A new study by Kansas State University, North Dakota State University, and the USDA, documents major sweeping declines in US agricultural biodiversity over the last 34 years, with an overall decline in some regions and only two regions showing any increases. This lack of agricultural biodiversity remains one of RAFI’s major concerns as well. The fact that US agriculture in this period of growing unpredictability and widely variable changing climates is actually declining in biodiversity, at the exact moment that we should be rapidly increasing biodiversity — must be seen as a wake-up call.
The fact that this study, which corroborates the similar conclusions from our 2014 National Summit on Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century – Meeting the Challenges of Food Security, only underscores the urgent need to re-diversify our agricultural production systems. This National Summit, which brought together: plant breeders, governmental and non-governmental officials, and farmers to address these concerns, also found major declines in public support for public plant breeding, increased concentration of the ownership of seeds and an alarming decline in the number of remaining public plant breeders.
Historically, our land grant universities have been on the front edge of increasing crop diversity, improving regional crop adaptation and stewarding our diverse genetic seed heritage. Recent studies show that public plant breeding is a cost-effective and underutilized approach to addressing the issues raised in the article, especially when done in collaboration with farmers and non-government agencies like our own. But in recent years, budgets for public plant breeding and maintenance of public germplasm collections has been slashed, reducing the capacity for public plant breeding, and for training the next generation of plant breeders.
This article and the results of the 2014 Summit demonstrate the importance of reversing this trend and building the capacity of Land Grant Universities and NGO partners to re-diversify our agricultural system. There is an urgency to increase agrobiodiversity by strengthening the world’s collections of germplasm, to be screened and utilized for breeding back more diverse genetic resources into our agricultural systems. This should be coupled with training the next generation of public cultivar developers to ensure that the wisdom, expertise and experience of our remaining public cultivar developers is passed down.
Across the country, our commercial cropping systems not only remain vulnerable due to the major decline in crop diversity, but more specifically from widespread crop genetic uniformity. Genetic uniformity occurs due to the wide use of too few species of crops with too short crop rotations, and too little genetic variation within these commercial cropping systems.
Why and how two US regions actually increased biodiversity during this period needs greater attention to learn if there are useful lessons from these regions. The larger disconnect, however, between current federal Ag policy and research priorities, also needs greater scrutiny and action.
Now is the exact time to realign our public Ag research priorities and support systems to better reward and encourage farmers and public breeders to rise to the challenge of re-diversifying US agriculture.