A partnership between the Brewers Association and a hops research group hope to make your life better by increasing the availability of American-grown hops to small brewers. Photo by Brian Gonzalez/Flickr. Used under the CC BY 2.0 license

The Brewers Association, the trade group for craft brewers across America, announced an agreement of support this week with the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the Hop Research Council to further invest in public, non-patented hop research and development. Public sector plant breeding advocates say agreements like this demonstrate the need for a similar approach to science-based research and development efforts across agriculture.

The goal is to expand the supply of domestically produced hops with the quality, flavor and resistance to pests and disease necessary to meet the growing demands of the craft beer industry. As the craft brewing industry has grown, many rural communities have seen an economic benefit both from the breweries themselves and by producing ingredients the breweries use, such as hops.

“Research to develop and release hop cultivars with no intellectual property protection ensures that all growers have access to high quality, disease-resistant cultivars they need to sustain production at levels required by brewers,” Chris Swersey, supply chain specialist for the Brewers Association, wrote in a press release. “In the long-term, this important program will fuel efforts of existing legacy growers as well as nascent hop growing industries throughout the U.S.,” Swersey commented.

The agreement was hailed by Michael Sligh, a Senior Program Director at Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an organization that supports public plant breeding efforts. “What most farmers want, what they’re looking for in seed selection, are more publicly available regionally adapted plant varieties they can add to their crop rotations,” said Sligh. “This is especially true as local conditions change due to climate or local pests and disease.”

Sligh said that public-private partnerships like the Brewers Association support for public hops breeding are important for protecting innovations, especially with respect to “so-called ‘minor crops’ like hops and oats.” Contrasting that with the privately held genetic traits for corn, soy and cotton seeds, “It’s not in the commercial plant breeder business model to provide regional adaptation. The private sector is not going to do the work and make the investments necessary to get to that level of specificity,” Sligh said.

Hops production is centered primarily in the rural Pacific Northwest, with 75% of harvested crops being raised in Washington. According to USDA’s most recent National Hops Report the value of the 2016 hop harvest totaled $498 million, up 44 percent from the record 2015 value of $345 million.

The growth in the hops sector is hampered by the prospect for damage to the vulnerable crops, according to Brewers Association. They report that “the net impact is disease management costs and crop damage that approach 15 percent of total crop value, destabilization of critical supply chains and lost export opportunities.”

“The BA’s funding of public hop breeding, structured through the USDA, will allow development of germplasm that serves all growing regions with viable disease resistant varieties. The Hop Research Council will now have a secure base that we can work with to add value to all segments of our members,” said Fred Geschwill, president of the Hop Research Council. “Having been involved in the public breeding effort for the last decade, I can honestly say this is the most exciting development the program has ever seen.”

The research will prioritize breeding efforts in four areas:

  • sensory requirements as determined by the brewers through a collaborative and participatory brewer and industry stakeholder program;
  • improved downy mildew resistance;
  • improved powdery mildew resistance; and,
  • improved agronomic performance compared to existing aroma cultivars.

With the agreement signed, the USDA will move forward to hire a professional breeder and an operating partner facility will be secured. The research and development infrastructure of public universities in the Pacific Northwest are the likely home for the collaborative effort.

Michael Sligh of RAFI hopes that other agricultural sectors can build partnerships like brewer support for the hops industry. “Re-invigorating the public plant breeding model is a great way to support innovation and jobs for science in rural communities,” Sligh said. He knows of many young scientists that want to work in public sector breeding, but said that lack of federal funding creates a challenge.

Sligh and RAFI, along with many other organizational partners, are working on a federal policy that fixes this problem. “We’re in the process of proposing a set of programs that can be part of the 2018 farm bill. With the new generation of plant breeders coming through the public education system, it’s exactly the right moment to invest in public breeding programs,” Sligh said.

RAFI and the Coalition for Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture call for public sector plant breeding programs that:

  • Reinvigorate our public plant and animal breeding capacity,
  • Ensure that regionally adapted public cultivars are readily available to provide greater choice to farmers,
  • Prioritize support and training for the next generation of public cultivar developers, and
  • Protect, enhance and utilize our agricultural diversity to address the key challenges of 21st century agriculture.

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