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Wild Plants to the Rescue

Efforts to domesticate new, high-yield, perennial grain crops require patience and persistence—but such plants could transform agriculture

David Van Tassel, Lee DeHaan

The Nonprofit Niche

2013-05VanTasselF6.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageKernza has now had over two decades of sustained breeding work. This effort would not have been possible without the dedication of two nonprofit organizations and their funders, who were willing to see this work through without a short-term return on their investment. The crop is now being investigated at several universities, a step that occurred only after substantial investment by nonprofits.

To be fair, the process is not completely one-directional, with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on wild material and passing more refined plant material up the line to large research organizations and companies. Some government and intergovernmental agencies have been deliberately set up to facilitate high-risk, long-term work. The best example is the system of national and international germplasm collections. At the Land Institute, we made our own direct collections of native sunflower germplasm, but the Rodale Institute took advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Germplasm Resources Information Network’s excellent collection of Thinopyrum intermedium seeds from central Asia. The National Resource Conservation Service’s Big Flats Plant Materials Center helped preserve and improve the breeding population when the Rodale Institute’s breeding program closed. The Land Institute took on the project from there. The result of all this work was kernza.

Moreover, all the work we do is built upon the body of basic botanical and genetic research produced by the world’s universities since the time of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. New molecular tools developed by universities and life science companies could help us accelerate our work.

It is nevertheless remarkable that young nonprofit organizations should undertake projects that older, much better funded institutions and corporations won’t touch or have abandoned. One explanation for this phenomenon is the tendency for institutions to mature along with the technologies they were founded to develop. The land-grant colleges and state experiment stations of 100 years ago, and the international crop-improvement centers of 50 years ago, probably looked and operated more like today’s agricultural NGOs than modern research universities. The crops they worked with would appear only partially domesticated to our eyes, and their breeders tackled some of the same kinds of challenges faced by those of us doing domestication today.

Some plant breeders express concern that fewer students are being trained in breeding techniques at university and government experiment stations, and that existing programs have increasingly invested in gene- and genome-level research. But perhaps the era of domestication of our traditional crops is over. We may have gotten almost as much yield as possible through reshaping plant form and allocation patterns, and new gains may require precision targeting genes for plant health and grain chemistry. The adjustments that remain possible to make are fine scale; they require techniques capable of identifying more subtle and smaller phenotypes. The institutions devoted to the wheat, rice, maize and soybean economy have changed in parallel with the needs of their client species. The trade-off is that these programs are probably less adapted for working with large, primitive, diverse populations than they were a century ago.

A second difference between mainstream research and nonprofits is that funding for universities and experiment stations increasingly comes from competitive grants. Allocation of funds at this scale becomes dependent on an average of the opinions of numerous bureaucrats, lawmakers, administrators and committees. This is a far cry from the privately wealthy gentlemen of science of the 17th to 19th centuries, some of whom (including Darwin) were able to spend decades developing their theories without having to convince grant reviewers of their ideas’ merit or utility.

Jackson, whose ideas reviewers might have considered heretical or impractical, chose to find the nonprofit equivalent of venture capital to fund the Land Institute’s research, rather than try to meet the expectations of those grant review panels. But individual philanthropists and visionary CEOs present other challenges for research programs: They may have more freedom to support high-risk, high-impact projects than established bureaucracies, but they are also free to change their priorities at any time. Only unceasing education of the donor community and unwavering administrative priorities have allowed Land Institute researchers to maintain such long-term programs.

Even if many of our colleagues in the scientific mainstream who are interested in new crop domestication find themselves constrained by institutional culture and funding issues, we have found that a relatively small amount of domestication can make a species much more amenable to academic research and funding. Simply providing food chemists with quantities of kernza grain and flour made it possible for them to plan experiments. Likewise, making available genetically improved breeding populations reduces the risk and time required for starting a regional breeding program—as is happening in the research program on kernza in Minnesota.

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