WASHINGTON, June 27, 2012 -“Irreplaceable crop diversity is threatened by extinction in nature, in traditional farmers’ fields, and even in developed nations,” says Peter Bretting, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service National Program Leader in Plant Germplasm and Genomes.
In a presentation made at National C-FAR’s seminar series in Washington this week, Bretting said diversity must be collected and safeguarded in genebanks in the form of seeds, bulbs, tubers and other “plant germplasm” or “plant genetic resources.”
Bretting detailed the work of USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) of 20 genebanks, which house more than half a million living samples from more than 14,000 different plant species.
The NPGS distributed more than one million plant samples in the past five years to researchers and breeders world-wide, and Bretting said the materials are essential for continued progress in crop genetics and breeding, underpinning global food security.
However, Bretting said the service “has been scrambling to deal with ever increasing demand,” and “the budget has plateaued” between $45 and $50 million annually since 2010.
NPGS has a system of free distribution, but Bretting discussed the possibility of “shifting the burden” of the cost. For the plant material system to operate from fees or royalties, it would have to charge several hundred dollars per sample, and two-thirds of recipients are already from the public sector. So, he said, the cost burden would be shifted to universities and other public institutions. Many of the NPGS stations are partnered with land-grant universities, including Iowa State University and Colorado State University.
“It would become essentially a small specialty seed company,” he said, that would have to focus on a small amount of the most popular plant material. Currently, the NPGS studies a wide variety of germplasms, including those able to resist foreign plant diseases. Bretting cited as an example Ug 99, a fungal disease spreading throughout Africa, is highly damaging to wheat and could threaten U.S. wheat if exposed.
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