This week Seed World Group took a truly North American view of the public and private plant breeding spheres when we hosted a webinar featuring speakers from Canada, the United States and Mexico to talk about how we can find common ground between public and private breeding programs. It was part of our Canadian Retail Roundtable series sponsored by SeCan and 20/20 Seed Labs.
During this session, we uncovered some key learning points:
Throughout North America, public plant breeding is under strain.
According to Mikey Kantar, a plant science professor at the University of Hawaii, the public sector’s plant breeding programs are facing challenges. These programs are getting older, and they’re not receiving as many resources as they used to, Kantar said.
“The problem is that when people retire from these programs, they often aren’t being replaced. We’re witnessing a shift towards focusing more on crops that have a strong market demand and are considered valuable commodities,” he said.
The breeding programs that continue to thrive are the ones that can bring in significant profits through things like royalties or fees paid by local growers. “Lately, there’s been a noticeable trend in the public sector towards hiring breeders who specialize in genetics work. They work on tasks like preliminary breeding and producing breeding materials for future use. This approach has proven to be quite beneficial.”
However, historically, the public sector breeding programs have been responsible for much more than just these tasks, Kantar said. “They’ve played a vital role in developing and releasing new plant varieties that offer various benefits. But there’s been a shift in priorities due to a decrease in support for these programs that require sustained, long-term efforts. The issue here is that even though we understand the processes involved, breeding new plants takes time. You can’t make a breakthrough and expect to see results in just a month. It involves waiting for multiple generations of plants to grow and develop before you can truly assess the success of your efforts.”
Fernando Gonzalez, a retired plant breeder based in Guadalajara, Mexico, who’s worked with the likes of CIMMYT and Corteva Agriscience, said there’s a noticeable uptick in the involvement of the private sector in breeding programs in Mexico. It seems like most, if not all, of these private companies are competing within the same market segments. Their ultimate goal is to make significant investments in key crops, especially those in lucrative areas.
“We’re witnessing a situation where the private sector’s influence is rapidly growing, while on the other hand, the number of effective breeding programs within the public sector is on the decline,” Gonzalez said.
“Over the years, a few public breeding programs have managed to survive. This is largely thanks to funding coming from pharmaceutical organizations and small companies that benefit from the results of public breeding efforts. However, despite these efforts, the overall trend is clear: there’s a significant reduction in the number of active public sector programs and the funding they receive.”
In Canada, both private and public breeding dominate depending on location and crop.
Lauren Comin, regulatory affairs manager for Seeds Canada, said the Canadian landscape of public and private breeding can be somewhat different depending on whether you’re in the West or the East. These differences are also influenced by the specific crop you’re discussing. For instance, when it comes to crops like canola, corn, and soy, where transgenic events and hybrids have gained significant traction, the private sector takes the lead. They dominate the scene, and there’s minimal involvement from the public sector in terms of commercialization.
However, the story shifts when we look at crops like pulses and wheat, particularly in the western provinces.
“In this case, it’s the public sector that holds sway, with institutions like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and universities taking the lead. Over time, a strong tradition of producer support, both in terms of funding and advocacy, has emerged in the western part of the country for these pulse and cereal programs,” Comin said.
“This funding from producers is often matched by government contributions, effectively creating a subsidized environment for these programs. This combination of factors, along with the widespread use of farm-saved seed, the absence of a universal seed royalty on saved seed, and a robust registration system for these crops, has effectively kept the private sector from gaining a significant foothold.”
On the eastern side of Canada, there’s a higher prevalence of certified seed usage, which has allowed for more private sector involvement.
“In recent years, we’ve even witnessed a shift in relationships between producer groups and private breeders. An example would be the recent partnership between Limagrain and the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers. However, this shift hasn’t been as pronounced for cereal crops. They continue to be primarily funded by producer check-offs and rely on government matching funds through these five-year policy programs. Unfortunately, this kind of funding setup doesn’t align well with the long-term nature of plant breeding efforts. With each cycle, the funding gets eroded, budgets become tighter, and government priorities start to shift, presenting challenges for sustaining effective breeding programs.”
Together, our speakers talked about how we can form effective partnerships between the private and public sectors to ensure a healthy future for each.