Seeds & Breeds for the 21st century: Call to be stewards of Creation
March 20, 2014
A national summit on Seeds & Breeds – and challenges for food security – was held in early March in Washington, DC. This was an invitation-only gathering of farmers, plant scientists, public university and USDA researchers, sustainable agriculture advocates, and other leaders concerned about the state of food production in our country.
Catholic Rural Life board member Ron Rosmann, who is also an organic farmer from Harlan, Iowa, was one of the invited participants.
The theme of the summit was “Meeting the Challenges of Food Security” and provided an opportunity for expert discussion among public plant breeders, federal policymakers, farmers and advocates.
Rosmann alerted Catholic Rural Life that this is a critical time for public plant breeding. According to new survey data, the U.S. has lost approximately 30% of our public plant breeding programs over the last 20 years. The national summit was held to build a clear policy pathway for ensuring that our public research investments are meeting the needs of a regionally appropriate, diverse, and resilient system of agricultural production.
Stewardship of Creation
For his part at the summit gathering, Rosmann brought along his perspective that we must serve as stewards of Creation. One way stewardship of Creation expresses itself, he said, is in the need for both public and small private plant and animal breeding.
Until the creation of Land Grant universities by President Lincoln in 1862, nearly all plant and animal breeding was done by farmers. With the advent of the land grant system, all new cultivars and breeds developed at the public university were for the public good, to be freely used by any individual or business to develop new and useful seeds and breeds to be used in the private sector. No one “owned” germplasm.
“That has all changed in today’s world,” Rosmann said. “There are very few public plant and animal breeders left. Because of the ruling that allowed the patent ownership of seeds, it has become increasingly more difficult and expensive to develop new seeds and breeds. It has resulted in less diversity of seeds and breeds and has accompanied the ‘one size fits all’ mentality of today’s industrial agriculture.”
Rosmann went on to explain that today we see the concentration and linkage of the seed and chemical industries. The six largest chemical companies command over 76% of the global market of pesticides. Five of these are also in the list of top ten seed companies: Monsanto, DuPont-Pioneer, and Syngenta control 85% of all germplasm for corn and it is all very similar in genetic lineage.
“Because of the decrease in diversity of seed choices, we are opening the crack in the door a little more all the time for crop disasters due to new novel diseases and pests. This is apparent by the observation that corporate breeders prefer susceptibility to disease and high consumption and reliance on pesticides.”
Need for public and small private breeders
In contrast, Rosmann said, public and small private breeders tend to prefer breeding for pest resistance and low pesticide use. Unfortunately, the general public knows very little about the importance or the need for public seed availability.
“People of all faiths must consider that plant seeds and animal breeds are at the very heart of God’s creation, steeped in the biblical history of their utilization for the good of all humankind. Public breeders have been largely replaced by molecular geneticists who are trained in the science of biotechnology and gene and DNA transfer technologies.”
Rosmann recognizes that this science is important, but he stresses that it should never have replaced the critical role of the public plant and animal breeder.
“Breeding is both art and science,” he explained. “It emphasizes the power and role of phenotypic selection, recombination, and population and statistics genetics. This dates back to the beginning discoveries of inheritance by the 19th century monk Gregor Mendel.”
Rosmann agrees with those who see a critical need for new seeds and breeds in today’s world of climate change, increasing population and ecological degradation.
For the good of all
“But the even more critical question will be who will control these new seeds and breeds,” he says. “Will it be for the good of all, or will it be for the few powerful and wealthy multi-national corporations?”
In Rosmann’s estimation, the ability to save seeds by farmers around the world will continue to decline dramatically with the push by the biotechnology seed industry and their proponents.
That is truly unfortunate, he said, because the public sector and small private seed entities are much more willing and capable of developing cultivars adapted to local environments. “These locally adapted cultivars will produce higher yields, maintain diversity and improve economic stability for farmers around the world.”
In other words, these are the true stewards of Creation.