Plant-breeding efforts at land-grant universities and other public institutions helped to fuel the Green Revolution during the 1960s and advance genetic improvements across fields from coast to coast.
Unfortunately, there has been a gradual decline in public plant-breeding efforts because of changes that impact university and USDA research labs where corn and soybean plant breeders have fewer colleagues, diminished funding and redefined roles.
A national public plant-breeder survey across all crops in 2018 by Washington State University showed a 21% decline in full-time employees who were breeding-program leaders and an 18% decline in technical support personnel from 2013 to 2018. The survey also showed retirement loomed for many program leaders, as 62% of leaders were more than 50 years old, and more than one-third were over 60.
During a U.S. Senate agriculture committee hearing in December 2022, Purdue University Soybean Center Director Katy Martin Rainey advocated for prioritizing robust investment in public ag research, which has declined by 30% during the past two decades.
"Over the past decade, other countries have rapidly expanded investment in public agriculture research, threatening U.S. competitiveness," she testified.
Rainey, who heads up soybean breeding at Purdue, dispelled the notion that commodity organizations, private companies and a few other investors have the basic and applied research needs covered for row crops. "Private-sector investments in row crops deserve the corresponding investment of public funds, because crops such as soybeans are so economically valuable and critical to national security," she told the senators.
SEED INNOVATION CRITICAL
Up until the 1980s, it was public corn- and soybean-breeding research that developed most hybrids and varieties. This public-funded germplasm effort launched hundreds of seed companies decades ago as they set out to improve on public inbreds.
"The final public corn-breeding landmark occurred in 1973 when Iowa State University corn breeders released its B73 inbred that outperformed all private corn hybrids," says Tom Hoegemeyer, a longtime corn breeder for Hoegemeyer Seeds and a retired professor at the University of Nebraska.
Following a seed-company recalibration using this new innovative B73 public inbred, public funding for corn breeding changed. State and federal funding shifted to a grant application-based model that favored molecular genetics instead of inbred development and corn-breeding research.
"Traditional plant breeding was not very scientifically 'sexy,' so such projects couldn't compete with biotech for grant funds," Hoegemeyer says.
This funding shift coincided with a wildly successful private company transgenic trait development era, where Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn hybrids changed the breeding game. Since then, the latest round of seed/agrochemical industry consolidation in 2018 placed more than 50% of sales in the hands of four companies -- BASF, Bayer, Corteva and Sinochem (Syngenta) -- plus a far higher percentage of their germplasm in farmers' fields.
PUBLIC CORN-BREEDING LEFT OUT
It's no secret that private companies develop and sell the vast majority of corn hybrids and soybean varieties. Their proprietary transgene development and genetic investments are protected using intellectual property rights (IPR), which essentially eliminated public corn breeding.
During the 1990s and 2000s, all areas of academia became focused on citations, publications and achieving grant awards -- many supporting use of molecular markers for trait development adopted by private industry. In addition, state corn checkoff research dollars shifted away from germplasm to finance corn utilization research to reduce mountains of surplus corn that existed.
"This fundamental industry shift drastically reduced the number of public corn breeders that produce germplasm," Hoegemeyer says. "All the major public corn-breeding programs at Nebraska, Iowa State, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and other corn-producing states dried up and have very little corn-breeding activity."
Fortunately, these public institutions maintain corn geneticists in nearly every corn state with many active programs. For example, corn growers invest substantially in genetics research such as in The Genomes to Fields (G2F) Initiative that coordinates testing across 16 states to link genomics and predictive phenomics. The goal is to create public genetic knowledge that is applied in corn by private companies to benefit farmers.
The key difference between corn and soybean breeding is the challenge of scale. Like wheat, the soybean is a self-pollinating inbred varietal crop where a breeder can easily scale seed for farmer testing. Corn is a hybrid crop that requires much more effort and expertise to scale, which is done more efficiently by private industry.
Today, Texas is one of the only states still breeding public corn hybrids for farmers. Sweet corn breeding is conducted at the Universities of Wisconsin and Florida.
Seth Murray, Texas A&M University professor and corn breeder, cited the need to produce hybrids for the Lone Star State, where challenging environments and aflatoxin mitigation weren't necessarily being addressed by the large private-industry companies.
"We're thankful for checkoff funding support from the Texas Corn [Producers] Board that has the vision to improve corn genetics in Texas," he says.
PUBLIC SOYBEAN SUPPORT
Thanks to farmer checkoff investments and the ability to more easily scale varieties for farmer testing, soybean and wheat public-breeding programs remain robust.
Ed Lammers, a fifth-generation farmer from Hartington, Nebraska, is the United Soybean Board Secretary who chairs the Innovation & Technology Priority Area determining checkoff research investments.
"In 2023, we're investing a portion of our $37 million soybean genetic and production research checkoff budget for breeding to increase and protect soybean yields while using fewer resources," Lammers says. "We also fund research that improves the composition of soybeans for feed and food uses, and we collaborate research and funding dollars with numerous regional soybean research programs across the U.S. to share data and results to improve soybean sustainability."
Aaron Lorenz, head of the University of Minnesota soybean-breeding and genetics program, says public breeding programs can't survive without good checkoff investment and the USDA competitive grants program.
"We're fortunate to have great checkoff support from the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council to fund soybean-production research, breeding and genetics," Lorenz says. "Unfortunately, only a handful of universities today have a critical mass of breeders who work on cultivar development and closely aligned issues."
CURRENT PUBLIC RESEARCH ROLES
Lorenz says public soybean breeders focus on creating germplasm for specialty niche markets for foods such as tofu, natto and soymilk, or for improved oil composition such as high oleic soybeans. These varieties carry a premium for the economic benefit of growers and better health benefits for consumers.
"We're also looking at longer-term needs such as new breeding methodologies to make the process more effective and efficient," he says. "Some efforts will make new traits that could combat emerging pests or benefit future cropping systems."
Many studies examine genetics, from mapping genes and uncovering genetic control of traits to disease resistance, stress tolerance, yield components and seed quality. The results are published to benefit public and private breeders and seed-industry organizations.
Another critical role is maintaining elite public germplasm diversity in soybeans and corn. The American Seed Trade Association works with Congress to mandate that the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) keeps the National Plant Germplasm System sustainable, allowing scientists to access critical plant germplasm in the future. A great example is the Germplasm Enhancement of Maize (GEM) project at ARS, where more than 300 lines of exotic corn germplasm were released to commercial seed breeders.
Hoegemeyer, who's seen many corn- and soybean-breeding advances during his 50-plus-year career, remains excited about two scientific advancements where public researchers can play a vital role.
"One is advanced genomic techniques to analyze the DNA of germplasm and predict field performance," he says. "The second is the use of gene editing to modify native genes rather than using transgenics to enhance insect, disease tolerance and quality traits."
MORE BREEDERS NEEDED
A significant need among private breeding programs is a continued supply of widely skilled plant breeders. One of the real worries regarding the lack of public corn-breeding programs, Hoegemeyer explains, is an inability to adequately train the breeders of tomorrow.
"I've heard concerns and pushback that universities are receiving from the major corn companies about not producing trained corn-breeding graduates ready to hit the ground running," he says. "Unfortunately, with few corn-breeding programs, graduates may know modern breeding techniques but have little hands-on experience with corn- or hybrid-breeding systems."
Murray says Texas A&M is awarded USDA grants for applied corn breeding that support graduate students. However, the funding is insufficient to train the numbers needed.
"In the past five years, most of our grants are training students on using drones, sensors and data to figure out how we can breed better corn and other crops," he says.
On the soybean side, Lorenz says Minnesota has a good platform for educating the next generation of soybean breeders. Purdue's Rainey agrees that they, too, have an intact and vibrant plant-breeding system in place with ever-increasing public-private partnerships.
"We just need funding investments to sustain public-breeding research," she says. "People probably don't realize that public researchers like myself rely almost entirely on receiving competitive grant funding to support our research -- from students and technicians to tractor fuel."
MAKING YOUR VOICE HEARD
As Rainey witnessed during her appearance before the U.S. Senate agriculture committee, more voices are needed to drive sustainable public-breeding research investment.
Murray saw how the Texas Corn Board growers went to bat for the aflatoxin issue, convincing university administrators to fund research that made a difference. "I advocate for farmers to turn into activists to inform policymakers about issues they care about," he says.
Hoegemeyer acknowledges that private breeders are doing outstanding work toward increasing productivity.
"But, if producers are really conscious of their own sustainability, it's worth their time investing in land-grant universities and influencing their state and national elected officials to keep USDA actively involved in plant breeding," he says. "It's crucial for the future of both public and private crop improvement."
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