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Farmers Harmed by Decline in Nation's Public Seed Supply

Seeds Sprouting from Dirt 

Everything starts with seeds.  Whether you’re an organic farmer looking for seeds that will work with your specific organic growing practices or looking for wheat varieties adapted to your specific growing climate, seeds are the foundation of every piece of food we put on our plate and central to everything crop farmers do.

The continued growth of sustainable and organic agriculture and local, healthy food systems across the country – along with farmers’ ability to meet the challenges of climate change and food security – depends on this critical first building block.

That’s why NSAC is very excited about a much-anticipated analysis of the state of our country’s plant and animal breeding infrastructure and seed supply that was released today, marking the first such analysis in over ten years.  The proceedings from the Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture were published today by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a farmer-based non-profit organization based in Pittsboro, NC and an NSAC member group.

In the proceedings, RAFI and other key stakeholders within the agricultural research community express their increased concerns about farmers’ limited access to seed, the narrowing of our country’s agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity, consolidation within the seed industry, the decline in public cultivar development (i.e. developing new crop varieties for the public good that can continue to be shared and improved by farmers and researchers), and how these trends are impacting farmers’ abilities to confront the unprecedented challenges of climate change and global food security.

There has been a steady decline in our nation’s public investment in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation’s land grant university system and USDA research facilities.  Over the past 20 years alone, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs.  This slow atrophy of public funding to support improved plant varieties means that farmers have been left with fewer and fewer seed choices over the years and are ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs.

For example, farmers in many regions of the country currently rely on seeds that were bred for other regions of the country or that no longer meet changing climatic growing conditions and pest and disease pressures.  Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage and struggle to meet the future challenges related to climate change and food security, and less able to take advantage of economic opportunities within the value-added, artisanal, organic, and local and regional food markets.

Key Findings On Our Seed Supply

The report released today outlines seven major challenges that have contributed to the decline in the supply of publicly available and regionally adapted seed varieties and animal breeds.  Click here for a downloadable PDF of the key findings.  These key findings include:

Shrinking Public Funding For Developing Better Seeds – Federal funding has been the lifeblood of public breeding programs that develop new, improved seed varieties and animal breeds, but funding has declined steeply.  This has decimated breeding infrastructure and capacity at our academic research institutions, meaning we have fewer people actually doing the research to develop new publicly available varieties that farmers can use.

Fewer Seeds Means Less Biodiversity And Resiliency – As fewer crop varieties are developed and offered by commercial seed companies, farmers have been left with fewer seed choices.  Fewer seed varieties in the public marketplace translates into less biodiversity on our nation’s farms.  This makes our entire food production system more vulnerable to disease, pests and climate change – and means farmers struggle to access the best-adapted seeds for different regions.

Concentrated Seed Ownership Limits Farmer And Consumer Choice – A handful of giant chemical companies control more and more of our nation’s seed stocks (“germplasm collections”) and breeding infrastructure – and, in turn, controls our current and future seed supply.  They focus on seeds they can sell the most of, big acreage commodities such as soybeans, and neglect crops with a smaller market like small grains, fruits and vegetables, organic crops, cover crops, and regionally adapted grain and oilseed varieties of major commodities.  Three firms now control over more than half of the global seed market, up from 22 percent in 1996.

Restrictive Patents Prevent Seed Sharing And Strip Farmers Of Control – Big seed companies use restrictive patents and licensing agreements to restrict the use of the seeds they develop.  This means farmers often can’t save or share their own seeds with other farmers, and even other plant breeders have trouble improving seeds bred by others.  This means farmers and researchers have fewer choices for the seeds they can use, share, and improve.

Almost No Public Seed Developers Are Left – The number of professionals who develop seeds and breeds – public breeders – continues to decline, and universities and public institutions are losing ground on training future professionals who will be needed to address the needs of the next generation of American farmers and ranchers.  For example, there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s.

Few Regional Partnerships – There is a need for new and innovative partnerships to address more regionalized and farmer-driven approaches to developing new varieties that meet the needs of farmers in responding to growing markets and challenges.

Aging Seed Storage Systems Mean The Loss Of Public Seed ‘Brain Trust’ Forever – Our country’s public seed stocks are stored in “germplasm collections” that have been critically under-funded and under-staffed, forcing triage decision-making regarding which seeds will be kept up to date and viable for planting.  Every seed we fail to preserve represents a loss of that genetic diversity forever, and this diversity may hold the answer to future challenges the next generation of farmers will face.

Next Steps for Action

In response to these mounting challenges, the proceedings put forth the following key recommendations for action in order to revitalize public breeding programs and begin to make progress in getting new varieties out to farmers.  These recommendations are also available as a downloadable PDF.

National Plan to Restore Funding and Capacity – Develop a comprehensive national plan to restore funding and institutional capacity and support for public breeding programs at our nation’s land grant institutions.

Encourage Biodiversity for Resilience – Address the vulnerability of our agricultural systems by encouraging and rewarding agro-biodiversity on farms and in our commercial seed choices, in order to increase resilience against shifting and unpredictable climatic conditions and ensure farmers can choose well-adapted seeds.

Increase Seed Availability for Farmer Choice – Empower farmers to save and share their seeds, encourage the development of more independent regional seed companies who can help farmers respond to local and regional market demand and climate conditions, and address the negative impacts of consolidation and concentration in the ownership of seeds, including the enforcement of antitrust laws.

Reform Patent and Licensing Laws – Increase farmer and researcher access to and innovation in the development of improved varieties, and take steps to reverse the negative impacts of utility patents and restrictive licenses.

Expand the Number of Current and Future Breeders – Increase the number of public breeders in each U.S. climatic region with a focus on renewed institutional capacity to support the next generation of public plant breeders.

Create Innovative Partnerships to Spur Innovation – Develop new partnerships and models to address more regionalized and participatory approaches that more deeply involve farmers in the breeding process.

Democratize Access to Seeds for Public Benefit – Strengthen our country’s seed storage systems (public germplasm collection and storage) by revitalizing long-term funding to protect this critical ‘brain trust’ of seeds and increasing germplasm access and sharing at both the national and international level.

Increase Public Awareness of the Importance of Seeds – Develop a national campaign to educate the public and policymakers on the values and benefits of public plant breeding and linkages to climate change, dangers of genetic uniformity, role of public investments, demands for nutritious and local foods, and the need for regionally adapted seeds.

Seeds and Breeds 2014 Summit

Summit Background

The proceedings released today capture the discussion from a two-day summit held in Washington, DC in March 2014.  The summit brought together over 35 breeders, researchers, farmers, academics, and representatives of germplasm banks and non-profit organizations to discuss the state of our nation’s seed supply and develop recommendations for reinvigorating public breeding research and increasing seed availability in the country.

“The challenges we face in our U.S. and global food systems urgently require us to shift our focus toward building greater resilience into our agricultural systems,” says Michael Sligh, the Just Foods Program Director with the Rural Advancement Foundation International.  “Our current systems are too genetically uniform and have far too short cropping rotations – thus leaving our agricultural systems very vulnerable.”

The proceedings include eight scientific papers authored by well-known breeders and researchers in the field, including Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder with the University of Wisconsin; Major Goodman, a corn breeder with North Carolina State University; Michael Mazourek, a vegetable breeder with Cornell University; David Ellis, the head of the Genebank Unit at the International Potato Center in Peru; and Charles Brummer, the Senior Vice President Director of Forage Improvement at the Noble Foundation.

The former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, also presented a paper discussing the unique opportunities for galvanizing public and political support for this issue.

NSAC and RAFI are both members of the Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture Coalition, a collaborative that advocates for increased support for public sector plant and animal breeding research.

Both the full report and an executive summary are available for free download online. 

Photo by Fotolia/Vasily Merkushev