---Traditional wheat breeder fights for funding
by Rex Dalton
Nature 423, 790 (19 June 2003)
[SAN DIEGO] A prominent wheat breeder at a major US public university has narrowly retained funding for his work, after fighting off what supporters describe as a concerted effort by commercial seed suppliers to get it cut.
Stephen Jones, a plant geneticist at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, refuses to participate in industry-funded projects, and has spoken out publicly against what he sees as corporate efforts to gain control of wheat farming through biotechnology.
Many wheat farmers use their own seed, held over from the previous year's crop (a practice largely dropped by farmers of other crops, including corn and soya beans). Jones uses traditional breeding methods to produce more disease-resistant varieties of winter wheat that can be used in this way.
In March, some farmers - encouraged by local seed suppliers, according to several growers and officials - started a campaign to get Jones's core funding of some $200,000 a year cut. They wanted money spent on projects that would involve commercial partners and develop crops containing patented genetic mutations. If a seed contains a patented trait it can't be legally replanted.
Jones claims that some farmers were misled. "They didn't realize that they would be destroying the public winter-wheat breeding programme at WSU," he says.
After weeks of political manoeuvring, the Washington Wheat Commission, which helps to fund WSU research programmes, voted last month to underwrite Jones's studies for the next year. The board of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, a 3,000-member group that strongly influences the commission, voted six to five in favour of Jones's research.
Some growers, who didn't want to be identified, said the fight reflected anxieties among farmers, who want to produce wheat that is competitively priced but that will be saleable in parts of the world where transgenic varieties aren't acceptable to consumers.
Many farmers remain sceptical about the transgenic wheat being prepared for the market by large suppliers such as Monsanto. They want competitive, non-transgenic varieties based on patented genetic mutations. "Wheat growers are desperate to make ends meet," says grower James Moore, a former Wheat Commission member from Kahlotus in eastern Washington. "But the idea of cutting the wheat-breeding research programme is beyond belief. It's the only thing that will save the wheat industry."
Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean of the WSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics where Jones works, says Jones will continue his research, alongside a new industry-assisted programme. The programme will involve a private company, Pullman-based Northwest Plant Breeding, and will seek to develop a new winter wheat containing a herbicide-resistant trait called Clearfield, owned by seed firm BASF.
But Cavalieri remains worried about the future of publicly funded plant breeding (see Nature 421, 568-570; 2003). "As public support of universities such as ours diminishes, our ability to provide research in the public domain declines," he says. "I have concerns about the sustainability of these public breeding programmes."
© 2003 Nature Publishing Group
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James Moore, a former Wheat Commission member from Kahlotus in eastern Washington: "the idea of cutting the wheat-breeding research programme is beyond belief. It's the only thing that will save the wheat industry."