Research programs remain vital to U.S. agriculture

Revenue shortfalls have swept the United States in epidemic proportions this year. Just pick up any newspaper and you're likely to find at least one story telling of state budget woes, usually resulting in draconian cuts in services or hefty tax increases.

The heady days of the 1990s — when budget surpluses were commonplace — led many governors and state legislatures to cut taxes while expanding services and programs. Now, the bill has come due, and you can bet agriculture will pay more than its share.

As you read and hear about the various cuts occurring at land-grant colleges and agricultural experiment stations throughout the Southeast, don't be mislead by certain “buzzwords.” For example, “restructuring,” “reorganizing” or “consolidating” all mean that positions are being eliminated, priorities are being realigned, and you — as a farmer — aren't likely to benefit from the changes.

Historically, Extension and agricultural research have returned more for each tax dollar invested than just about any other government expenditure. At the same time, however, agriculture is a perennial favorite when it comes to cutting budgets, due primarily to the dwindling influence of agriculture in the halls of state legislatures.

One area of research that has suffered noticeably in recent years is that of plant breeding, with many public breeding programs being eliminated altogether. Developing new varieties is perhaps the single most important facet of agricultural research, and the demise of such programs is testament to the shortsightedness of many administrators.

There are, however, exceptions, and the best of these can be found here in the lower Southeast. The University of Georgia has maintained a fine plant breeding program, as evidenced by the fact that its Georgia Green peanut has dominated Southeastern U.S. production for the past few years. Georgia Green's resistance to tomato spotted wilt virus has made it a mainstay for the region's producers.

Another exception is the University of Florida, which has been developing and releasing new plant varieties since 1888. In a recent publication celebrating the university's sesquicentennial, some of the contributions of the plant breeding program to the state's $50 billion agricultural industry are detailed.

It's interesting to note that the first plant varieties introduced into Florida were developed in the north and were not well adapted to a warm climate. Florida scientists had to breed varieties that tolerated warmer days and nights and shorter, warmer winters.

Breeding programs since the 1950s have developed “low chill” peach varieties — those that can grow and produce very few hours of chilling in winter. And breeding for heat tolerance has been critical for the success of the tomato industry in Florida. One variety, Solar Set, exhibits superior flavor and was the first to have heat-tolerant fruit-setting ability.

Resistance to insects and diseases also is critical to Florida crop production, and all breeding programs have had resistance as a major goal. The release of the tomato variety Walter in 1969 marked the world's first variety with resistance to the Fusarium wilt Race 2 pathogen. Since 1930, watermelon varieties have been developed to resist serious diseases such as Fusarium wilt and anthracnose.

Some new crop varieties have helped to create new products and enterprises for Florida. During the 1960s and 1970s, breeders worked to incorporate the shrunken-2 gene into sweet corn varieties, allowing Florida sweet corn to be shipped throughout the United States while still maintaining sweetness and quality.

University of Florida breeders also have worked with food scientists and nutritionists to develop healthier foods. The recent development of high oleic-acid peanut varieties will greatly extend the shelf life of peanut products. Oil from these peanuts may reduce the incidence of heart disease. Plant breeders also are testing for high-lycopene tomato varieties, which contain cancer-preventing antioxidants.

Plant breeding also has made higher yields possible for many crops, leading to greater productivity for growers and lower costs for consumers. For example, the breeding program for slash pine has resulted in 45 percent more wood per acre from slash pine plantations throughout the South.

The list of contributions and achievements in plant breeding go on and on. It's hoped that state lawmakers and university administrators would take notice and work to preserve and strengthen these vital programs.

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