By R.J. Ralston
University-based breeding programs still serve growers
Seed companies invest heavily in breeding and development to bring products to market, but public breeding programs still play a big role in seed innovation.
"There are several things we bring to the table that could not or would not be done by the private sector," says Joseph Burton, USDA–Agricultural Research Service plant breeder at North Carolina State University. He sees training the next generation of plant breeders, expanding genetic diversity and addressing less-profitable industry needs as important functions.
Learn by doing. There are fewer public programs today than there were 40 years ago. "There are only a handful of schools left with complete breeding training—a range of courses, lab and field experiences," Burton says.
The North Dakota State University (NDSU) program, for example, features traditional breeding and modern facilities. This provides students both molecular training and field work, explains Richard Horsley, chair of the NDSU Department of Plant Sciences. About two-thirds of NDSU graduate-level and Ph.D.-level students move into private industry jobs and one-third go into public sector roles.
Public breeding programs also impact what’s in local growers’ fields. "Adaptation is everything and you need to develop products locally for them to be most successful," says Marcelo Carena, NDSU corn breeder.
Soy what? "Today, the public soy breeder is less involved in variety development and more responsible for germplasm," Burton says.
Although most public programs may not produce materials ready for the field, they invest the time to identify characteristics that are important for future success.
"We work with materials from other regions, Asia mostly, that require improvements," Burton says. "The genes are introduced into adapted materials. It is time-consuming work, but private industry wants them once improved."
This process can take 10-plus years and is rarely profitable, but the beauty of public breeding programs is they are not typically tied to profit margins.
"We serve all kinds of markets, including those not large enough for investment," Carena says. Cold- and drought-tolerant products are examples of such advances—the NDSU program has increased the genetic diversity of northern and western corn hybrids by adapting tropical and late temperate corn to local environments. It has also identified hybrid combinations with higher amino acid levels, higher oil, extractable starch, and fermentable starch for ethanol utilization and wet milling.
"If private industry decides breeding is not important or profitable, they’ll stop," Burton says. "In North Carolina, for instance, a lot of counties have glyphosate-resistant weeds, and many farmers are looking at going back to conventional varieties."
Most dominant private breeding programs have all but dropped conventional varietal development, and the public arena is picking up the slack.
"We solve problems," Burton says. "We have the flexibility to do that without needing it to benefit the bottom line."
That means financial support is critical to a program’s success. Crop organizations and private industry contribute to specific projects or staffing, but the state and federal government is still the largest contributor.
"We are getting some investment from private industry for student training, but it is not a substitute for good, solid support from the government," Burton says.