The average consumer might not think about it, but for decades, USDA plant breeding research has been producing varieties that have been helping feed the world and preserve the environment. We know that you look for the plumpest, juiciest strawberries at your neighborhood market, so USDA plant breeding scientists worked to find the genes to make them taste even better. And to help farmers in Northern climates produce more food for our tables, USDA plant breeding researchers developed corn that would mature early before the bitter cold arrived. This important work plays a significant role in our lives and USDA hopes to build on all these positive outcomes to make sure even more keep coming. Therefore, to coordinate work on plant breeding and maximize the results from ever more limited resources, USDA formed a new Plant Breeding Working Group (PBWG) earlier this year.
Coordinated by the Office of the Chief Scientist, with representatives from five agencies (Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Economic Research Service (ERS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Forest Service), this group has been working to guide future USDA efforts in plant breeding. To better coordinate the Department’s work, the group created a database of USDA plant breeding efforts and associated “vignettes” which showcase successful cross-agency work. For example, in the past decade, NIFA-funded researchers from Louisiana State University partnered with that Natural Resource Conservation Service to collect, grow, and select smooth cordgrass varieties, which were then used in coastal restoration projects along the northern Gulf of Mexico. And more recently, researchers from ARS partnered with NIFA-funded scientists to develop hard white wheat—wheat that contains the nutrition of whole wheat, but has the taste of white, making it a healthy and tasty alternative for kids.
What’s next for the PBWG? With help from the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), the group is hosting a listening session on August 15. At that listening session, a diverse group of plant breeding stakeholders have been invited to discuss their needs and challenges with the USDA plant breeding community. Whether in attendance or not, the public is invited to share written comments on their vision for the future of plant breeding with OCS for inclusion into the official listening session report. This input will be valuable for USDA’s strategy on where to place ever more scarce plant breeding resources, and it will hopefully generate a forward-looking dialogue in the community that will enable it to be more responsive to future needs of plant breeding in an ever-changing and ever more populated world.