Prospects for Farmers-lead Plant Breeding in the U.S.

Climate change will increase the needs of farmers to have crops which can withstand increasingly variable growing conditions. Conventionally, American farmers have enjoyed a cooperative relationship with breeding programs operated by large universities in agricultural areas. At their outset, these programs were designed to provide farmers with seeds that would be resilient to local conditions and meet market demands for crop quality. The authors of this paper argue that this relationship has become eroded by market forces which encourage the university programs to undertake research for large commercial agriculture<!–[if supportFields]> XE “agriculture” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> firms. The seed supply for the nation’s farmers has become increasingly controlled by a smaller number of production and distribution companies, so the university programs are being aimed at an ever smaller set of clients. In this way the bio-diversity of seeds is quickly decreasing, as is the infrastructure which has traditionally connected between seed companies, farmers and university breeders. It is argued by the authors that a strong network of communication and collaboration between these groups will be necessary to strengthen agricultural biodiversity<!–[if supportFields]> XE “biodiversity” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>..—Asa Smith Kamer
 Leland, G., 2010. Socioeconomic Obstacles to Establishing a Participatory Plant Breeding Program for Organic Growers in the United States. Sustainability 2, 73–91.

The focus of university breeding research on an increasingly small base of crops, bred for a few commercial characteristics, has greatly reduced the availability of breeding programs which focus on the needs of small farmers. Large seed companies and participating university breeders focus on a small number of profitable crops for the ideal climate and soil conditions in which they generally operate. Small growers often have much different needs, growing on smaller plots which do not have standardized conditions. Therefore, the small seed base produced for large, mechanized and chemically treated farm operations does not meet the needs of small growers who are selling directly to consumers and are more vulnerable to crop failure onset by dysfunctional seed.
 The trend toward industrial agriculture<!–[if supportFields]> XE “agriculture” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> is rapidly decreasing the biodiversity<!–[if supportFields]> XE “biodiversity” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> of crops worldwide. The need for increased agricultural biodiversity has been widely promoted by advocates for sustainable agricultural practices. However, models which successfully integrate a greater range of crops as an alternative to industrial mono-cultures have not become widespread. There are also differences of opinions on how to best design and implement breeding programs which return the benefits of agricultural biodiversity to farmers. Leland presents a case study on one method known as participatory plant breeding (PPB). PPB is a model in which farmers, as well as university breeders, are encouraged to breed locally adapted crops, which can then be distributed to farmers in similar geographic and climatic conditions by seed companies. By using a case study of a prototypical PPB program in one agricultural region of the United States, the author shows its potential utility and current limitations in place because of restrictive socio-economic conditions.
 The case study, named the Seed Project is located in the Northeastern United States. It was organized as a collaboration between farmers, university breeders and their staff, other university researchers, industry based breeders, USDA<!–[if supportFields]> XE “US Department of Agriculture (USDA)” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> personnel, and farmer’s representatives. The project brought together these various actors in the hopes of discovering ways of encouraging connectivity between them. In order to understand the current state of seed production and distribution, the researchers conducted extensive interviews, reviewed documents such as grant applications and material transfer agreements, and conducted participant observation at the project’s workshops, meetings, and field days. The project took over a year to begin because it relied on many personal relationships which took time to develop. When it did get off the ground, it quickly developed and distributed new vegetable varieties. The farmers were particularly interested in improved resistance of varieties to local diseases, just as predicted in the literature as a theoretical advantage of the PPB model.
 By bringing together these separate groups, the project illuminated important missing trade links which were missing and showed where lack of knowledge was preventing growth of PPB. The researchers found that continued growth of PPB was not restricted merely by breeding behaviors of researchers but by larger forces of genetic homogenization created by monopolistic agricultural companies. Although PPB is believed to be a possible method of reforming these socio-economic obstacles to agricultural biodiversity<!–[if supportFields]>XE “biodiversity”<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, this study showed some of the current challenges facing efforts toward that goal. Primarily, securing funding remained difficult for the program organizers exactly because of the program’s success. The researchers found that funding organizations which provided short term grants, such as the USDA<!–[if supportFields]> XE “US Department of Agriculture (USDA)” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, were unlikely to renew grants to the project once it showed three years of successful organizing. The authors pointed out that long term grants may be needed in order to more firmly establish regional PPB networks. The brevity of the project, three years, was found to be an obvious roadblock to networking, and represents a potential obstacle for similar projects in other areas. While the project’s official ending was somewhat of a letdown to many participants, the unofficial connections can remain in place as farmers and interested university breeders can collaborate with small seed companies to integrate greater diversity into local food systems.

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