Investing in the next generation

Visionaries in the organic sector are investing in efforts to groom the next generation of organic researchers.

Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters™ initiative to fund four fellowships totaling $500,000 for four Ph.D. students studying plant breeding in North Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin is designed not only to improve seed for today’s organic farmers, but is seen as investing in leaders for the future.

The five-year grants, announced in 2013, are designed to help narrow the funding gap between plant biotechnology and organic seed research by supporting tomorrow’s organic plant breeders.

A case in point: Currently there are no organic seeds for organic cotton production. One fellowship was awarded to doctoral student Ryan Gregory, whose research focuses on breeding cotton for drought and salt tolerance for organic producers. This research also is working on efficient methods for screening conventional and organic cotton for contamination from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). His research is guided by Dr. Jane Dever of Texas A&M, a cotton breeder, and project leader of the Cotton Improvement Program at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Lubbock. 

Another fellowship was awarded to Zachary Jones, whose work at North Carolina State University focuses on breeding organic corn varieties to resist contamination from GE corn pollen. His research is under the guidance of Dr. Major Goodman, the leading expert on the classification and use of the diverse genetic resources for corn.

The third fellowship was granted to Claire Luby, who is breeding organic carrots at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and examining the impact of patents on plant genetic diversity. Her fellowship is managed by Dr. Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a faculty member in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program.

The fourth fellowship went to Louisa Winkler, whose work at Washington State University involves breeding new organic oat and wheat varieties to enhance economic and environmental performance in western Washington. Her advisor is Dr. Stephen Jones, whose focus is the breeding of improved wheat and other small grain varieties for low-input and organic systems. 

Joining as financial collaborators in Seed Matters’ research initiatives have been Annie’s Inc., Bejo Seeds, Earthbound Farm, EILEEN FISHER, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Organically Grown Company, Organic Valley, Vitalis Organic Seeds, and Whole Foods Market.

In addition, co-ops that are part of the National Co+op Grocers (NCG) have also partnered with Seed Matters to work to improve the viability and availability of organic seed. Seed Matters, with support from NCG co-ops, Organic Valley, Annie’s and Earthbound Farm, has sponsored organic farmer trainings in seed production and crop improvement. It has launched fellowships in organic plant breeding and funded 13 graduate students, returning public seed research to the public good. Also, the initiatives provide support for communities to launch local seed swaps, launch free seed libraries, and plant seed-saving gardens.

Endowing chairs at universities

More recently, Clif Bar and Organic Valley this past June named the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) as the recipient of the nation’s first endowed chair focused on plant breeding for organic crops.

To be funded in perpetuity with a $1 million gift from the two companies and matched by a $1 million gift from UW graduates John and Tashia Morgridge, the endowment will fund research to develop crop varieties adapted to organic systems.

UW-Madison was selected due to its history as a land-grant public university committed to serving rural communities and the public good. UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has been a leader in organic agricultural innovation—supporting Wisconsin’s organic farms and researching organic systems including dairy, vegetable production, and forage. Recent discoveries include a new sweet corn variety adapted to organic farming systems. It is also home to the nation’s largest plant breeding research program.

To further the endowed chair initiative, Clif Bar is working with other organizations to raise an estimated total of $10 million by 2020 to fund chairs dedicated to organic plant breeding.

The aim is not to tell universities to concentrate on particular breeding for what the individual companies making the investment want specifically. Rather, investors are putting a stake in the ground to show that organic is not a fad, but is worthy of funding to further move organic production forward.//