Agronomy and Horticulture Department


Date of this Version



HORTSCIENCE, VOL. 41(1) FEBRUARY 2006, pp. 40-44


Copyright 2006 American Society for Horticultural Science. Used by Permission.


The plant breeding enterprise is large and highly interdisciplinary. In considering how to approach this topic, it is necessary to define who is a plant breeder for that defines the scope of this paper. For the purpose of this paper, a plant breeder will be defined as a person who is actively involved in creating new plant germplasm that may lead to new cultivars or be used as parents to create new cultivars of food, feed, fiber, and ornamental plants. This definition is deliberately narrow. For example it does not include those who are developing molecular markers for marker assisted selection, unless the scientist is involved in the selection process. Nor would it include a germplasm evaluator unless he or she is actively involved in using some of the evaluated lines to create new germplasm. Plant breeders often work in teams, which can include geneticists, cytogeneticists, plant evolutionists, biochemists, plant pathologists, entomologists, cereal or other end-use quality chemists, statisticians, and plant production specialists. These fields are very important in plant improvement, but their educational needs are different than those of plant breeders.


In reviewing the educational needs of plant breeders, it is helpful to know who currently does plant breeding (Table 1, adapted from Frey, 1996). A more recent survey is being developed (A.M. Thro, personal communication), but Frey (1996) is the most recent complete report on the human capital involved in plant breeding. The summary data in Table 1 is in science person years (the amount of time a full time person would work for one year). For simplicity, the science person years will be called scientists or breeders with the understanding that the actual number of plant breeders exceeds those reported in the table because many breeders have additional duties. For example, a breeder can split his or her time between breeding two or more plants, or with teaching and plant breeding research, etc. If a university plant breeder had 50% teaching appointment and a 50% research appointment where he or she worked equally on breeding new oat (Avena sativa L.) and barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) cultivars, their breeding contribution reported in Table 1 would be 0.25 scientist years for barley breeding and 0.25 scientist years for oat breeding. With recent consolidations in commercial plant breeding the current numbers may be slightly lower than those for 1996, however the rough proportions will be similar. In 1996, there were 2205 plant breeders and about 68% were employed in the private sector, 24% were employed at universities, and the remaining 8% were employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Hence, about 2 out of every 3 graduate students who are trained in plant breeding will work in the private sector. For any crop, the proportion will vary, but generally the range would be somewhere between 3 to 4 out of 5 graduate students will work in the private sector in the future. Of these 2205 breeders, about 40% (892 breeders) were involved in cereal breeding, with the majority of the cereal breeders [598.5 (67%) out of 892] working in some aspect of corn (Zea mays L.) breeding (Table 2, adapted from Frey, 1996). In corn breeding, most breeders are in the private sector (93%). In cereals, 79% of all breeders are in the private sector. If cereals are removed from Table 1, the proportion of private breeders would be 61%. While most of the breeders listed in Tables 1 and 2 will have a PhD degree, the MS and BS level plant breeders are probably similarly distributed among the public and private sector.

The data clearly show that most students will need to be educated so that they can succeed in a commercial setting. The question therefore needs to be asked as to whether we are realistically training plant breeders for the opportunities that they will have?