Plant Breeders and Geneticists Seeding Solutions. How Did Dan Barber Get It So Wrong?

Written on 06/18/2019
Wayne Gale

By now, I’m sure most of you have seen the New York Times opinion piece by Celebrity Chef Dan Barber. Barber makes some sweeping generalizations that mischaracterize the changes in plant breeding and the seed industry over the past 100-plus years.

Barber has taken an active role in the seed industry, even co-founding his own seed company; but he grossly misses the mark in his article. The evolution of this great industry is due to the incredible investment — of both the public and private sectors — of time and money in critical research and development. This forward-thinking investment by seed companies, plant breeders, geneticists, agronomists and many others, has dramatically increased the understanding of what, genetically and biologically, makes a plant do what it does — ensuring we are well-prepared to meet whatever challenges come our way in global food and agriculture production.

I agree with Barber that crop production across the U.S. has changed dramatically. It’s had to, as farmers, ranchers and other agriculture producers are facing a number of challenges impacting their livelihoods. To stay competitive, they are being forced to do more with less, to produce higher yielding crops on fewer acres, with the use of fewer resources. At the same time, the agriculture community is dealing with rapidly-evolving plant pests and diseases, as well as a changing climate. In addition, a myriad of other issues like labor and harvesting, packaging and shipping, government regulation and so much more — many of which, at some level, can be addressed through plant breeding.

Wayne Gale of Stokes Seeds, a fifth-generation seed company.

This industry is a lot more than row crops, and it’s a lot more than 100 companies, as Barber implies. As someone involved in the leadership of the American Seed Trade Association, and who has worked in the vegetable seed sector for more than 30 years, I know full well the tremendous diversity and reach of this business we call “seed.” From seed companies and farmers, to distributors and technology providers, our industry is dynamic and wide-ranging. From organic, to traditional, to biotech, the seed industry offers farmers and consumers unprecedented choices when it comes to performance and variety.

For farmers, this means the ability to produce new and improved varieties of better-performing and more sustainable crops.

For consumers, this means access to a variety of new and improved food options like: carrots with increased beta-carotene, which improves both the appearance and nutritional profile; fruits and vegetables that are more convenient and appealing for consumers, like personal-sized seedless watermelons, mini-peppers and grape tomatoes; better tasting produce that is more likely to become part of a healthy diet, like butternut squash with an unusually rich, sweet, starchy flavor; and new varieties of fruits and vegetables, such as broccolini, kale and improved varieties of cauliflower. I would guess that Barber has served many of these things at his restaurant. And none of them would exist without modern plant breeding!

It is true that the seed industry and the grower community spend tens of millions of dollars on plant breeding and plant science issues on an annual basis. These efforts work to address many of the issues highlighted in the article, such as: how to breed heirloom flavors in conventional market tomatoes; how to create greening disease resistant citrus trees; how to enhance healthy oils in crops like soybeans and sorghum; how to enhance flavors in leafy green lettuce varieties; and a multitude of other innovative research and discovery projects across the vast crop production in the U.S. — with benefits for our planet, our health and our food.

Plant breeding will continue to evolve because that’s what breeders, geneticists and others do — they discover and create new varieties on a regular basis. Science changes, and I imagine that Gregoire Mendel would be very proud of where the plant breeding and plant science community has evolved to from his very early genetic discoveries with his peas. A failure of U.S. agriculture to continue innovating and evolving would handcuff producers, of every production type — from conventional to organic to biotech. The seed industry has and will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of famers and the changing demands consumers, and yes, even chefs.