Washington Post Misses the Mark on Molecular Breeding Story

John_Purple BroccoliA recent Washington Post article by Adrian Higgins, titled, “Trait by trait, plant scientists swiftly weed out bad seeds through marker-assisted breeding” (April 16, 2014) overstates the potential of marker-assisted selection (a molecular plant breeding method) and makes the dubious claim that it’s the most promising plant breeding method available today.

We agree that marker-assisted selection (MAS) has a role in crop improvement and has helped breeders for a quarter century understand the relationship between genes and plant traits. It is good basic research. But MAS is just one tool in a plant breeder’s toolbox, with clear limitations, which the article largely dismissed.

Amid this rush to the “trendy sphere of molecular breeding,” as Mr. Higgins put it, we are seeing a troubling de-emphasis on, and de-funding of, classical plant breeding that produces dynamic, genetically resilient crops across diverse – and changing – agricultural environments.

If the past century of agriculture has taught us anything, it’s that there are no silver-bullet solutions to complex problems, MAS included. The danger with this centralized, one-size-fits-all breeding approach is that it results in diminishing crop diversity, as well as the diversity of breeders representing different interests in creatively solving agricultural challenges at the regional level. These are the concerns voiced by Drs. Goodman and Tracy, two of today’s preeminent breeding theorists, who were given short shrift in Mr. Higgins’ article. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations echoed this need for increased genetic diversity and decentralized breeding in creating the agricultural ecosystems of the future, while admonishing the “business-as-usual mindset.”

Classical breeding, rooted in field-based selection for the subtleties of a plant’s genetic response to environmental change, has proven to be highly effective for many traits that are more complex than can be discerned in a lab. Field-based selection can be practiced with limited resources and precision. Yet fewer funds are being directed to these breeding programs at our public institutions that for decades have delivered regionally adapted plant varieties to farmers and trained the next generation of breeders. We need to reprioritize classical breeding to help address our most pressing 21st century food and agriculture needs.

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