Seed World

Working to Increase the Number of Plant Breeders

A program that began in the United States is seeing major success in Europe. One of its founders tells us all about it.
With an increasing population that needs more food and more energy, and the need to produce our crops on less land with less water and fewer farmers, we’re facing numerous challenges ahead.

It is generally recognized that it is up to the plant breeders on this planet to deal with those challenges and develop ever better plant varieties. However, over the past decades, young people have lost interest in studying plant breeding and related courses, and as a result support by universities into such curricula has dwindled. Luckily, there are several initiatives out there that continue to provide courses in this field.

One of those initiatives is the University of California, Davis Seed Biotechnology Center (SBC), which is dedicated to mobilizing the research, educational and outreach resources of UC Davis, in partnership and on behalf of the seed and biotechnology industries.

For the last three years, UC Davis has been ranked as the No. 1 university in the world in research and education in areas of agriculture and forestry. SBC offers a variety of training programs for professionals employed in the seed industry. Under the umbrella of UC Davis, the SBC is offering a broad range of courses and training programs for seed professionals, tailor-made to suit the needs of the plant breeding and seed sector.

An important program is Seed Business 101. This is a one-week course designed to expose the participants to the five functional areas of a seed company (R&D, production, operations, sales and marketing, and administration). By creating a virtual seed company and case studies for each functional area, the course content is delivered in a very interactive way.  During each of the four case studies, students assume a different functional responsibility within the company.

The course gives new employees a broad understanding of the major aspects of a seed company’s operations and cross-departmental knowledge of best practices for profitability. It is taught by widely respected industry executives with additional help of industry experts participating as guest speakers.

A bit shorter than the above is the Breeding with Genomics course, designed for professional plant breeders who want to learn or expand their knowledge on how to incorporate molecular markers into their breeding programs. It is also appropriate for lab professionals who want to learn how their work may be applied. The course focuses on current marker technologies, quantitative trait loci, marker-assisted selection, appropriate population structures and sizes and quality control.

We also offer Program Management for Plant Breeders, designed to enhance management skills of professionals who are leading and directing plant breeding and laboratory programs. We’re also offering Seed Biology, Production & Quality. This course presents the scientific background for production, handling, storage and quality control procedures in the seed industry. It provides an opportunity for professionals in the seed industry, seed control officials, and crop growers and consultants to expand and update their knowledge about seed biology, production and quality.

The core of our programme is the Plant Breeding Academy (PBA), which is a premium professional certificate program offered in United States, Africa, Asia, and of course, Europe.  To date, 213 breeders from 52 countries have attended the UC Davis PBA, making it the most significant program of its kind. It is a postgraduate program that teaches the fundamentals of plant breeding, genetics and statistics through lectures, discussion, and field trips to public and private breeding programs.

Employers appreciate the opportunity to provide their valued employees advanced training without disrupting their full-time employment. Participants attend a half dozen six-day sessions in six countries. The instructors are internationally recognized experts in plant breeding and seed technology.

The European PBA is designed to balance lectures, discussions, workshops and field trips with commercial breeders to enhance the experience across breeding systems, crops and countries. We have put together a list of key lecturers, all well versed in plant breeding and related fields.

Our primary instructors are: Idy van Leeuwen (BreedWise); Rita Mumm (University of Illinois); Alexandra Tomerius (AIB); Allen Van Deynze (UC Davis); Kent Bradford (UC Davis); and myself. We also employ a number of guest instructors such as Bruce Walsh (University of Arizona); Roger Chetelat (UC Davis); and Charles Brummer (UC Davis). Furthermore, we benefit from contributions by numerous scientists and breeders in host countries.

There are many reasons for prospective students to enroll in the course. The European PBA is very international, with 17 countries represented, of which several are non-European. There is even participation from the United States (despite the course being offered at UC Davis). Our program is often compared to MSc or PhD programs offered by other universities, but the European PBA is a different program — 50 per cent of our students already have MSc or PhD degrees.

In addition, all crop kinds are represented and there is a good balance between agronomic and horticultural crops.

“This course was invaluable to me in that I was able to maintain my full-time, great job and gain this knowledge without becoming a full-time student,” says Peter Martini, a plant breeder with Nunhems.

George Jubay of Syngenta Philippines praises the course for helping him to know more about the science behind of what he is doing as a corn breeder. “The PBA improves my creativity in doing my job,” he says.

In 2009, the SBC partnered with BreedWise to bring the course to Europe. The European PBA was successfully launched in March of 2010, with participants from six European countries, Thailand and Israel. We are pleased to have BreedWise and Idy van Leeuwen as our principal partner in Europe.

“It has been a pleasure leveraging Idy’s expertise to develop the European Plant Breeding Academy. Her professionalism and dedication to ensuring plant breeders are trained in The Netherlands and now across Europe is unmatched,” says Allen Van Deynze, our research director and one of the PBA’s founders.

Today, too few students are training for careers in plant breeding to meet current demands. The number of university plant breeding programs is declining. The Seed Biotechnology Center is working hard to change this. We are already seeing success and look forward to the future.