The jump from university, state and federal agricultural research centers by plant breeders heading to private seed companies is creating a shortage of public breeders, which could slow the growth of important seed traits needed by growers, says USDA Under Secretary Molly Jahn.

Jahn, under secretary for research, education and economics, addressed members of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) research and technology committee during Commodity Classic in Anaheim, CA, last Thursday. The huge meeting of members from NAWG, National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association and National Sorghum Producers lured some 5,000 growers and others with an interest in grain production.

"In general, existing public plant breeding programs are facing continued pressure (due to budget cuts)," says Jahn. "We are looking at significant shortfalls in trained public plant breeders relative to the need.

"Some sectors, like corn, have fairly heavy investment in the private sector (for plant breeders). Others, such as potatoes and wheat, have very significant plant breeding efforts in the public sector. So we cannot depend on the private sector to fill that need for producers.

"That's where I'm pleased to see the recognition of this at the highest level in Washington. Beyond just in agriculture, this has been recognized as a threat to the nation's food security," she says.

Jahn says that "in a time of great change, having the ability to ensure we have a strong pipeline of improved seed varieties is critical. Having a professional breeder out there with the talent – regardless of the sector – is important.

"If there is a shortage, the private sector is in a better position to recruit for professionals than the public sector, which cannot match those salaries. It's a general threat and a special threat where significant work occurs in the public sector," says Jahn.