Information on Classical Plant and Animal Breeding Activities

GAO-07-1171R: Published: Sep 13, 2007. Publicly Released: Oct 15, 2007.

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This report responds to a Congressional request for information on activities related to classical plant and animal breeding--creating an organism with desirable traits through controlled mating and selection without the insertion of genes from another species--that occurs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Within USDA, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) are the primary scientific research agencies involved in classical plant and animal breeding activities. ARS has more than 100 research facilities in the United States and abroad and received about $1.3 billion in funding for fiscal year 2006. ARS conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems, and its research partners include universities; crop, horticultural, and livestock producer and industry organizations; state, federal, and other research agencies or institutions; private companies; and international agricultural research centers. CSREES, which received about $1.2 billion in funding for fiscal year 2006, has the primary responsibility for providing linkages between the federal and state components of a broad-based, national agricultural research, extension, and higher education system. As Congress has noted, classical breeding is important to agricultural producers as they seek to meet changing environmental conditions and shifting consumer demands. Congress raised concerns about the difficulty of quantifying public resources being dedicated to classical plant and animal breeding and asked us questions about these resources. Specifically, GAO was asked the following: (1) What USDA resources and personnel are devoted to classical plant and animal breeding activities, and what is USDA's budget for research and development of genetically engineered plant and animal varieties? (2) What is the total level of funding dedicated to USDA-funded extramural classical plant and animal breeding initiatives and research projects, and what are the specific initiatives and research projects? (3) What percentage of the overall USDA research budget goes to develop and release new, publicly held plant and animal varieties? What is the budget trend? (4) How many USDA-funded plant and animal breeders (scientist-years) using classical methods are there, and how many new varieties have they released in the last 2 years? (5) How many different varieties of nongenetically engineered or nonpatented corn, canola, soy, and cotton have been released and grown in the United States? (6) To what extent are breeding lines being imported from other countries? (7) How much public access is there to plant and animal germplasm? What barriers, if any, limit public access to germplasm?

In fiscal year 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, ARS and CSREES spent a total of about $145 million and 557 scientist-years on classical plant and animal breeding activities, according to USDA. ARS plant research funding for classical breeding, genomics, and genetic engineering generally trended upward from fiscal year 1997 to the mid-2000s, when the amount of funding leveled off for all three types of research. According to CSREES officials, in fiscal year 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, CSREES provided $31.7 million to fund classical plant breeding research projects and $26.2 million to fund classical animal breeding research projects. We were unable to determine the percentage of USDA's overall research budget devoted to these activities because CSREES does not track new, publicly held plant and animal varieties developed with its funding. CSREES explained that while it does track the percentage of its research budget devoted to projects that develop and release new plant varieties, it does not track whether these varieties become publicly or privately held. ARS officials said that in addition to its funding of classical plant breeding research, ARS contributes to the infrastructure for classical plant breeding in the United States by managing and making available to the public most of the seed stocks held by the U.S. government through the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS)--primarily a federally and state-supported effort aimed at maintaining supplies of plant germplasm with diverse genetic traits for use in breeding and scientific research. ARS and CSREES expended a total of 557 scientist-years for classical plant and animal breeding research in fiscal year 2005, the last year for which data for both ARS and CSREES are available. CSREES officials told us that CSREES does not track the number of new varieties its grant recipients have released. ARS does, however, track the number of new varieties released. We were unable to determine the number of different varieties because USDA does not collect this information. While the amount of nongenetically engineered crops grown may not reflect on the number of different varieties of nongenetically engineered crops grown, USDA does maintain information on the percentage of acres of nongenetically engineered corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the United States since 2000. USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts an annual national survey of 125,000 U.S. farmers on crops planted, including the number of acres planted with genetically engineered and nongenetically engineered corn, cotton, and soybeans. USDA does not collect information on breeding lines--genetic lines that provide the basis for modern varieties--imported from other countries. Although classical plant breeding researchers and USDA officials told us that the public generally has access to plant germplasm through ARS's NPGS, the researchers also said that most of NPGS's germplasm is not considered "elite" germplasm-- germplasm that is ready for a farmer to use. The available NPGS germplasm can require years of classical breeding research before it is ready for farmers to use. Regarding barriers to accessing plant germplasm, plant breeding researchers with whom we spoke said that intellectual property laws can limit access to elite germplasm. According to USDA officials, the public does not have access to animal germplasm because the purpose of the USDA's animal germplasm collection is conservation of the animal species for replacement of a breed, line, or strain if it is lost, or for research purposes of unique germplasm that would help characterize the breeds.

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