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Plant Breeding Research

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts plant breeding activities both internally and through publicly funded programs. Plant breeding at the USDA encompasses activities that conduct, sponsor, or analyze the human-aided development of new plant varieties or plant populations.

Plant Breeding Roadmap

Plant breeding is human-aided development of new plant materials with needed characteristics. Plant breeding plays a key role in addressing long-term climate-change mitigation and resilience, and in nutrition security.

USDA 2021-2026 Plant Breeding Roadmap
  • Focus on crops and markets that currently or soon will have impact on public cultivars and/or public pre-breeding germplasm and ensure genetic resources for specialty crops that meet the economic, cultural, and nutritional needs of all Americans
  • Address the entire breeding cycle in an integrated way, with balanced, appropriate effort and investment in phenotyping, genotyping, and selection phases

  • Develop and model novel and/or optimal methods for breeding program effectiveness and efficiency. Specific modeling and development areas include:

    • new in-silico modeling frameworks for breeding research and education
    • simulations to model and test full-cycle needs, include value-add and market feedback, to meet strategic goals for climate-smart agriculture, equity, and nutrition security, including partnerships with Climate Hubs and long-term agroecosystem projects (Strategic Goal 1.1)
    • model breeding program shifts in response to feedbacks at varying time scales, such as climate change that leads to novel environments and requires new predictions, and changes in the food system that shift priorities during the breeding cycle
    • develop breeding program models that specifically address breeding in context and incorporate, for example:
      • novel breeding targets, such as system-scale nutrition security, support for traditional diets, and breeding for enhanced nutritional quality (USDA Strategic Goal 4)
      • safeguarding of plant health and enhancing food safety through development of varieties with increased resiliency to stress and disease and varieties that promote healthy microbiomes (USDA Strategic Goal 2)
      • research on breeding for increased plant protein to help meet global protein demands
      • breeding for polyculture optimization, including climate-smart needs such as cover crops and regenerative systems, via developing novel methods and simulations to maximize predictive power
      • develop breeding program decision support tools for the full range of producers, including beginning farmers and urban agricultural systems
      • build out decision support for breeding of varieties/cultivars that enhance local food networks and build food system resilience and market stability
      • develop of new methods and novel, scalable validations to combine phenomics (high-throughput phenotyping) with high-throughput genotyping to identify associations between changes in the DNA and observed differences in phenotype to ultimately predict genotype x environment x management in future environments
    • Model, pilot, and plan expansion of effective collaborations across the breeding cycle with communities funded by specific programs
    • Develop novel approaches to serve emerging markets and needs, such as nutrition security, traditional foods, and citizen breeding programs, including projects that will create more and better market opportunities allowing U.S. agriculture to access and sustain successful market growth abroad (USDA Strategic Goal 3)
  • Connect education and workforce development programs with startup and established businesses, with a focus on building human and decision-making skills and on simulation modeling/forecasting future plant breeding skills.
  • Develop and scale new methods/programs for (i) rapid development of targeted, effective plant breeding education programs for all audiences, (ii) faculty and research professionals to enable shifts in focus to meet future plant breeding needs, and (iii) increase access to program participation among underserved communities (USDA Strategic Goal 5)
  • Develop and build out a plant breeding emphasis and stakeholder feedback integration for crops desired by Tribal groups and underserved communities to help fulfill the administration priority topics of Equity & Inclusion and Nutrition Security

Examples of specific audience uses of the 2021-2026 Roadmap

This blueprint provides guidance and information for many different audiences, for example a student taking a breeding class can learn about the current state of plant breeding and future directions.

Public plant breeder

  • To develop and implement ideas that reflect current USDA priorities
  • Identify gaps in plant breeding efforts and address those gaps through new research and educational efforts

Private industry plant breeder

  • Recruit trained graduates who can onboard easily and add value immediately
  • Pre-breeding germplasm to incorporate into breeding programs (in some crops)
  • Identify new public resources to benefit their plant breeding program

Private industry seed product team leader

  • Enhance data analysis of public plant breeding program data to examine innovative breeding options for possible use in private breeding programs
  • Align priorities of their plant breeding programs

Leadership of professional association

  • Explain how society’s priorities are being addressed, e.g., germplasm resource development, genotyping, phenotyping, modeling

Professional association member

  • Participate in conference poster and oral sessions by roadmap topic areas
  • Put research in context during talks/posters
  • Justify importance of research when applying for special funds/conference awards

Graduate student interested in breeding

  • Determine potential research projects based on industry/government needs; areas of potential funding and USDA collaboration (what are the active areas of research and what are the gaps); use to align grant proposals with USDA priorities
  • Understand future opportunities for after graduate school; what skills need to be developed for future jobs whether in government, industry, or academia

Student taking a breeding class

  • Learn about the current state of plant breeding and future directions
  • Develop class projects or reports
  • Learn about skills that will be needed when the student graduates (e.g., data analysis and modeling skills, genetics skills)

ARS scientist

  • To write a specific project plan
  • To support construction of 5-year action plans
  • To develop grant proposal ideas

Forest Service scientist

  • To integrate the latest techniques used by geneticists in other agencies and in the public and private sectors
  • To develop a response framework to address resistance tree breeding
  • To link Forest Service breeders with others across the Agencies and in public and private sectors

ARS National Program Leader

  • For writing the action plan, e.g., for National Program 301 which is mostly focused on plant breeding.
  • To communicate with stakeholders and scientists about USDA priorities on plant breeding.
  • To communicate with other Departments and Agencies and international partners.
  • To help future budget discussions.

NRCS Plant Materials Centers

  • Evaluate potential gaps in conservation and native plant species selection work in the private sector (private seed companies or local seed plant development programs) to determine where there is a need for additional plant selection work by NRCS

NIFA National Program Leader

  • Include a link to the Roadmap in funding opportunities to support plant breeding program priorities
  • Incorporate in explanatory notes and agency budget justifications for Congress, as needed.
  • Use in presentations to stakeholders and other Departments, Agencies, and international partners.

University administrator

  • Return on investment information on plant breeding education programs
  • Funding opportunities for plant breeding research
  • Collaborative potential for training students and research (e.g., with data science)
  • Economic impact of research, cultivar and variety releases
  • Prioritization of future faculty positions-–plant breeding and associated disciplines

Extension administrator

  • Return on investment, plant breeding program efficiency
  • New ways to determine fit between producers and plant breeding program outputs

Partner agencies

  • To show how their research investments benefit development of agricultural research priorities at the national level, through coordinated investments that all contribute to national and global priorities.

USDA leadership

  • Demonstrate coordination across mission areas
  • Illustrate how USDA priorities are being implemented in programs
  • Show how allocated resources are being leveraged to accomplish strategic goals
  • Use to advocate for priorities and increased funding


Acknowledgments and Glossary


This roadmap for USDA plant breeding priorities was developed by the USDA plant breeding working group with extensive stakeholder input. This roadmap is a living document and revisions are anticipated; we would be grateful for stakeholder comments on this roadmap directed to We sincerely thank the many stakeholders who contributed thoughtful comments and participated in stakeholder meetings.

Glossary with definitions of plant breeding terms

Germplasm: The base genetics of a species from which new plant populations are developed. This would be the parent material to potentially many varieties and cultivars.

Variety: A naturally occurring isolated group or an artificially selected group within a species bearing unique traits. Varieties will breed true, producing seed with generally the same characteristics as the parent plants.

In forest trees many types of varieties can be identified, selected. or even bred, such as:

  • Seed Production Area collection-- e.g., cross pollinations of many trees from a given area (provenance) or stand.
  • Wide Seed Orchard mix—e.g., cross pollinations of 50 or more selected parents
    • very high diversity, true breeding since the parents are selected based on their additive genetic value (i.e., breeding value)
  • Narrow Seed Orchard mix—e.g., cross pollinations of 15-25 selected parents
    • high diversity, true breeding since the parents are selected based on their additive genetic value (i.e., breeding value), although some inbreeding is possible

Cultivar: A combination of “cultivate” and “variety,” a cultivar is a variety that has been carefully selected and bred for by plant breeders. Cultivars often will not breed true, creating offspring that do not resemble the parent plants.

In forest trees, cultivars would be propagated and deployed as specific families or clones and they will not breed true since either they are based on additive and non-additive genetic value or their pollinators may be related, causing inbreeding depression. Several types of cultivars can be identified, selected or bred, such as:

  • OP family from seed orchard—e.g., cross-pollinations collected from one or a small number of maternal parent(s) in a seed orchard
    • moderately diverse, and not true breeding, because pollinators will not be selected, or they will be related to each other
  • CP family—e.g., controlled-cross pollinations between one or a small number of pairs of parents
    • low diversity, and not true breeding, because performance is based on additive and non-additive genetic values and pollinators will not be selected or they will be related to each other
  • Clonal mix, wide—
    • moderate diversity, not true breeding, because performance is based on additive and non-additive genetic values and pollinators will not be selected or they will be related to each other
  • Clonal mix, narrow—
    • Moderate to low diversity, not true breeding, because performance is based on additive and non-additive genetic values and pollinators will not be selected or they will be closely related to each other

Promoting Fair Competition and Innovation in Seeds and Other Agricultural Input Industries

More and Better Choices for Farmers" is a response to President Biden's Executive Order 14036, which directs Federal agency actions to enhance fairness and competition across America's economy. The report, published in March 2023, synthesizes input from public comments, listening sessions, and academic scholarship to make recommendations and propose strategies for ensuring that the intellectual property system, while incentivizing innovation, does not also unnecessarily reduce competition in seed and other input markets.

Plant Diseases

Control strategies that are effective, affordable, and environmentally conscious are continuously being developed by USDA to reduce losses caused by plant diseases that are effective and affordable while maintaining environmental quality.

Plant Health Research

USDA conducts plant health research and monitoring and provides resources to protect threats to our food supply and to our Nation's economy.

Pest Management

USDA provides technology to manage pest populations below economic damage thresholds by integrating strategies that are based on increased understanding of the biology and ecology of insect, mite, and weed pests.

Weed Management

USDA's Noxious Weed Program seeks to prevent the introduction of non-indigenous invasive plants in the U.S. and to prevent the spread of newly introduced invasive plants. USDA's noxious weed activities include exclusion, permitting, eradication of incipient infestations, survey, data management, public education, and (in cooperation with other agencies and state agencies) integrated management of introduced weeds, including biological control.