“On the surface there doesn’t appear to be any obvious problems.” Seed Biologist and Crop Physiologist Marc Cohn is describing the potential effects on soil biota of using a three-carbon alcohol to break dormancy in a weed that Louisiana’s rice growers battle each year.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Raymond/sxc.hu.

The Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter professor and his team are striving to understand the mechanisms of weed seed dormancy. The ultimate goal is to find an environmentally safe soil treatment that will release weed seeds from a state of suspended animation and allow existing weed control practices to deplete the weed seed bank in the soil (the source of yearly weed infestations). “We’re not even close to that, unfortunately,” he says.

The LSU team has demonstrated how the seeds metabolize the alcohol, watched the chemical enter the seed and shown, by various structural modifications, the requirements for this metabolism. Although Cohn has spent 20 years on this project, he has more work to do before any substance is ready for testing in small plots of land. Cohn wants to ensure the input is truly safe for the soil biota and beneficial organisms in the soil before introducing it to the environment. “This work is only in the laboratory at this point. We’re not really in a position to say anything about environmental concerns.”

The research shows promise, but two things stand in the way of its completion: labor and funding. It has been challenging to attract the caliber of graduate students needed to participate in and expand on the work. In addition, like many seed researchers in academia, Cohn has had difficulty garnering financial support for the project.

Funding our food supply

Cohn has spent his career taking a fundamental approach to agricultural problems, sometimes to his detriment. Today, backers often require that researchers use certain strategies. Joel Reiten, seed production manager for Seeds of Change, says funders are particularly fond of research that may result in a patentable gene or process. Revenue generated from selling the license for patented genes and processes provides money for additional research. Several government agencies have declined to fund Cohn’s weed seed dormancy research, saying industry should support such work. The response Cohn received from industry funders is that the research is still too far from an actual application to be relevant, so government should fund it.

Dr. James Brewbaker, professor of tropical plant and soil sciences at the University of Hawaii, blames supply and demand. “Americans spend so little on food [12 percent today, compared to up to 60 percent 50 years ago] that we really don’t take seeds and improvement of seeds seriously,” he claims. Today, among U.S. funders, the Gates foundation stands out as the sole source of significant help.

Reiten agrees that food consumption drives demand for research. Development cost for a new variety can easily top $50,000 and takes several years. Additional costs for seed production can be quite high. “In veg crops like we are working with, the volume of seed sold is much lower [than in soybeans or cotton], and acceptance of a new variety can take much longer.”

In the past, breeding programs at land grant universities received at least partial funding from producer groups with a stake in developing locally adapted varieties for vegetable production. The breeders would share their varieties and/or germplasm with a seed company that would in turn make it available to local growers.

In recent years, processing companies like Heinz and Dole have been working with their own breeders or with large seed companies to produce varieties that are specific to their needs, and leaving researchers at land grant universities behind.

While some smaller seed companies are combining forces to fund academic research, their contribution provides only a drop in the bucket.

Empty footsteps

Another issue is that many seed researchers are preparing to retire, without replacements waiting in the wings. Furthermore, universities are either closing down these positions due to budget limitations or refilling existing seed positions with scientists that can generate higher levels of grant funding. Brewbaker says his colleagues in the National Association of Plant Breeders are concerned about having people to continue their work. As such, it’s harder to find qualified teachers of seed science and plant breeding at universities.

Globally, there remains an enormous demand for seed technology education and expertise. AGRA’s Program for African Seed Systems, funded by the Gates Foundation, is an example of this. Yet in the U.S., seed tech does not have the cachet of being an innovative research area. A decade ago, Dr. Brewbaker started the University of Hawaii’s course in tropical seed science. Today, the veteran breeder can’t find anyone to teach it.

Kent J. Bradford, professor and academic director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis, agrees that investment in seed physiologists or biologists who focus on seed quality issues has been meager in recent years. Instead, the focus of the vast majority of research at large seed companies is breeding improved varieties.

Still, seed companies need scientists to test seed quality, develop enhancement procedures, and test and apply additional technologies like seed treatments. The reduced number of crop breeding programs available in public institutions in the U.S. is cause for concern among seed company executives.

Bradford explains, “As with plant breeding, if we do not have academic programs to train master’s and Ph.D. students in seed biology and technology, there will be neither the expertise nor workforce to capitalize on the possible advances to improve yields while reducing inputs.”

Research versus results

American corporations have become accustomed to quick results and promises from researchers who claim to have discovered everything from a cure for a disease to a new food enhancement. “What they’re really saying is they have a potential cure for X, and it may take 10, 20 years of work just to determine whether it’s practical. I would love to be able to tell you that in five years we’re going to have this, but it’s not realistic and it’s not responsible,” says Cohn.

One of the reasons Cohn chose a career in academic research over corporate research is academic scientists are not accountable to shareholders for the next quarter’s profit, and hence one can work on difficult, long-term questions, such as weed seed dormancy, without the continual bottom line pressure. However, academia is changing. “One has to be careful,” he warns. “On another project, we had support from industry, and let me tell you, it really does help us. But I and the other members of the team were adamant about our freedom to publish what we found.” The LSU research team owned the data and shared it with their sponsors. Yet they told their sponsors, if you have any reservations about calling it the way we find it, then thank you but no thank you. In this case, the sponsors supported the team and released controls over the information discovered during the project. Unfortunately, this sort of cooperation is not the norm.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.