Plant Breeding: It Starts with the Seed
The Food Journal
March 18, 2013
• The ever-growing population needs to understand that plant breeding is not some new phenomenon. The crops that gave rise to modern corn and wheat have undergone massive changes. In fact few would recognize the ancestral crops, and the truth is that scientists were hesitant for a long time to believe its seeds were the origin for these crops as we know them today. Strauss commentary
• US Corn yields are off the charts and are estimated to double by 2030. The continual improvement in corn yields is the result of improved genetics. Simply put, farmers were and are planting improved varieties of corn developed through plant breeding. This allows farmers to produce more using less. Efficiency matters in most things and agriculture is no different! Climate change, specifically the worst drought in fifty years, did not stop corn production due to a new corn designed to grow well in drought.
• Greenhouse tomatoes versus field. Greenhouse tomatoes are sold cheaper due to rapid growth and can be grown anywhere anytime with an abundance of varieties. According to a report by Roberta Cook PhD, a well-known extension marketing economist in the Dept. of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, the US is responsible for 30% of the production of greenhouse tomatoes. A profitable winter market helps US producers withstand lower prices during the summer. That said, winter production in Mexico will reduce prices and increase competitive pressure on year-round US growers. “Greenhouse crops provide opportunities for active environmental control such as controlling light, air temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels to achieve higher yields," states the report. While commercial growers typically don’t get paid more for better flavor, new developments in tomato breeding can also bring back sweeter or more flavorful tomatoes and lead to more sales.
• New products are emerging: the Tangelo, an accidental hybrid of any mandarin orange and the grapefruit or pummelo; Seedless watermelons; and “superveggies” such as the Vital sight carrotboasting 25% more Provitamin A than regular carrots. There is also a comeback of heirloom varieties. According to Better Homes and Gardens, “Heirloom tomatoes come true from seed, making them easy to share.” This is not the case with modern hybrid seeds (like ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes) which lose their vigor over time.
• Regardless of its “golden age,” agricultural research could face up to $60M in cuts via sequestration as government attempts to remedy the nation’s trillions in debt. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition web site recaps USDA secretary Tom Vilsak’s speech at the 2013 Commodity Classic Session with great concern about the sequestration’s effect on the future of agriculture.
The place of good tasting produce is in the supermarket:
Every dietitian says we need more fruits and vegetables, and consumer science proves that we need to deliver fruits and veggies with fabulous taste. A juicier sweeter experience that delivers a more appropriate level of naturally occurring sugar increases the likelihood a kid will be satisfied with it versus a candy bar in at least some cases. This is especially true if that’s what kids are accustomed to at an earlier age. That is the hope of a new “super broccoli” that “should taste slightly sweeter because it has less sulphur.” According to a USA Today article, “The new broccoli was specially bred to contain two to three times the normal amount of glucoraphanin, a nutrient believed to help ward off heart disease.” So, sweeter and more nutritional. With the problem of the produce department’s higher labor cost and higher waste, it's to the benefit of the produce industry to produce items with a longer shelf life and less waste. Supermarkets can get involved and make a choice. Safeway, Hy-Vee, Wegmans and Publix have each led the charge among supermarket retailers and have committed to increasing health and wellness offerings, education and empowerment. More fruits and vegetables are central to this. Equally, farmers need to make a commitment to taste. Barry Estabrook (author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit) told NPR’s All Things Considered, “The tomatoes you see in supermarkets have been bred for high yields and durability, not flavor. As a farmer once said — an honest farmer — 'I don't get paid a cent for flavor.'" That may be changing noting the market interest in heritage varieties.
Research Makes a difference in yield gains
According to Wikipedia, world trade in wheat is greater than for all other crops combined. Globally, wheat is the leading source of vegetable protein in human food among all cereal grains including corn and rice. Although on a weight basis, wheat has less protein than soy, wheat is eaten more. Yet wheat yields are lagging compared to soy and corn. The main reason is the lack of wheat research compared to other crops. A Scientific American article addresses the fact that important staples for the developing world (such as wheat) get no support from private research funding while yield increases through improved genetics are accelerating in crops like corn that do receive funding. A letter from the National Association of Plant Breeders states they are “very troubled by certain aspects of the mid-2012 USDA White Paper on Sustainable Agricultural Systems Science White Paper." The Association stresses the need for complementary means to fund plant breeding “if the USA is to slow and reverse the ongoing loss of plant breeding capacities.”
Farmers know what to do with a seed.
When the technology is in the seed, as it is through breeding, it is scale neutral for anywhere in the world. Education and training programs are key to ensure the next generation of qualified plant breeders. We are losing farm labor at the same time that farmers are advancing in age. According to the Washington Post, between 2002 and 2007 alone, the number of farmers over 65 grew by nearly 22 percent. Younger farmers have the opportunity to be a part of great agricultural changes. Support for and changes in technology can make the industry more attractive for young people to commit.
When President Obama and Vice President Biden were campaigning back in 2007, both men made a point of sharing their visions for the US farming community’s growth. Their initiatives include establishing a new program to identify the next generation of farmers and ranchers, development of the needed skills and a tax incentive to bring new farmers into agriculture and help them afford their first farm. Obama and Biden have both pledged their support of family farmers and their right to fair access to markets and transparency in prices of larger farms. In the second term of this administration, it would strengthen the food industry efforts if they put into action the changes and campaign promises that were outlined.