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Washington State University research

US food security in peril due to decline in plant breeding programs

A team of scientists led by Washington State University horticulture professor Kate Evans -who leads WSU's pome fruit breeding program- has found that public plant breeding programs are seeing decreases in funding and personnel. The study was published in the journal Crop Science.

Evans and her colleagues conducted a survey of 278 plant breeding programs around the country. Public programs are chiefly federal programs, like those run by the US Department of Agriculture, or based at public research universities.

In the surveys, respondents estimated a 21.4 percent decline in full time employee (FTE) time for program leaders over the past five years and an estimated 17.7 percent decline in FTE time for technical support personnel.

The researchers also found that retirement looms for a significant number of plant breeding program leaders. Over a third of the responding programs reported having leaders over the age of 60 and 62 percent are led by people over 50.

Another reason that plant breeding programs are declining is expense. It takes many years to develop a new variety of a crop, Evans said. And funding a program for that long requires significant investment.

"We can't rely on grants because those are often only for a few years," she said. "You can't do anything in plant breeding in three years, it requires long-term sustained funding to get a program going."

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