ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA, U.S. — The American Seed Trade Association organized a congressional delegation March 17-18 in Washington, D.C., U.S., to inform U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate Agricultural Appropriations subcommittee members about the importance of the Germplasm Enhancement of Maize (GEM) program and to request additional funding.

GEM is a joint partnership between members of the seed industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture designed to increase the genetic diversity of corn germplasm and corn hybrids grown by U.S. farmers.

“Increasing the diversity of the U.S. corn germplasm base will decrease our vulnerability to pests and potentially result in the discovery of new marketable traits,” said Freeman Whitehead, AgReliant Genetics, LLC corn breeding station manager and one of three delegates. “AgReliant is interested in the GEM program, because it provides a systematic and coordinated system to deliver adapted breeding material with unique genetic backgrounds. We can take GEM releases and use these as parents of new breeding populations.”

This is Whitehead’s second time serving as a delegate for the GEM program. The other two delegates are Major Goodman, a professor in the Department of Crop Science at North Carolina State University, and Jim Parks, North America seeds product development leader for Dow AgroSciences.

Parks says it’s a tough budget environment, but in general people understand the need for the program.

“Corn is grown on one of every four acres of harvested cropland, it’s a major U.S. export and it is used through the food system,” Parks says. “With the increasing population, increasing commodity prices and increasing demand for this product, plant breeders have to step up of the rate of genetic gain. We can’t afford to take any losses due to budget constraints.

“Tapping into genetic potential outside the United States will allow us to create hybrids with improved productivity, better pest resistance, and novel quality traits important to both livestock and humans for health and nutrition.”

This is a unique program because people participating in the program are competitors.

“GEM has been able to pull private and public interest together benefitting all parties involved,” Whitehead said.

U.S. corn production is based on only two races of maize from more than 250 races available. The lack of genetic diversity leaves the U.S. corn crop vulnerable to exotic diseases. Genetic diversity is necessary to protect the stability of U.S. corn production.

Whitehead says the GEM program not only diversifies corn germplasm, but also helps provide training for graduate students making them more attractive to employers and drawing people into the science and art of plant breeding.