The Farm Bill and Seed

By now you have probably received more Farm Bill emails than you can count. With the Senate passing its Farm Bill last week and the House taking it up next month, here’s a quick update on how seed is fairing in these discussions.

First, some good things: we’re pleased that certain programs aimed at supporting the success of organic farmers were maintained or improved in the Senate Farm Bill. For example, advocates (like you!) helped kill an amendment that would have eliminated the organic certification cost share program. Certification cost share helps thousands of small- to mid-scale farmers (especially those transitioning to organic) offset the cost of certification. And we’re also pleased that an amendment passed that requires USDA to set appropriate crop insurance payment levels for organic farmers. Currently organic farmers receive a price that doesn’t reflect the organic market (and they pay more for this insurance, too).

Also maintained was the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), a vital grant program that supports organic research, including organic seed projects like CIOA and NOVIC. We are, however, disappointed to see a $4 million cut to this program. An industry that continues to expand in the field and marketplace deserves an increase in research dollars to support this growth, not a decrease. Interest in organic research is also growing.

Although we’ve seen gains over the years in achieving organic provisions, the list of Farm Bill priorities remains long. Thankfully, we have roadmaps. Two years ago, the National Organic Coalition, of which OSA is a member, published a National Organic Action Plan that represents a vision for the future of organic agriculture. Coupled with OSA’s State of Organic Seed report, which provides recommendations for expanding and improving the organic seed sector, the organic community has a comprehensive policy agenda that reflects broad environmental, economic, and social values.

Making progress toward policy changes that reflect these values is slow and never easy. Nowhere does it appear harder these days than in public plant breeding to ensure taxpayer dollars help deliver farmers the seed they need to be successful.

Earlier this month, Montana Senator Jon Tester introduced a Farm Bill amendment to designate a small percentage of the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative budget for classical plant and animal breeding. The amendment didn’t make it into the list of 50 that the Senate voted on last week. One reason offered for why the amendment didn’t pass muster is that it was too controversial.

It shouldn’t be.

Classical breeding is cost-effective and a proven science, and the best source of diverse, complex traits that allow farmers and researchers to respond to changing conditions, ongoing challenges, and new market opportunities. It has obvious benefits for researchers and consumers, and it’s good for all farmers, no matter what kind of crop they choose to grow.

Earlier this month, OSA traveled to DC to attend a Capitol Hill event hosted by NOC. Coalition members visited a total of 32 offices in the Senate and House with a unified message: Protect farmer choice in seed. We delivered a letter that includes signatures from 50 university researchers and more than 50 agricultural organizations in support of Senator Tester’s amendment to reinvigorate classical plant breeding in the public sector.

Dakota Resource Council was among the signatories. Todd Leake, a conventional farmer and member of the Council, grows wheat and soybeans with his brother on 2,000 acres in Grand Forks County, ND, where soil acidity is high and the growing season is short. “I depend on my state’s land grant university for crop lines that can handle our emerging disease and pest pressures, as well as our local soil and climate and growing conditions,” he says. “But without federal funding, public breeders can’t develop these crops, and farmers like me won’t have the choices we need. Already, my crop choices are dwindling.”

Beyond farmer choice, the lack of seed availability and the narrowing of genetic resources make our food system less secure. The maintenance and improvement of genetic diversity through classical breeding is essential for the success of productive food systems and the greater global food supply, both now and into the future. This is a national issue and should be addressed, at least in part, through national programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. The 2008 Farm Bill required USDA to make conventional plant and animal breeding a priority within AFRI, but one analysis shows that, since the last Farm Bill, only one out of 127 plant-related AFRI projects funded true classical plant breeding.

Part of the issue appears to be a bias toward funding projects that include lab-based methodologies. Classical breeding complements newer forms of breeding and fills important roles that lab-based approaches, such as genomics, are not well suited. Yet the agency has funded molecular breeding approaches to the near exclusion of classical breeding.

OSA’s Senior Scientist Dr. John Navazio puts the lack of emphasis on classical plant breeding this way:

It’s as if classical plant breeding has dried up and blown away and is inconsequential in comparison to other methods, such as genetic engineering. Nothing could be further from the truth! Many of the plant breeders I know are doing some of the best plant breeding that has been done since the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900. Pioneering breeding work is being done on breeding genetically diverse, resilient crop varieties that are able to adapt to the environmental challenges occurring in low-input, sustainable systems that many farmers are incorporating around the world. Best of all, these varieties are being bred in participatory partnerships with farmers who then become farmer breeders. They continue adapting these crops to their environments and unique needs into the future.

And that’s another argument for bolstering support for classical plant breeding. Not only do these projects support farmers as end users of new cultivars, classical plant breeding can (and should) honor farmers’ historic role in crop improvement. Farmers largely built our nation’s germplasm base for modern agriculture to thrive, expand, and meet new agricultural challenges. They were our first and most important field-based plant breeders. We have our farming ancestors to thank for the food crops we enjoy today. (See OSA’s update on our new Participatory Plant Breeding Toolkit, written to facilitate the development of on-farm breeding projects.)

The House of Representatives will move forward next month with its own Farm Bill. The Senate’s bill is regarded as the “high-water mark,” so we’re not optimistic that a major positive shift will happen — but that’s not to say OSA and our partners at NOC aren’t trying. Keep tabs on seed-related Farm Bill items by bookmarking our blog and following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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