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Unpacking the Cornucopia to Celebrate the Fall Harvest and the Fruits of Plant Breeding

Posted by Sarah Federman, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, USDA Office of the Chief Scientist and Ann-Marie Thro, National Program Leader for Plant Breeding and Genetic Resources, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Research and Science
Oct 17, 2017
A mix of vegetables
Plant breeding continues to support higher production, delivering diverse cornucopia crops for generations to come.

It’s that time of year again when many of us adorn our homes with autumn décor, and our tables with the bounties of a fall harvest. Consider the cornucopia. This centerpiece is symbolic of the food and thanks that we share with our friends and family. Inside, we find examples of grains, fruits, and vegetables – familiar crops that have occupied places at our tables for generations. We continue to enjoy foods made from these crops today, largely due to plant breeding efforts over the past century that significantly expanded their diversity and productivity.

Plant breeding is the human-aided development of new plant varieties with important characteristics such as drought or pest resistance. It is one of agriculture’s most effective tools for ensuring food security and the adaptability of crops to changing conditions.

Take grains, for instance. These iconic components of many cornucopias and fall harvests in the U.S. are some of our most important food crops. Over the past century, plant breeders from USDA and its land-grant university and private partners developed more productive and drought resistant corn. Similarly, USDA researchers working with universities and international partners developed more productive and disease-resistant wheat. These efforts contributed to what is known as the ‘Green Revolution,’ which is estimated to have saved over one billion people worldwide from starvation.

If we were to take a fruit from our cornucopia, say grapes, we would see a similar story where plant breeders have produced many new varieties of disease-resistant table grapes. And the same is true for vegetables. Since 1931, extensive plant breeding research by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and its university partners has produced over 115 new disease-resistant and productive onion varieties.

Plant breeding programs remain just as active and important today for creating a food secure and adaptable agricultural system as they were during the Green Revolution. For example, in collaboration with ARS scientists, researchers at Washington State and Cornell Universities are currently in the process of breeding exciting and delicious new varieties of apples.

This year, as we celebrate the harvest, let us also remember the care and agricultural research that helped to create this bounty.

Category/Topic: Research and Science