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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Challenges for plant breeding

Impact of the structural change in plant breeding on genetic diversity, diversity of varieties and performance of domestic agriculture

Thematic area: Food, agriculture, genetically modified crops
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Food and Agriculture
Status: In process of approval
Current project phase: Report completed. Approval by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment pending
Duration: 2016 till 2020

Background and central aspects of the topic

Plant breeding considerably contributes to maintaining and increasing agricultural productivity. Moreover, it plays a major role for adapting to climate change and for using production resources more efficiently. Plant breeding requires intensive research and depends on interaction of public and private research.

At the international level, plant breeding is subject to a substantial structural change. Many breeding companies have been taken over by multinational agrochemicals companies. Meanwhile, the ten largest companies account for more than 60 % of the global seed market. This process of concentration is closely linked to the development and application of modern biotechnologies. Particularly due to the enormous R&D costs associated with genetic engineering, only few multinational companies have emerged which have the required financial strength and are active in the field of genetic engineering. Furthermore, another aspect of this development is that – besides classical property rights regarding variety protection – patent law has become increasingly significant for plant breeding. Breeding-relevant patents from the field of modern biotechnologies are also strongly concentrated in multinational companies. Meanwhile, the global structural change in the breeding sector can be observed in Germany as well. However, counting approximately 60 companies with their own breeding programs, German plant breeding still has a medium-sized character. Though, particularly in the field of crops which can be reseeded (cereals, coarse legumes, potatoes), economic difficulties have to be faced.

In 2013, more than 3,000 varieties (arable crops and vegetables) were certified in Germany. Despite of this diversity of varieties, the genetic diversity of the varieties has decreased in recent decades. On the one hand, breeding diversity is a crucial factor having an influence on biodiversity in agriculture. On the other hand, breeding progress depends on the availability of and access to plant genetic resources. More recent approaches, such as breeding for organic farming and multiline breeding, may contribute to the conservation of agricultural biodiversity.

Objectives and approach

The objective of the study is to give an overview on the potentials and tasks, strengths and weaknesses of German (conventional and organic) plant breeding in view of the challenges of a resource-conserving and sustainable agriculture taking into consideration aspects such as climate change, needs of a further growing world population and the biomass demand of a future bioeconomy. For this purpose, the potentials of »high tech« approaches (i. a. genome editing techniques) and of a biodiversity-oriented development of varieties (i. a. multilines) shall be taken into consideration.

The following aspects shall be dealt with by means of external expert analyses:

  • Structural change and its determinants in plant breeding (at the global and national level)
  • Breeding objectives and technologies in conventional and organic plant breeding: Similarities and differences (i. a. depending on using plants as food or feed, as renewable resources or for the production of bioenergy)
  • Public and private research promotion, funding and cooperation: Scopes and focuses, strengths and weaknesses regarding crops and variety characteristics
  • Genetic diversity as well as the diversity of varieties, crops and cultivation methods in conventional and organic agriculture: Status quo, development trends and activities of stakeholders, influence of economic and legal framework conditions as well as public funding/subsidies
  • Challenges and approaches in the area of conflict between plant variety protection and patent protection at the national, European and international level

Evaluating partial expert analyses and aggregating them into a draft report shall serve as a basis for a discussion with experts and stakeholders on possibilities for an improved integration of public and private as well as of conventional and organic breeding research. Another issue to discuss shall be options for action with regard to intellectual property rights, i. a. in view of the current situation concerning reseeding fees.