The Future of Plant Breeding Depends on the Pipeline of Breeders

Written By Bob Reiter
Aug 3, 2018 12:05 PM ET

The Future of Plant Breeding Depends on the Pipeline of Breeders

On the day that the Bayer acquisition of Monsanto was finalized, I was speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics (PBPG) program – where I earned my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in the 1980s.

I found it somewhat ironic that on the day I returned to reflect on my past, I officially learned that my future would be spent leading R&D efforts for this newly combined agricultural company – tasked with providing new innovative solutions to help farmers worldwide. What an incredible privilege. 

Over the past 30 years, I have enjoyed a remarkable career, both in terms of scientific research and leadership opportunities. I consider that to be a testament to the education and foundational career training that I received at UW-Madison. As I highlighted in my speech, the PBPG program is based in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and focuses on a variety of plants in addition to row crops, both of which are somewhat unusual for this type of program. So perhaps for those reasons – or perhaps the culture of openness and innovation on the UW-Madison campus – the PBPG program consistently breeds graduates who are prepared for success in industry as well as academia, armed with a diversity of skills and perspectives and a willingness to be at the forefront of technology adoption.

The world of plant breeding in 1968

Obviously, the world has changed since UW-Madison started its PBPG program in 1968, a moment in time often referred to in dramatic terms like “arguably the most historic year in modern U.S. history.” While it was a year that witnessed the introduction of incredible new technology – including the first 747 Jumbo Jet and the first live TV broadcast from space – it was also a year filled with tragedy and conflict, political and social unrest, and widespread uncertainty about the future.

That uncertainty spilled into the agricultural arena as well. In 1968, Dr. Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” predicting imminent global starvation because it was impossible to produce enough food to feed the growing population. "The battle to feed all humanity is over,” he wrote. “In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate...”

Meanwhile, that same year, Dr. Norman Borlaug’s higher-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties led to a record wheat harvest in India – a country that had been previously plagued by an inability to feed itself. Borlaug’s relentless pursuit of better plant breeding did the same thing for food production levels in Mexico, Pakistan, and other struggling nations. The term for this transformative period of agriculture, “The Green Revolution,” was also coined in 1968. As those paying attention soon realized, Ehrlich had been wrong. Better breeding and agronomic practices did lead to dramatic increases in agricultural production worldwide, providing enough grain to feed the world in time to avert catastrophe. If that doesn’t emphasize the vital role that science plays in agriculture, I don’t know what does.

Plant breeding reimagined

When I started my graduate research at UW-Madison in the mid-eighties, university breeding programs were the primary developers of new seed genetics. And we were still breeding the way Borlaug did – selecting “parent” plants with specific desired traits, such as disease tolerance or high-yield performance, cross-pollinating them by hand, collecting and planting the offspring seeds, and then waiting for them to grow to see which genetic characteristics would show up (phenotypes). Then we’d select the best performers, discard the rest, and repeat again and again. It was a very laborious and lengthy process that took years to generate improved seed hybrids with a consistent set of desired characteristics.

About three years into my graduate program, new research literature started showing up on how to do plant genetics studies using DNA. The new technology (RFLP mapping) allowed researchers to identify plants with desired characteristics using molecular markers. As soon as I read these papers, I knew this was the future of plant breeding. Just as studying DNA can help us make better decisions about our health, understanding a plant’s DNA allows us to create healthier and more productive plants. My forward-thinking PBPG professors encouraged me and my peers to dive into this cutting-edge research, and then we took those foundational ideas with us when we embarked on our careers in the ag industry.

When I joined Monsanto 10 years later, I was charged with establishing and leading our first molecular breeding site in Ankeny, Iowa. There we helped advance the technology that reimagined the plant breeding process. Today we use high-throughput genotyping, marker-assisted breeding, and predictive analytics to increase the number of seeds screened early in the breeding process, and pinpoint which seeds are best for testing in local fields. In other words, instead of planting a seed and waiting for it to grow, we can analyze the seed’s DNA using molecular markers to see if it has the traits we want – and we can do that for thousands of seeds in minutes. By starting with a larger genetic pool of possible seeds and narrowing them down in less time, we can test more high-potential top performers in the field.

In addition, new data analytic capabilities help breeders make more informed selections earlier in the pipeline. Now we're looking at algorithms that can predict which combinations of genetic crosses will create the next best performing seed products. When you add in continued advances in machine learning and automation, along with new technology like gene editing, which I recently wrote about, you enable a dramatic shift in breeding scale and speed. This allows longer field testing before commercialization, and the ability to bring improved seeds to farmers faster than ever before.

I can’t fail to mention that in addition to myself, dozens of other PBPG graduates have brought their ideas and expertise to Monsanto over the years – including around 30 who are here today. Many of them have helped lead the way in adopting these and other transformative new ideas and technologies.

The future of plant breeding…and the world

Now agricultural companies play the lead role in developing new seed genetics, but that doesn’t make the role of university ag programs like PBPG any less vital. Universities continue to do valuable foundational research using new breeding methods and technologies. And most importantly, they are laying the groundwork for the next 50 years of innovation by training a workforce that can develop the new methods of tomorrow. By equipping young plant breeders with a wide variety of non-traditional technical skills, universities will enable them to innovate far beyond what we can imagine today.

As I think about the future of Crop Science R&D at Bayer, I know our success will depend on a steady pipeline of next-generation talent. We will need skilled scientists who understand plant genetics and can apply them to any crop; tech-savvy breeders who understand fieldwork as well as data science and AI; and entrepreneurial thinkers who have been trained to identify and solve real-world problems.

Right now, the biggest real-world problem we face – one not so different from the world of 1968 – is how to create a food-secure world while protecting the future of the planet. The U.N. predicts that the world population will grow by more than 2 billion over the next 30 years – which means that we will need to keep finding ways to produce more food on the same amount of land (or less). Unlike naysayer Ehrlich, I’m optimistic that we can do it. But I know that crop yields won’t continue to improve on their own. As history has taught us, it takes scientific research and innovative plant breeding to improve the genetic performance of plants in order to reap better harvests. 

So…to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s PBPG program and other programs like it…I’d like to say thank you for all you’ve done to help make today’s modern agricultural advances possible. And, please keep doing what you do. Our ability to feed the world with our pipeline of innovative products depends on your pipeline of well-trained plant breeders.