Seed Diversity Critical for Agriculture’s Future but Inadequate Funding Threatens Potential

Published Aug 10, 2015

Baltimore (August 10, 2015) – Today’s farmers face a variety of challenges, from drought to pests to maintaining profitability. Addressing these challenges, and securing a more sustainable agriculture system, starts with a critical and often overlooked component: seeds. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) fact sheet, released today at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting, concludes that inadequate funding for seed development through a method known as classical breeding is compromising crop diversity. This oversight poses a serious threat to farmers’ profits and the nation’s food security. 

Classical breeding, a method of improving crop traits through crossing related species, can increase yields and agricultural profits. Despite the proven benefits of this type of breeding, research into seed varieties developed in this way is vastly underfunded. 

“Failing to invest in classical breeding, a key to sustainable agriculture, will come back to haunt us,” said Marcia DeLonge, agroecologist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program. “We cannot improve agriculture in the long run if we don’t invest wisely in researching and developing diverse seed varieties to meet diverse conditions.” 

UCS’s fact sheet, “Seeds of the Future: How Investments in Classical Breeding Can Support Sustainable Agriculture,” explains that in the absence of funding for classical breeding programs, seed development largely falls to commercial seed companies, which tend to focus on short-term profits rather than solving long-term agricultural challenges. 

“Private agricultural research funding, not surprisingly, flows to products that generate profits: seeds, chemicals, and services that can be sold over large areas,” said DeLonge. “But many of today’s farmers need better access to diverse and regionally adapted seed varieties—varieties that are most affordably produced by classical breeding.” 

Classical breeding is proven to affordably produce seeds that tolerate extreme weather and variable climates, resist pests, and use nitrogen efficiently. Furthermore, this method deserves credit for improving crop yields consistently over time. More resilient crops and higher yields mean higher profits for farmers. 

Inadequate funding for this research leads to a lack of genetic diversity, forcing farmers to rely on a dwindling number of seed varieties. Planting very few varieties of very few crops makes the nation’s food system extremely vulnerable to large-scale losses from pests and disease. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the capacity to increase the range of crop varieties available to farmers by funding research proposals that aim to increase seed diversity. Since breeding programs tend to extend over 15 years, USDA should also commit to long-term, consistent funding for this research.

“It’s up to the public sector to fund and conduct agricultural research that can address major agricultural challenges with relatively small investments,” said DeLonge. “Rather than relying on the private sector, USDA should increase funding for public breeding programs that benefit America’s farmers and promote the public interest.”