Original post from Stock Journal, 20 June, 2024, written by Catherine Miller

Report finds looming lack of plant breeders

A SCIENTIFIC report has warned a looming shortage of skilled plant breeders in Australia, Canada and New Zealand to produce new and improved varieties of food, fodder and fibre crops could affect global food security.

Since the 1960s, global food production has increased by more than 250%, in large this is due to plant breeding activities. But the joint paper from CSIRO, Lincoln University in New Zealand and McGill University in Canada, which was published in the Crop Science journal, has painted a concerning picture and need for intervention. Of the survey participants across the three countries, 71pc agreed the plant breeding sector was at risk of losing a significant amount of skilled workforce in the next 10 years and 69pc agreed the sector was struggling to attract students to train as the next generation of plant breeders.

Lead author and CSIRO scientist Lucy Egan said the shortage has been building for some time and had the potential to impact agricultural production worldwide.

“What we’re seeing is a whole generation of highly-skilled plant breeding specialists who are now reaching retirement age, with a gap left as university graduates opt to focus on other areas of plant science including molecular biology,” Dr Egan said.



The report has highlighted a number of responses to the skills shortage, including the need for a coordinated approach between the public and private sectors. Other suggestions for improvements include the establishment of dedicated training facilities, national funds for graduate fellowships and increased private sector involvement in plant breeding education. But AGT managing director Haydn Kuchel questions the findings and believes that much of the industry is in a better position – with more young plant breeders coming through – than 20 years ago.

“Twenty-five years ago plant breeders often had a long term state government job and it was hard to find an opening to move into plant breeding. Private companies like AGT have invested heavily into this space and created a pathway for young people to pursue after honours or a PhD,” he said.

Dr Kuchel says he supports many of the reports’ recommendations, and they are already common practice, such as partnerships between private and public sectors, “AGT has been investing for 22 years into training and developing plant breeders. A critical part of our success as a company has been working closely with the University of Adelaide and setting up the Plant Breeding Academy with undergraduate teaching, post graduate supervision and joint research,” he said. “Two-thirds of our AGT plant breeders have come through this background with the University of Adelaide and we also have a sourced some great people through Sydney University, who we are co-located with at Narrabri, NSW.”

Dr Kuchel says it is actually more difficult for AGT to find field officers than plant breeders. “Agriculture is cutting edge, highly technical work which needs good young people living out in regional areas to do this work but there is a shortage of people working in all areas of agriculture,” he said.

University of Adelaide School of Agriculture, Food and Wine head Jason Able believes encouraging the next generation of plant breeders is one of their strengths. He said even though bread wheat and barley breeding were no longer conducted at the university, they were still undertaking a significant amount of pre-breeding research – the results of which directly feed into new variety pipelines that industry partners, such as AGT, Longreach and Intergrain, develop as “the varieties of tomorrow”.

Prof Able – who is the lead of the national faba bean breeding program – says the Waite Campus is also home to other breeding programs, including almonds and more recently industrial hemp and soybean. He said Bachelor of Agricultural Science (and Bachelor of Science) students had the option in their third year to get an insight into what a career in plant breeding looked like, with about 20 students annually taking the semester-long course and one or two going on from there.

“The Waite has a rich history in plant breeding over 100 years and we intend that this is maintained for at least the next 100 years as well,” he said.

“Without a doubt, it is not too strong of an opinion to state that plant breeding underpins the future survival of humankind and we believe we are doing our part, by ensuring we are training the next generation of leaders in this pivotal area of science.”




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