New Crops Prescribed for U.S. Agriculture

February 24, 1996

For more than a century, crop price instability has dogged U.S. farmers. And in the past 60 years–despite federal subsidy and acreage reduction programs meant to stabilize farm income–farm numbers, farm populations, and rural prosperity have declined ominously.

A report just released by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), a leading consortium of more than 31 scientific societies, states that the development of new crops could help solve all these problems.

Dr. Jules Janick of the Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products, and chair of the CAST Issue Paper Diversifying U.S. Crop Production points out that the development and introduction of new crops have long been primary goals of U.S. leaders and institutions: “Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both were committed to developing new crops,” says Janick. “Jefferson even claimed that introducing a useful plant was the greatest thing you could do for your country. And if you look at the opening section of the legislation establishing the USDA in 1862, information about new seeds and plants and their distribution is of the first importance.”

New Crops for Diversification

The United States, despite its large landbase, is the source of only a few economically important crops. “Almost 80% of annual row-crops in the United States are planted to wheat, corn, and soybeans,” states coauthor Dr. Melvin G. Blase of the agricultural economics department at the University of Missouri (Columbia). “As a result, low prices for major commodities can spell disaster for many farmers.”

Federal programs have focused on increasing the yields and decreasing the production costs of traditional crops. But the southern corn leaf blight epidemic of 1970 and the worldwide loss of biological diversity have brought about an upsurge of interest in nontraditional crops.

Systems involving continuous crops or even two crops, e.g., the corn-soybean rotation dominating the Corn Belt, have serious limitations. “For instance, they suffer from pest buildups,” says Dr. Duane L. Johnson of the Department of Soil and Crop Science at Colorado State, “and then a farmer has to rely more on pesticides, which can harm the environment if applied excessively. But if a farmer has several crops in production, each with different planting and harvest dates, disease epidemics aren’t necessarily debilitating. Also, weather becomes less critical, and labor and equipment costs can be spread out.”

New Crops for New Industries

Although some new crops will substitute for current crops in the marketplace, many new crops will have little or no displacement effect on current commodities. Nonfood industrial crops can replace petroleum based products or other imports. Potential new industrial uses include biofuels, lubricants, industrial chemicals, waxes, and rubber. Promising new crops include crambe, cuphea, guayule, jojoba, lesquerella, vernonia, meadowfoam, and Stokes aster.

New Crops for Better Diets and Health

New crops represent potential sources of new human foods and livestock feeds with better digestibility and other health benefits. New medicinal crops may assist in the battle with diseases such as cancer and AIDS. Examples of anticarcinogens include vinblastine and vincristine from Catharanthus (Vinca) rosea and Taxol (paclitaxel) from Taxus brevifolia. New plant sources with potentially beneficial HIV properties are being studied.

New Crops for Stronger Rural Communities

One of the most observable benefits from new crops may be the development of processing and packaging in local communities. According to coauthor Dr. Robert L. Myers of the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, “a benefit to rural communities of new crops is that they have to be raised first on small acreages, so initial processing can be small-scale, typically with input from local entrepreneurs.”


Coauthor Dr. Gary D. Jolliff of the Department of Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State points out that competition for public funds dedicated to agricultural research is fierce. “The established commodity programs have a real advantage in that they’re well represented and well able to apply pressure on those who make funding decisions. This is a natural consequence of the federal programs that have dominated U.S. agriculture for the last 40 years. And the poor record of other attempts at developing new crops in this country shows that institutional innovation is the key.”

The CAST task force on diversifying U.S. agriculture made the following recommendations:

  1. The USDA should examine how to support new-crops development through policies and programs, and request from Congress either additional funding or redirection of current funding.
  2. Development incentives should include crop insurance for new crops, guaranteed loans for some, a system of grants for interested farmers and small business, permission to grow new crops on idled land, and the release of new publicly supported cultivars to individuals and institutions devoted to new crops.
  3. A new crops initiative tentatively named the Jefferson Initiative should be created to become the focal program and voice for new-crops development and to serve as an umbrella organization for many types of public-private partnerships aimed at commercialization.
  4. An innovative new research and development entity tentatively named the Jefferson Institute should be created to provide the critical mass of talent and resources needed to strategically boost new crops to a self-sustaining level.

Role of Federal Programs

Federal support is necessary. The private sector is discouraged from sponsoring research and development efforts in new crops since introduction often requires 10 to 40 years or longer. Crop introduction also is inherently risky. Bottlenecks include problems with production, crop availability, and market forces. Often the tremendous benefits of success may not accrue to the person or institution originating development.

Finally, growers ordinarily are not interested in new crops without an assured market, and marketers will not handle new crops without an assured supply. Because of this dilemma, an independent and neutral party is needed to bring researchers, growers, processors, and marketers together within and between regions.

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