines that can handle our emerging disease and pest pressures, as well as our local soil and climate and growing conditions.

“But without federal funding,” Leake said, “public program breeders can’t develop these crops, and farmers like me won’t have the choices we need. Already, my crop choices are dwindling.”

Leake said that large seed companies also benefit from healthy public breeding programs. “A lot of the seed lines large seed companies use comes from the public sector,” he said.

“I hope our Senators will do the right thing for the farmers and the excellent researchers that support us, and support the Tester Amendment,” Leake said.

The letter in support of the Amendment is signed by 51 farm groups and 50 researchers and professionals from 34 states.

Download a printable PDF copy of this release.

Information on past AFRI funding is from the 2011 study, “AFRI Classical Breeding: Analysis and Recommendations.”


The full letter reads:

On behalf of more than 100 agricultural businesses, organizations, and scientists, we respectfully ask for your support of Senator Tester’s amendment to the Senate Farm Bill. This amendment aims to enhance farmer access to improved crop cultivars and livestock breeds adapted to diverse and regional farming needs. Directing more public dollars toward classical breeding projects that result in finished seeds and breeds increases the competitiveness of agriculture across the U.S. Classical breeding projects also improve food security for our growing population.

Classical breeding is a proven approach to meeting our food and fiber needs

Classical plant and livestock breeding is a proven science. It is our most successful and benign approach to crop improvement, accounting for about half of our dramatic food and fiber crop yield increases throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Classical breeding, using field-based selection, complements newer forms of breeding and fills important roles that lab-based approaches, such as genomics, are not well suited to. Lab-based breeding has value, and may become more important as these technologies improve, but cannot be relied upon currently or in the foreseeable future to fulfill many breeding needs. Classical breeding, in particular, is highly cost-effective.

Senator Tester’s amendment reinforces and builds on a 2008 Farm Bill mandate

The need to better support classical breeding becomes more pressing each year. The 2008

Farm Bill included a congressional mandate that classical plant breeding be a priority within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). There have been other requests by congressional agriculture and appropriations committees for USDA to make classical plant and animal breeding a priority.

To date, USDA has not fulfilled the 2008 congressional mandate. Instead, the agency has funded molecular breeding approaches to the near exclusion of classical breeding. This is because USDA includes lab-based approaches in its definition of classical breeding. USDA also prioritizes projects that demand large research budgets and typically focus on a few major traits in major crops using lab-based breeding approaches, leaving out many smaller acreage crops and good traits in major crops that are collectively very important to U.S. agriculture.

While these projects may improve traits that are of broad interest, they are not addressing the demand for new cultivars that meet the diverse needs of farmers, especially cultivars adapted to regional conditions – a critical requirement for developing highly productive crop cultivars and diverse cropping systems that are resilient.

Senator Tester’s amendment corrects problems in AFRI breeding grants that have become apparent since the last Farm Bill by requiring that 5 percent of annual funding for USDA’s AFRI program prioritize public cultivar and breed development through classical breeding. It also removes hurdles that hinder USDA’s progress toward this goal. Genomics methods would continue to receive substantial funding.

U.S. farmers face diminished seed choices to meet specific farming needs

Farmers constantly face changing insect, weed, and disease pressures that vary by region and that rapidly change. Crops must continuously be adapted to meet these changes. Similarly, climate, growing season length, soils, and water availability all greatly affect crop growth and vary across the U.S. The most productive approach is to have seeds that are adapted to the same environment as their intended use.

The large investments currently made in molecular breeding programs do not adequately support the development of complex traits necessary for adapting seed to regional needs. It is

not cost-effective to use these approaches to develop crop cultivars or livestock breeds adapted to the diverse needs of farmers. The lack of seed options is especially apparent for farmers seeking a range of cultivars in major crops. Options are even less for farmers seeking cultivars that are held in the public domain.


Meeting food security needs

Beyond farmer choice, the lack of seed availability and the narrowing of genetic resources are making our food system less secure. Classical breeding can provide the genetic tools farmers need to manage evolving pest, disease, and weather challenges, creating a source of seeds and breeds adapted to changing needs and opportunities. Of course, one of these needs includes feeding our growing population. The maintenance and improvement of genetic diversity through classical breeding is essential for the success of productive food systems and the greater global food supply, both now and into the future. This is a national issue and should be addressed, at least in part, through national programs such as AFRI.


Farmer access to regionally adapted seeds and breeds is paramount to fostering the competitiveness of agriculture in all regions of the U.S. As agricultural research has shifted toward an emphasis on lab-based and molecular breeding, seed choice has not kept up with demand, and the diversity of our plant genetic resources has narrowed. Farmers need access to seeds that are bred specifically for their regions and cropping systems. In particular, farmers lament limited cultivar options in major crops, especially publicly held cultivars released by land grant universities that are adapted to regional farming needs to satisfy the national market.

By improving agricultural productivity and resilience, classical breeding also improves food security for our growing population. Senator Tester’s amendment seeks to reinvigorate classical plant breeding in the public sector to better ensure farmers have the seeds and breeds they need to be successful.


American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association (Wisconsin)
Arkansas Rice Growers Association (Arkansas)
California Farmers Union (California)
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (North and South Carolina)
Center for a Livable Future Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (Maryland)
Center for Rural Affairs (Nebraska)
Dakota Resource Council (North Dakota)
Dakota Rural Action (South Dakota)
Delta Land & Community (Arkansas)
Draper Family Farm (Iowa)
Family Farm Defenders (Wisconsin)
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (Texas)
Food For Maine’s Future (Maine)
Friends of Family Farmers (Oregon)
Grain Millers, Inc. (Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon)
Hawai’i Public Seed Initiative (Hawaii)
Idaho Rural Council (Idaho)
Kansas Farmers Union (Kansas)
Land Stewardship Project (Minnesota)
Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (Mississippi)
Missouri Farmers Union (Missouri)
Missouri Rural Crisis Center (Missouri)
Montana Farmers Union (Montana)
National Family Farm Coalition (National)
National Farmers Union (National)
National Hmong American Farmers (National)
Nebraska Farmers Union (Nebraska)
New England Farmers Union (New England)
Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance
Oregon Rural Action (Oregon)
Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (National)
Organic Valley (Wisconsin)
Organization for Competitive Markets (Nebraska)
Prairie Quest Farm (Iowa)
Progressive Agriculture Organization (Pennsylvania)
R-CALF (National)
Ranch Foods Direct (Colorado)
Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA (National)
Rural Vermont (Vermont)
Seed Matters (California)
South Agassiz Resource Council (North Dakota)
Steve’s Seed Conditioning (Illinois)
Stonebridge Ltd. (Iowa)
The Land Institute (Kansas)
The National Young Farmers’ Coalition (National)
Union of Concerned Scientists (National)
United Natural Foods, Inc. (National)
Virginia Association for Biological Farming (Virginia)
Western Colorado Congress (Colorado)
Western Organization of Resource Councils
Women, Food and Agriculture Network (Iowa)

Agricultural Scientists & Professionals
Catherine Badgley, Ph.D.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of Michigan
Zach Bouricius, Consultant
Plant, Soil and Insect Science from University of Massachusetts at Amherst


Liz Carlisle, Ph.D., Candidate
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow
Center for Diversified Farming Systems
University of California – Berkeley


John E. Carroll
College of Life Sciences and Agriculture
University of New Hampshire


Eric Casler, Ph.D. Candidate
Conservation Biology Program
University of Minnesota


Martha L. Crouch, Ph.D.
Consultant on Agriculture and Technology


Julie Dawson, Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics
Cornell University


George M. Diggs, Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of Biology
Austin College


J. Franklin Egan
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences
Pennsylvania State University


David Ehrenfeld, M.D., Ph.D.
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Les Everett
Agronomist Water Resources Center
University of Minnesota


Jan Garrett
Organic Vegetable Production Research
Auburn University


Michael Glos
Department of Plant Breeding
Cornell University


Walter Goldstein, Ph.D.
Mandaamin Instituate (Wisconsin)


Major Goodman
William Neal Reynolds Professor and Distinguished University Professor of Crop Science,
Genetics, and Statistics
Member of the National Academy of Sciences
North Carolina State University


Julie Grossman Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Soil Fertility Management in Organic Cropping Systems
North Carolina State University


John Patrick Hart, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Plant Breeding & Genetics (Vegetable Breeding)
Cornell University


Lori Hoagland
Assistant Professor
Specialty Crop Production Systems
Purdue University


Philip H. Howard
Assistant Professor
Community, Food and Agriculture
Michigan State University


Alastair Iles
Assistant Professor of Science, Technology & Environment
Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management
University of California – Berkeley


Krista Isaacs, Ph.D. Candidate in Agroecology
Michigan State University


Allison L H Jack
Professor of Agroecology
Prescott College


Sibella Kraus
Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE)
David Brower Center (California)


Matt Liebman
Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture
Professor of Agronomy
Iowa State University


Claire Luby, Graduate Student
Department of Horticulture
University of Wisconsin – Madison


Alexandra Lyon, Graduate Student
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
University of Wisconsin – Madison


Jennifer MacAdam
Associate Professor
Plant Physiology and Forage Production
Department of Plants, Soils, and Climate
Utah State University


Michael Mazourek
Assistant Professor
Calvin Noyes Keeney Professor of Plant Breeding
Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics
Cornell University


Kathleen McAfee
Associate Professor, International Relations
San Francisco State University


V. Ernesto Méndez, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Agroecology & Environmental Studies
Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group
Environmental Program and Plant & Soil Science Department
University of Vermont


Maywa Montenegro, Ph.D.
Student Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of California – Berkeley


Kevin Murphy, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Professor/Clinical Assistant Professor
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences
Washington State University


James Myers, Ph.D.
Professor of Vegetable Breeding and Genetics
Oregon State University


John Navazio, Ph.D.
Organic Seed Research & Extension Specialist
Washington State University/Organic Seed Alliance


Nicolette Hahn Niman
Author, Livestock Rancher


Dan Nuckols
Associate Professor, Economics
Austin College
Founding Board Member, Council for Healthy Food Systems

Ivette Perfecto
George W. Pack Professor of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan


Chris Picone, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
Fitchburg State University (Massachusetts)


Gerald Presley
Research Assistant
Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

University of Minnesota


Dianne Rocheleau
Professor of Geography Director
Global Environmental Studies Clark University (Massachusetts)


Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno
Assistant Professor and Agroecology Education
North Carolina State University


Adrienne Shelton, Graduate Student
Department of Agronomy
University of Wisconsin – Madison


Annie Shattuck
Department of Geography
University of California – Berkeley


Gerald R. Smith
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Uninersity of Michigan


Richard G. Smith
Assistant Professor of Agroecology
Department of Natural Resources and the Environment
University of New Hampshire


Allison A. Snow, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology
Ohio State University


Doreen Stabinsky, Ph.D.
College of the Atlantic Bar Harbor (Maine)


Seth Swanson
Montana State University Extension
Missoula County Extension Horticulturist


William F. Tracy, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Friday Chair of Vegetable Research
Department of Agronomy
University of Wisconsin – Madison


Joel Wainwright, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Geography
Ohio State University

Click here to download a full copy of the letter, including the names of all organizations and researchers who signed.

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