The Department of Agriculture Can Minimize the Risk of Potential Crop Failures

CED-81-75: Published: Apr 10, 1981. Publicly Released: Apr 10, 1981.

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GAO reviewed the need for improved management of plant genetic resources to minimize crop damage due to disease, insects, or adverse weather conditions. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a number of programs meant to reduce the risks resulting from the vulnerability of crops.

Because producers use relatively few high-yielding varieties, plant vulnerability has increased over the past 50 years. A group of federal, state, and private programs called the National Plant Germplasm System has been established to reduce the vulnerability and to further improve plant varieties. However, this system lacks a sense of direction and purpose and does not have effective, centralized management. The problems experienced by the system in the collection, storage, and maintenance areas included: (1) the lack of systematic collection of new germplasm; (2) inadequate storage facilities; (3) incomplete and sporadic evaluation of the distinguishing characteristics of stored germplasm; and (4) possible permanent loss of some genetic stock which is not regularly replenished by periodic growing out of seed. Critical policy questions have not been addressed, indications are that mechanisms are inadequate, and comprehensive plans have not been made to cope with present and future problems.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status:

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct that the National Plant Germplasm System's first priority be development of a comprehensive, long-range plan addressing: (1) assessment of the genetic vulnerability of major crops; (2) determination of the gaps in current germplasm collections in terms of availability and evaluation; and (3) assurance that stored germplasm is available by ensuring that the stock is evaluated, that an information system is in place so that the information can be disseminated, and that, when necessary, prebreeding is done so that desirable genetic characteristics from otherwise undesirable types are transferred into a more suitable genetic background.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status:

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should centralize authority over the federal portion of the National Plant Germplasm System with that central authority having responsibility for all USDA-funded germplasm activities. GAO is not recommending that program activities be collapsed, but that management authority for planning, budget, and personnel be centralized, possibly within the Science and Education Administration. Until such action is taken, the major issues of genetic vulnerability and variability cannot be effectively addressed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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