Thursday, February 06, 2003

The death of traditional crop breeding [Nature]
Normally, at this time of year, agricultural scientists from around the world would be converging on the headquarters of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT, in Texcoco, near Mexico City. They would then travel together to a desert field station near Ciudad Obreg�n in northwestern Mexico to study the current crop of experimental wheat cultivars, planted at the beginning of winter.

But not this year. For the first time in half a century, the research centre that helped to sow the seeds of the 'green revolution' of the 1960s and '70s has been forced to skip a cycle of wheat breeding trials, because of a lack of money. More than half of CIMMYT's fields in Obreg�n lie fallow, and the trainee plant breeders are staying at home.

CIMMYT is not alone. All over the world, conventional plant breeding has fallen on hard times, and is seen as the unfashionable older cousin of genetic engineering. "Plant breeding is getting dumped along the wayside for not being sexy enough," claims Greg Traxler, an agricultural economist at Auburn University in Alabama. Government funding of plant-breeding research has all but dried up in the United States and Europe, and the World Bank and donor nations have recently slashed their support for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the international research consortium of which CIMMYT is a part.

Meanwhile, a steady push by companies to claim exclusive commercial rights to new plant varieties has progressively tied the hands of publicly funded efforts at crop improvement. If this trend isn't halted, some experts claim, tomorrow's supercrops may end up like many of today's medicines: priced out of the reach of much of the developing world's growing population. "We are headed down the same path that public-sector vaccine and drug research went down a couple of decades ago," says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

It's worth reading the whole thing, which is now available on SciDev.Net.

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