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Organic Agriculture

Breeding plants for local tastes and conditions

Ann Marie Thro, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) national program leader for Plant Breeding and Genetic Resources, worked with Larry Robertson of the Agricultural Research Service in Geneva, NY, to prepare a blog entry for USDA’s Know Your Farmer Know Your Food website.  Know Your Farmer Know Your Food is a USDA-wide effort to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers. It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate.

The Organic Seed Partnership, which is discussed in the blog, was funded by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, as was a similar project in Hawaii. Although not mentioned specifically in the article, NIFA has also funded a number of plant breeding and organic seed systems grants, including several in participatory plant breeding. These include some of NIFA’s earliest grants. In 2002, the first year grants were awarded, and again in 2009, NIFA funded Wisconsin researchers to improve the quality and availability of ‘seed’ potatoes for organic production. Another early grant was to M. M. Jahn in 2004, then at Cornell, to develop the Organic Seed Partnership.  Jahn’s program was one of the first participatory plant breeding projects and a model for later projects, including a vegetable improvement cooperative based in Oregon that was funded in 2009. In addition, NIFA has funded organic breeding projects in wheat, corn, and other grain crops in Michigan, North Carolina, and Iowa. NIFA has also funded breeding projects on organic hops (Washington) and cotton (Texas).

These plant breeding projects draw on the resources and expertise of growers, private sector plant breeders, germplasm conservators, and many other stakeholders to improve crop performance in organic systems. Because of the consolidation in the commercial seed industry and decreasing support for plant breeding in the public sector, there is a critical shortage of resources to develop new cultivars, especially those acceptable under the organic guidelines (no genetically modified organisms). Depending on the project, local adaptation or selection for particular traits, such as artisanal bread production or resistance to a particular pest, or resistant to cross-pollination by genetically engineered crops, may be most important.


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