Seed World

Vacancies in Abundance

Plant breeding and the seed industry offer great opportunities for young people.

When I started studying plant breeding a little over 30 years ago, each year there were around 50 to 60 young people doing the same thing. All were attracted to plant breeding, and all very much interested in contributing to a better world by creating better plant varieties. At that time, there were five different plant curricula that one could choose from: agriculture, tropical agriculture, horticulture, plant pathology and plant breeding. All together, these five curricula attracted more than 200 new students on an annual basis. However, several years ago, to my great horror, I learned as a result of dwindling student numbers, all five curricula had merged into one, and only a handful of students were coming to study these topics. Moreover, it was not just the case at my own alma mater, but listening to seeds people from all over the world, this was a global trend. Young students had lost interest in these studies and had decided to study something entirely different. What happened? Where did all the students go? In addition, and more importantly, how could we get them back to studying plant breeding and related studies?

Plant breeding is a tremendously vital tool for helping the planet deal with several of the most significant challenges in the 21st century, such as food security, a population increase with a shifting diet, urbanisation, decreasing numbers of farmers, less water and energy shortages. The challenges today’s plant breeders are facing have never been more overwhelming, yet the prospects to contribute significantly to global food security and farmers’ and consumers’ quality of life have never been more exciting and fulfilling.

It all started in the early seventies. The 1973 oil crisis lead to the price of oil quadrupling, and the economic crisis that followed in the Western world made it much more difficult for the different countries to maintain their uncritical funding of research and education. So, public spending on these items decreased rapidly, or has stopped altogether since then.

A major factor explaining the decline of young people studying plant breeding is the worrying decrease in public funding for plant breeding-related research and support for international centres of germplasm development and crop improvement. The number of universities offering plant-breeding courses or conducting relevant research in plant breeding decreased, and there was less or negative media attention toward agriculture and plant breeding. As a result, fewer young people were interested in devoting their professional careers to plant breeding.

Yet, the plant breeding industry itself keeps on growing, and has more and more positions to fill. It was, and still is, in desperate need of more plant breeders. The sector spends an average of 10 to 15 per cent of its annual turnover on research and development, but does not have the infrastructure to educate large numbers of plant breeders. So, with less government money invested in plant breeding and with fewer possibilities to study, who is going to educate plant breeders?

Fortunately, many different approaches have been launched on both private and public sector sides, winning back the hearts of young adults in high school. Slowly, the tide seems to be turning. Universities, which were long-time global leaders in plant breeding, and which had lost many of the students needed, have been retooling their programmes. They are offering new and more tailor-made training, and have created new curricula. In addition, where possible and depending on budget, they have been hiring new faculty members. And, at the same time, conducting excellent research aimed to meet that growing demand for new and improved crops and for plant breeders.

Those revised programmes will produce a whole new generation of plant breeders and scientists, who cannot come soon enough for the seed industry, government research institutes and other stakeholders. A shortage of plant breeders is hampering our efforts to alleviate world hunger. There are many vacancies and hundreds of exciting challenging and well-paid seed sector jobs for plant breeders, which are going unfilled.

However, it should be said, it cannot only be up to industry and national and regional seed associations to encourage a new generation of students to pursue careers related to plant breeding. In my view, national and regional governments also have a task here. It is in their interest to create an enabling environment, where high school students feel motivated to choose this direction.