Dr. Bill Tracy is the Clif Bar Family Foundation / Organic Valley endowed chair of organic plant breeding and chair of the department of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. His expertise—his art, truly—is sweet corn. While Dr. Tracy’s first foray into plants and seeds was unsuccessful (as a boy he planted watermelon seeds but forgot about one key aspect: sunlight!) he went on to earn his Ph.D. in plant breeding and was named public plant breeder of the year in 2014 by the National Association of Commercial Plant Breeders. Today, Dr. Tracy is the friend you would nominate to pick the corn for your grill-out.
This guy knows his sweet corn.
In this episode, Dr. Tracy talks about plant breeding: what it means to be a breeder, how plant breeding happens, and the impact certain legislation has had on plant breeders, farmers, and people who like to eat the delicious fruits and veggies that come from seeds. (Hint: that’s all of us.)
Tune in to hear about
How many ears of corn Dr. Tracy tastes in one summer
What it’s like to breed organisms that have never existed on the planet before
Who owns our seeds (a complicated question with a complicated answer)
The seed ownership “resistance”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Dr. Bill Tracy. Bill is the Clif Bar Family Foundation–Organic Valley Professor of Organic Plant Breeding, and the chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, as well as a sweet-corn breeder and one of the few remaining here in the U.S. Welcome, Bill.
BILL TRACY: Thrilled to be here.
AOC: It’s great to have you back on Rootstock Radio. Seeds are a fascinating subject, and you, down there at the University of Wisconsin Department of Agronomy, have a lot of information about seeds that most people not only don’t know but really don’t think about as they go through the world and think about food and maybe other things that seeds come from. But you’ve got a plant breeding expertise and you’ve spent a lot of time using that expertise on sweet corn improvement. And you kind of have dedicated your whole life to this pursuit of seeds and seed breeding and what seeds mean for people. Can you talk about how you got into the idea of this as your occupation and topic of study for your life?
BT: Well, from my earliest memories I remember plants, and I always loved plants—plants and seeds. And of course, like many kids, I would pick the watermelon seeds out of the watermelon I just ate and plant them in the backyard. Only I didn’t realize initially that you needed sun, and between the two houses there was no sun. And so these plants grew up to be about two feet tall and then they flopped over and died.
But I did live in a very urban area, and there were always questions about “why is that the way it is?” And those are basically scientific questions. Why is that tree bending in that direction, or that flower that color? Or why didn’t those seeds come up? Or why did they come up and then die? And I was fortunate enough to end up at a place where I could start learning about how to answer those questions, at least in a scientific way. And that was initially UMass Amherst, where I got my bachelor’s and then master’s degree in plant science, and then I went on to Cornell and got a PhD in plant breeding.
And in addition to my love, actually, and I guess my number one motivation is diversity and all the various kinds of diversity that I see in my cornfield every day, and developing new varieties. It’s been a great, great time and I love what I do. It always strikes me that I see things out in that field that no one has ever seen before.
AOC: What do you mean when you say that? Give us an example of what do you mean.
BT: Well, I can give you the example, kind of a human example. When two people have a child, that child is something that has never existed before on the planet, and there it is. But I get to see thousands of them all summer. Again, I actually get to create genotypes, meaning organisms, that have never existed on the planet before. And it’s the most exciting thing that you can imagine.
AOC: So a lot of your work has been perfecting the flavor and the texture and the experience of sweet corn. That’s a particular seed that you know very well and you know why. You know, you can feel the corn plant in the field and know if it’s thirsty or what it needs. And that’s a pretty fascinating thing that you do. So tell us just a little bit about that, since that’s your area of expertise. And then I want to talk about then what seeds mean to us, in general.
BT: Sure. It is wonderful in many ways, again, seeing this diversity and seeing this variation. But when you spend—and this is over 40 years now that I’ve been working on sweet corn—when you spend that much time with another organism, if you will—and of course there’s many different types of corn that I work with—but when you spend your time looking at corn plants and ears of corn and seeds, you really get to know those individuals and those characteristics. Now, I still always test myself and bite the ear and see if it tastes good or not. But after this time, I could see things—there are little hints, there are little… When you spend this much time and bite as much corn as I have, I probably bite 3,000 ears of corn each summer.
BT: Yeah, so the point is that when you really spend as much time with an organism as I have, you really get to know it. You get to know it very well. And many people have these kind of skills. And when you go to somebody, a craftsman who’s been working on something for many, many years—maybe a farmer, and the farmer knows that that cow is not healthy or just not happy. If you ask the farmer how they know that, they might not be able to tell you, but they just know it. What I like to say about that is that knowledge or skill becomes an art when the knowledge becomes internalized, so that you can’t even describe why you know this—although I actually work very hard to figure out why I know it. But most people, when they have developed this kind of art, if you will, they don’t actually know how to describe it. It’s just in your knowing and because you’ve done this thing over and over and over again so many times.
But it is fun, then, also on the other end of it—and this is part of the science side of me—is I will look at something and be like, “I know that one’s the good one.” And then I actually test myself and say wait a minute, how do I know that? What am I seeing that is clueing me in? And for a lot of people, a lot of craftspeople, people who have long experience, I think, don’t actually do the self-examination. They just know it.
AOC: They just know it. So if we do the math on that, you got about 30 years into this and you’ve got about 3,000 ears of corn that you taste every summer. So you really—it’s an experiential database that not many people probably have, right?
BT: Yeah, very few people have that. And it’s actually—I’ve been at UW now for 35 years, so it’s probably well over 100,000.
AOC: Well, hey, you know, so I guess the upshot of this is, you know your stuff but really, if you’re going to be out with your friends and you’ve got a barbeque, you send you to the market to get the corn, right?
BT: Yeah, I know where the good stuff is. Exactly.
AOC: The other piece of it is also that you have been sharing this knowledge. You’ve talked about, like, how do I know this? And you really actually worked on that quite a far amount because part of your work over those 35 years at UW is making sure that other people can be trained to do exactly what you’re doing, right?
BT: Right. And that’s one of the great joys also of my position. But also the Clif Bar–Organic Valley Chair actually funds a graduate student. And that’s what we do with graduate students. We take them in and we work with them and they take courses that we think are important, but they also, in many ways, are very much like an apprentice. They get a project and learn how to do the project. And it’s, we don’t call it an apprenticeship but it’s very much like that. And I think more people kind of understand apprenticeships than they do what graduate school is about.
But that’s pretty much what it’s about. And we try to transfer these skills and this knowledge and this way of knowing, if you will. And [it’s] of course very rewarding. We have people come here who really, again, share the love of plants that I have. Folks have gone on to be very successful plant breeders in their own right, and it’s extremely rewarding to see that.
AOC: So, Bill, I want to talk about how most people approach seeds. Which is to say, I want to talk about how most people don’t approach seeds, right? So we’ve really moved away from an agrarian society. In fact many of us, most of us, are at least two generations away from the farm. It didn’t use to be that way, but it is mostly now. We live in urban centers and we buy our food in grocery stores. And there’s obviously a renewal of people’s interest in how food is grown, and gardening and different things. But for the most part, most people don’t have access the kind of information that you have. They don’t have that understanding of seeds and why they matter in our lives. And so, if you talk to people who aren’t in your world and they say, “Oh, you’re into seeds, huh?” What are the things that—what are the misperceptions or what are the ideas that people don’t understand about why seeds are so important in our lives?
BT: Well, you know, I’m not sure I know what the misperceptions are, because I think, you kind of said this at the beginning of your question, it’s that, this lack of perception.
AOC: Mm-hmm, right.
BT: People don’t know or think about seeds at all. Now there is a renaissance and a community of people who are very excited about seeds. But as you said, the vast majority of people don’t understand that our food supply starts with seeds. And the advancement and improvement in the food supply starts with maybe not making them taste better—the new varieties—but maybe making them more resistant to insects or diseases so less pesticide has to be used, or that they survive better in the face of disease or pests.
But also, they might think, “Oh, well, I know that apples don’t come from seeds. Apples are cloned and propagated. Or potatoes…” And some people, of course, don’t really know that. But there are people who know that apples and berries and strawberries and asparagus and potatoes and some other things are what we call clonally propagated. They don’t go through a seed generation. And that’s true. The variation that I was talking about, this incredible diversity, where you get that, is from their seeds. They all make seeds.
So if you want to develop a new apple, you have to go through seed. And that’s the way we get all of these exciting new apples. That’s the way we get our exciting new berry varieties and things. They all go through seed. So even if you think, “Aha! I know that apples don’t grow through seed,” in fact, the new apples, that’s where they come from.
AOC: So, like a honey crisp, for example, which sort of took off and grew crazily?
BT: Yep, that came from a seed breeder—an apple breeder, but he made crosses between different apple trees at the University of Minnesota and then planted the seed. And of course, that phrase in itself, while most people don’t think about our idioms or our phrases, that’s one of the most powerful idioms we have in our language. What are we going to do about so and so? Let’s go plant a seed.
AOC: Could you talk, Bill, about what’s the difference between farming with organic seed or versus farming with seed that’s not produced organically?
BT: Yeah. That’s a really complex question; there’s a lot of pieces to it. But the piece that I’d really like to talk about is that, as your listeners know, organic farming is different than non-organic farming—or some people call it conventional farming. And that is that the plants on that organic farm are exposed to different kinds of competition from weeds, maybe diseases, than they might be under the conventional farm where they might just use an herbicide or a fungicide to control it. The organic farmer doesn’t have those options.
The other thing is that that field, that organic field, has different sources of fertility. And that plant has to take up different sources of fertility in different ways than it might under the conventional farm. Now, what organic plant breeding is all about is breeding plants on organic fields so that they become adapted to those conditions, so that they become more competitive with weeds, so that they’re better adapted to the soil fertility of the soil on that organic farm. Maybe they are resistant to insects; maybe they’re resistant to other pests. Maybe they’re easier to harvest just because of the economics of the organic farm.
So all of these things that are very important to the organic farmer might not be so important to the conventional farmer, because the conventional farmer can use pesticides or chemical fertilizers. So developing varieties under those organic conditions will create things that are adapted to those conditions.
One of the things we always talk about in plant breeding, whether we’re talking about organic or conventional or developing things for the tropics or for the colder regions of the world, is that you always want to breed under the conditions that you’re going to grow the crop in. So you want to adapt the new crop, the new seed, to the environment in which you’re going to grow the crop. And you’re going to have the best success that way.
And since we’re talking about organics here, obviously we want to develop those varieties under organic systems. And what’s great news, I guess I would say, is that from a very, very tiny community—maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago, maybe a handful, maybe two or three—that community of breeders developing for organic systems has really grown. It might not be enormous, maybe it’s only 20. But going from two or three to 20 is a big deal. And a lot of the students that I train have gone into that field and they are now becoming leaders in that field, and that is so exciting.
AOC: It is. And that’s really recent growth. And I’d say it’s not much of a stretch to say that organic seed breeding is still at its infancy, right?
BT: Absolutely. Twenty is not enough, but it’s growing. And one of the things that’s very exciting to talk about is recently, in Congress, there’s been legislation proposed to actually increase federal funding that’s going to support more organic seed breeders.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Dr. Bill Tracy, the Clif Bar Family Foundation–Organic Valley professor of organic plant breeding. And he’s also the chair of the Department of Agronomy at UW–Madison, as well as sweet-corn breeder. [He] has a real claim to fame there for sweet corn. We’re talking about corn breeding, we’re talking about organic, we’re talking about seeds and why they matter in our lives and how they’re important to us. And a lot of times we don’t think about that.
Bill, I wanted to talk about a really important area. We say that people don’t much think about where our food comes from when it comes from seeds, and that’s definitely an area that a lot of people don’t give a lot of thought to. But the other thing is, who owns the seed? And we’ve seen some of the really big agricultural seed companies that are mostly seed and chemical companies—so whether that’s Bayer and Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, DuPont—they’re all sort of merging, becoming this big powerhouses there. They’ve got Bayer-Monsanto joining together and DowDuPont joining together. We’ve got the big China company joining with Syngenta.
AOC: ChemChina, right, joining with Syngenta. So these are big things that are happening in your world and in the world of ag in general. And they’re a little bit, if you’re not paying attention, you’re just going to the store and getting food, you don’t know what kind of influence these things have on our seeds. So let me just start with a simple question: Who owns our seeds?
BT: Now, you know that’s not a simple question.
AOC: It’s not a simple question, but let me ask a more simple question: Who owned our seeds 50 years ago?
BT: Fifty years ago, a lot of diff—well, actually, 50 years ago, really, very much to the truth, nobody really owned them. But certainly 100 years ago nobody owned seeds, really. Basically, farmers and gardeners traded seed back and forth and it was considered a common wealth. It was part of the common wealth of not just our society, not just the U.S., but the world. It was considered that nobody owned those seeds and they could cross borders and benefit wherever they ended up.
AOC: People kept them in their cellars, and they kept the year on them, and they figured out how they grew.
BT: Right, and they grew them and then they shared them with their neighbors. Maybe they were a small seed business and they would sell them to the neighbors. But what they were selling was actually the seeds that they produced—I mean the physical seeds that they produced. They weren’t selling the variety or the genetics, because the people who received that seed could then propagate that seed on their own.
Many of your listeners might think more about the common daylilies that grow along the roadsides. No one really owns those. I’m talking about those big orange ones. Nobody owns those, but if I had a bunch of them in my backyard and you liked them, I could just divide the clump and give it to you. And that would be an analogy of the way seeds used to be. I have a bunch of seeds and you like what they tasted like or what the plants resulted in, that they tasted like, and I could give you seeds from that plant. And no one could say I couldn’t give it to you, and that’s the way it would work.
AOC: That’s pretty simple.
BT: If there was a disaster, if a tornado went through your farm or a flood, and you lost all your seeds, your neighbors or maybe somebody from even further away would give you their seeds. And that was the way things were.
And you know, I will say though that while seeds are really the basis of life, that’s kind of the way most things were then. And people were—it wasn’t quite such a mercantile society. But seeds got caught up into the twentieth century and the ownership, and today ownership of seeds is a very big thing, and a very controversial thing.
AOC: It is indeed.
BT: It is indeed.
AOC: And can you give us, kind of, a general overview of why that is?
BT: Well, what happened really was that in the early part of the last century, the 1930s, there was an act called the Plant Patent Act, which actually gave breeders ownership of clonally propagated crops. These were things like berries. So if I developed a new raspberry I could argue—not argue but the federal government said that I owned it—I could prevent you from growing it. And you couldn’t sell it; maybe you could give it to your grandmother or something, but you couldn’t sell it. And therefore the person who developed it would get the return from that investment.
In the 1970s a similar kind of act called the Plant Variety Protection Act was created that gave seed breeders similar rights. But the key thing with the Plant Variety Protection Act is that they said that the breeder would own that new variety—let’s call it Jubilee. And so I might own Jubilee, but if you bought seed of Jubilee you could use that then to develop new varieties. So that was called breeders’ rights. So even though I might own that particular variety, I didn’t own the genes, okay? [I] didn’t own the genes inside.
Then there was something else in that legislation called farmers’ rights. So farmers could save seed, because that’s what farmers had been doing for 10,000 years. So that Plant Variety Protection allowed farmers to save seed and then breeders to use that new variety to develop future varieties.
However, in the 1980s the federal government, the federal courts, the Supreme Court, allowed life—not just seeds, but life—to be patented by the same utility patent that maybe the mousetrap, or the better mousetrap, or your toaster oven is patented with. And that allowed the people who patented the variety—utility-patented the variety—they could actually put claims on that patent that said you cannot save seed and you cannot used the seed for breeding. So they basically said they were owning the genes.
AOC: So this is a very significant shift. But maybe in the 1980s we didn’t realize how significant it would come to be.
BT: Well, in fact, people did pretty quickly realize it, because then countries around the world said wait a minute—that corn variety or corn started off in Mexico, and we spent 5,000 years in Mexico developing corn, and now all of a sudden after a few years of messing around with it, you’re patenting it in the United States? Or coffee, or tomatoes, or soybeans, or whatever.
And so then there was a big convention on biodiversity—I believe it was the Rio Convention on Biodiversity. I think it was about 1992. And at that time they said, essentially, no more common wealth. Genetic material that comes from Mexico belongs to Mexico, and they get to say what can happen with it. And the genetic material that comes from Peru belongs to Peru. And if the U.S. wants to go to Peru and collect germplasm or something, Peru can say no. So this kind of progression from essentially the common wealth to ownership happened.
And then you kind of fast-forwarded to now today with all of the mergers. Now very few entities, companies, own a very significant part—and by significant part, let’s say three or four major multinational companies might own, maybe, let’s say, I think I’m being [unclear—conservative?], let’s say 50 percent of all of the elite genetic material in the world. Now that sounds to some people terrifying. But what I want to say is they don’t own everything. They still don’t know own what’s in the seed banks, and they don’t own what’s at Seed Savers.
AOC: Seed Savers, for example, is an organization that’s saving seeds from all around the world, tracking their stories, providing a forum for people to trade seeds. It’s kind of the resistance piece here, right?
BT: Yeah. And my friends at the Oneida Nation, they still have their white corn. Multinational companies don’t own that corn. They can have that corn forever. So there’s still germplasm or plant genetic material varieties, or seeds, that are still available. And we can still, as a community, still advance this material. And that’s part of what the public sector does. I’m part of a USDA Organic Research Initiative grant called NOVIC—the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. And we are developing seeds for the northern tier of states that will be available to the public. And I released a variety a couple years ago called Who Gets Kissed, and Who Gets Kissed is available to anyone. There’s no ownership on it at all. Anyone can use that to grow their own corn or to improve their own corn on their own farm or to do whatever they want with it.
AOC: So what you’re saying is that there will always be people who are working against that consolidation and ownership model by releasing into the public and keeping that common wealth asset available?
BT: Yeah, there will always be—I’d rather say it this way: There will always be that opportunity. The USDA has what we call the National Plant Germplasm System. They have over 600,000 seed samples of different varieties of seed that are basically held in trust for people who want to use them to develop new varieties.
AOC: Bill, thank you for being here.
BT: Always fun to talk to you, Anne.
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