Open Plant Breeding

This wiki provides extensive information and tutorials on open plant breeding methods. You don't necessarily need all of this information in order to use the open breeding methods; it is here to give you as much background as you want in the science behind our techniques.

The wiki is a collaborative effort, meaning that you are welcome to add to and edit its content at any time. If you don't already have a user account, it only takes a minute to sign up for one and start editing. Be bold! If you are not comfortable adding or editing pages yourself, you can also submit your contributions to us via our contact form.

Please note that we have a zero-tolerance policy for spam and abuse; our system tracks all edits, and violators' accounts will be permanently ban-hammered by IP address. But we don't expect to ever have do that. :-)
 

An evolution in breeding methods

Before 1900, all crops were bred without any understanding of genetics. Then over the course of last century, the business of plant breeding was increasingly controlled by large institutions and corporations, which tended to breed crop varieties mainly for the highest possible yield.

While there is no doubt that these varieties have helped to feed the world, many secondary crop properties -- such as flavour, nutritional content, and especially resistance to pests and diseases -- fell to the wayside. Many of the world's commercial crops now cannot be cultivated without a massive and expensive use of pesticides.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of dedicated seed-saver groups who are helping to preserve heritage varieties of our food crops. These varieties usually offer much better flavour, nutrition, and resistance to pests & diseases than modern cultivars, and they are favourite choices of many organic growers. But, because they are older varieties, their yields rarely match the productivity of modern crops.

The Open Plant Breeding Foundation was created to bridge the gap between these two worlds, using free, open-source information and methods based on principles of sharing and mutual support.

The breeding techniques on this site have been highly successful in various breeding projects around the world, and they enable anyone with basic cultivation skills to help develop cultivars that have qualities that are superior to any available today.

Crops in Crisis

Plant breeding for organic agricultureAs the transition to organic agriculture gains momentum, and the price of oil continues to rise, the current methods of agribusiness are becoming increasingly unsustainable.

The costs of fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides are continuing to grow and, at the same time, the vertifolia effect -- caused by breeding plants under the protection of pesticides -- is lowering their natural resistance to pests and diseases.

The danger to our food supplies is that we do not currently have high-yielding, high-quality crop varieties that can be grown on a large scale without crop protection chemicals. Luckily, although there is an advanced vertifolia effect in almost all commercial crop varieties, it can be reversed.

And the power to reverse it lies in the hands of small-scale volunteer breeders....

....which we hope will include you.

A simple technique for powerful results

 Alicia Jo McMahanThe principle on which we are basing our breeding methods is called recurrent mass selection. What this means is we start with a large and genetically-diverse population of a given crop, and use both natural and forced selection to find the best individuals in that population.

In practical terms, what we do is divide the work of selection between many small-scale volunteers, who each grow a plot of seeds and select the best plants based on every possible criterion: pest and disease resistance, flavour, colour, yield, storability, nutritional content, etc.

Here's how it works, in simple terms:

  1. You get seeds from the breeding pool, and grow them out with full exposure to pests and diseases. Most of the plants can be allowed to die, so only the best get cross-pollinated.
  2. You give some of your resulting seeds back to the breeding pool, and they are mixed with everyone else's results for the next generation.
  3. The process is repeated for as many generations as necessary to get high levels of horizontal resistance -- and every other desirable trait -- which usually takes around six or seven generations to reach a maximum.

Within Canada, we are acting as a hub from which our volunteers can receive seeds to plant out. For other areas, we are here to support your efforts, both with in-depth scientific information, and with the sharing of ideas and mutual support on our discussion forum.

The Open Breeding Method

Most organic growers know the benefits of heritage varieties: they are often hardier, higher in nutrient value, and more flavourful than modern hybridized crops. And because they are open-pollinated, they also have the genetic ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. But hardly any seed-savers realize that you can actually speed up a crop’s evolution, by using an easy breeding technique called mass selection. So when new pests and diseases become a problem, a breeder can create varieties that fight them off. The method to do this was developed by Dr. Raoul Robinson as early as the 1960’s. But his work has not been widely accepted by conventional breeders, largely because it turns their entire knowledge-base on its ear. Instead of honing in on one gene at a time like most breeders have been trained to do, his technique uses a process of natural selection to find the best possible combination of all of the crop’s genes.

The process is very simple

One of the biggest benefits of Dr. Robinson’s technique is that it’s easy enough for anyone to do, without needing to have a scientific background. In a nutshell, here’s how you breed a crop with his method: 1. Put together a good selection of seeds of different varieties. Heritage seeds are recommended because they don’t have any single-gene breeding that would throw off your results. The idea here is to get a broad genetic base to breed from. 2. Plant out the seeds, and let all of the pests and diseases do their worst, until you can select a few plants that are most resistant to attack. The seeds can be planted with quite a close spacing since they will be thinned by disease pressure. It’s important to make sure that every plant gets infected, so that they all have an equal chance to show their resistance levels. Then, before the plants flower, you can rescue the best survivors. You may have to apply a little organically-approved crop protection to save them if they are badly infected. 3. Cross-breed the winners. If they are well separated from any other plants of the same crop, you can just remove the less hardy plants from your plot and let the best ones be naturally pollinated. The key is to make sure that they aren’t being crossed with plants from outside the selection group; keep in mind that bees can forage over a range of several kilometres if food is in short supply. 4. Keep the seeds from these plants, and use them to repeat the process next year. Depending on how many seeds you start with – and how lucky you are – you might get an excellent variety right away, or it might take a number of generations of breeding. Statistically, there is a maximum of disease resistance that will be reached after ten to fifteen generations of mass selection. But it’s quite likely that you’ll get some good varieties much earlier in the breeding process. The bigger your breeding population is, the better your chances are of developing a good variety. So the best way to succeed is to team up with other growers. A large number of seeds can be divided between the growers; then once they have been grown out and cross-pollinated, the results can be pooled for the next growing season. The other advantage of distributing the seeds this way is that it protects our results. In case there is a complete crop failure in one of the breeding plots, there will still be a large enough population of plants in the other plots to continue the breeding process.

Plant breeding provides a number of benefits

Apart from the obvious advantages of producing disease-resistant crop varieties, there are also several other benefits. For one thing, as small-scale breeders start producing exceptional results, it will take genetic control of seeds away from corporate hands – which may have a vested interest in crops not being resistant to pests and diseases. For another thing, even if a crop is originally bred for organic use, it can then also be used by conventional farmers, who won’t need to spray as many pesticides and fungicides – or perhaps they won’t need any at all. And for organic growers, it will mean crops that are easier to grow, with less labour inputs and lower costs. If these costs are passed on to consumers, it will make organic foods more competitive with conventional foods, and help increase the rate at which the organic sector is growing.

Open breeding has already begun with potatoes

We chose potatoes for our first breeding project because they are easy to breed, and are one of the most heavily sprayed crops out there. They are affected by two relatively new problems: Colorado potato beetle, and genetically-variable potato blight. These problems have conventional potato growers spraying their crops up to 20 times a year, and organic growers are having a hard time producing high-quality potato crops at all. We’re hoping to have some exceptional new potato varieties within the next few years, but we need your help to do it. We’d like to have around 100 volunteers growing test-plots this summer – so if you have some space that’s well-separated from other potato plants and you’re willing to help out, we’d love to hear from you.

General Concepts

Open plant breeding is a concept in which people share seeds for breeding, and volunteer to plant them out in field trials. By exposing new varieties to every available pest and disease in an organic growing environment -- and keeping seed from those plants that survive best -- it is possible to develop new varieties that are best suited to growing without any need for pesticides and fungicides. These techniques go against conventional plant breeding wisdom, but have been well established to work. In fact, the results of numerous projects to breed plants for disease resistance in this way have been well documented, and incredibly successful.

Introduction to Open Plant Breeding: Vertical and Horizontal Resistance Explained

This is a slideshow introduction of open plant breeding, explaining the difference between vertical and horizontal resistance.

Click to advance through the slides.

Basic Principles in Horizontal Resistance Breeding

This slideshow covers the basic principles in breeding crops for horizontal resistance.

Click to advance through the slides.

The One-Pathotype Technique

This is a slideshow that introduces the one-pathotype technique, which is a way of making sure that no vertical resistances are throwing off the results of a breeding program. It is the only aspect of horizontal resistance breeding that can be difficult for amateurs.

Click to advance through the slides.

Crop vulnerability and phytosanitation

One of the advantages of the Open Plant Breeding Foundation is that it can operate internationally with various members exchanging information and genetic material between countries. It is a great idea for amateur breeders to cooperate internationally but, before they do so, they must respect their countries’ phytosanitary regulations, which exist to protect against crop vulnerabilities.

Crop vulnerability means that a crop is susceptible to an epidemiologically competent pest or disease which is absent from the area in question. If that pest or disease is introduced, the vulnerability becomes real, and potential damage becomes actual damage. For example, although it has epidemiological competence in the United Kingdom, the Colorado beetle does not occur there, and the potato crops of that country are highly susceptible to it. This is a fairly extreme crop vulnerability. An even greater vulnerability is the area of wheat that is susceptible to the Ug99 strain of stem rust (see knowledge base)

The term phytosanitation (Gk. Phyto = plant; L. sanita = health) refers to the use of healthy planting material as a means of restricting the spread of dangerous crop pests and diseases. The primary purpose of phytosanitation is to prevent vulnerability threats from becoming reality. Phytosanitation can be used at the international, regional, and local levels, and it is usually backed by the force of law.

International phytosanitation involves international treaties and official certification of planting materials being transported across national boundaries. Your agricultural department can tell you the certification requirements for the material you wish to import. Bear in mind that some imports are totally forbidden.

International phytosanitation functions best with island nations, such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Eire, Madagascar, and many smaller, islands, both tropical and temperate. Most of these islands are isolated from much natural dispersal, and they have complete control of all their air and sea ports. Understandably, their phytosanitationary regulations are usually quite strict.

The general rule is that true seeds are relatively safe, while vegetative propagation material (e.g., cuttings, tubers, rhizomes, bulbs, corms) are the most dangerous, particularly if they have soil adhering to them. Accordingly, vegetatively propagated crops are generally risky, while seed propagated crops are considerably less so.

Organic farmers should appreciate that many phytosanitationary regulations insist on seeds being dressed with a fungicidal and/or insecticidal seed dressing. If this flouts the organic status of their farms, they should arrange for that seed to be multiplied on a conventional farm.

Regional phytosanitation is the least effective because it is not feasible to check every car, plane, and train moving from one part of a country to another. Even when an international land border is involved, such as that between Canada and the USA, or that between France and Germany, an effective control of the transport of plant material is extremely difficult, and natural dispersal cannot be prevented.

Local phytosanitation functions best on an individual farm, because the individual farmer has control of everything that is brought on to his land. For example, he can take great pains to ensure that his new seed is not carrying a dangerous pest or disease that is absent from his farm.

Whatever amateur breeders may choose to do, they must stay legal. Quite apart from getting into trouble with the law, infringement of phytosanitationary regulations could cause devastation because of serious crop vulnerabilities that most people do not even know about. Please be responsible and consult your agricultural department.

Plant Breeding Clubs

Learning how to breed plants for horizontal resistance is similar to acquiring computer literacy. Initially, for older people at least, it is somewhat intimidating, and it requires ‘hands-on’ experience. But, as this experience is gained, the new activity is quickly discovered to be easy, enjoyable, and useful. Plant breeding clubs will require a modicum of technical assistance from scientists, and they might even include scientists among their members. But, in general, these clubs would be made up of amateur breeders, and they would be totally free to breed any crop they choose, using any techniques they choose, to achieve any objectives they choose.

We can recognise two kinds of plant breeding club designed to promote horizontal resistance. A private club consists of a group of amateur breeders, such as farmers, hobby gardeners, environmentalists, or green activists. The second kind of club is primarily educational, and is the university club, which differs only in that it is made up of students, who are supported by their university. The possibility of secondary school clubs and 4H clubs should also be considered.

Perhaps the most important feature of university clubs is that graduates can be given life-membership in their club, or clubs. Once they had returned to their family farms, or become agricultural scientists, these graduates should be entitled to propagating material of the potential new cultivars coming out of the club, for the rest of their lives. After one or two decades, there would be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of club alumni, organising new clubs, and testing and exchanging new lines with their university clubs, in the appropriate agro-ecosystems. These alumni would also be entitled to technical assistance from their old university club. These privileges would permit widespread farmer-participation in research. And a number of competing universities would provide farmers with the widest possible choice of cultivars.

University plant breeding clubs

A special feature of university clubs is the university ambience. Students are far more likely than amateurs to overcome the intimidation, and the initial hesitation about breeding crops for horizontal resistance. The students would do all the work of breeding, supervised and guided by a professor. This would provide them with the initial ‘ice-breaking’ and the essential ‘hands-on’ experience. The students would earn course credits from their club membership, and their teacher would earn teaching credits.

The main function of university breeding clubs is to teach. This teaching will promote a widespread proliferation of breeding clubs. Graduates, with life membership in their clubs, will most likely return to their family farms, or become agricultural scientists. If they become farmers, they might initiate one or more farmers’ breeding clubs in their own locality. If they become scientists, they might initiate one or more private breeding clubs among concerned amateurs in the vicinity of their work. Or they may become entrepreneurs themselves, relying on breeder’s royalties to earn a living.

In any event, both the concept and the practice of plant breeding clubs will begin to spread. As increasing proofs of the viability of horizontal resistance, and the ease and usefulness of amateur breeding, begin to accumulate, the proliferation of clubs will increase. The public interest in pure food, and a clean environment, to say nothing of the farmer interest in high yields and cheap production, is so strong that the process of growth and proliferation will increase exponentially.

That these developments have not occurred before now is due to a lack of knowledge. No member of the public was even aware of this possibility. The professional plant breeders, in their breeding institutes, have had no interest in promoting either amateur breeding or horizontal resistance. Indeed, they genuinely believed both to be impractical, if not impossible. And the chemical corporations, with their concept of crop protection chemicals substituting for host resistance, have also had no interest in promoting horizontal resistance.

The Advantages of University Breeding Clubs

The advantages of plant breeding clubs, particularly university clubs, over institutional and corporate plant breeding, are so marked that they merit emphasis.

Advantages for the students

Overcome the initial intimidation. For anyone who has not tried it before, the very thought of plant breeding is somewhat intimidating, in the same way that the first use of a computer, or the first dive into deep water, is intimidating. Once this intimidation is overcome, plant breeding for horizontal resistance turns out to be very easy, and very rewarding. The ambience of a university breeding club is undoubtedly the best way of overcoming this intimidation, but this comment should not discourage other amateurs from starting their own clubs.

Learning to breed for horizontal resistance. The use of computers cannot be learned from manuals, and ‘hands-on’ experience is essential. The techniques of breeding for horizontal resistance also require ‘hands-on’ experience and a breeding club is the best means of providing such experience. The students themselves would do all the work of breeding and they would gain practical experience in every aspect of the breeding process.

Improved participation and interest. Many agricultural students, who grew up on a farm, find there is a gap between their own farming experience and the somewhat academic teaching within the university. A breeding club closes this gap very effectively, and it demonstrates the practical utility of scientific concepts. The club also provides students with active participation, and a sense of achievement, as alternatives to passive learning.

Earn course credits. As one of the inducements to join, students should earn course credits from their breeding club membership and participation.

Life-membership. On graduation, students should be given life membership in their club or clubs. This would entitle them to consult the university experts, and to receive, test, report on, and utilise new lines coming out of their club(s) for the rest of their lives. They would also be encouraged to donate some of their best lines to the university club, and to attend club meetings.

Start new breeding clubs. Having returned to their family farm, or arrived at their new place of work, graduates would be encouraged to start one or more new breeding clubs among farmers and other interested parties. This would lead to a proliferation of breeding activity. Their knowledge of breeding for horizontal resistance, as well as their life memberships in their university club(s) would be valuable assets in these activities. 

Advantages for the professors

A new approach to teaching. Plant breeding clubs would provide a new kind of teaching in which the students themselves are involved in the actual achievements of both demonstrating the value of horizontal resistance, and of producing new resistant cultivars.

Teaching credits. Each club would have a professor in charge of it and the professor would earn teaching credits for this activity.

Long-term research. Short-term research grants have no guarantee of renewal and our system of financing agricultural research discourages long-term research projects, such as breeding for horizontal resistance. Because the breeding club work would be a teaching activity, its continuation would be secure, and the professor in charge could undertake long-term research in this topic. It need hardly be added that this is an area that has been seriously neglected, and that such research is urgently needed. In no small measure, this neglect has been due to the long-term nature of the research, and the insecurity of the research grant system.

Advantages for the amateur breeding clubs

A scientific basis for amateur breeders. Amateur breeding clubs that were initiated by a graduate with membership in his university club(s) would have the advantage of doing breeding that was technically sound. Their members could proceed with confidence.

Overcome intimidation. Such a club would be the best method of over-coming the intimidation that discourages an inexperienced amateur.

Rewards. The club could provide very considerable rewards for its members. These include a sense of achievement, improved new cultivars for farmer-members, breeders’ royalties, and the satisfaction of participating in a successful communal activity.

Advantages for the university

A new approach to teaching. In addition to the learning process, plant breeding clubs would provide advantages that the students would not obtain from the more conventional lab and field classes. These advantages include the actual participation in the production of new cultivars, and life membership in the club. Members of existing clubs have also discovered that their clubs provide a useful link between their practical experience on their family farm, and the relatively academic teaching of the university.

A new approach to research. Most universities have abandoned research that involves plant breeding designed to produce new cultivars. Plant breeding clubs would provide new opportunities for providing farmers with the practical assistance that emerges from successful research.

Prestige from successful new cultivars. The production of an assortment of valuable new cultivars in a range of locally important crops could provide valuable prestige for a university.

A renewal of the land-grant college concept. The kudos earned from new cultivars would represent a return to the esteem that existed when the land grant colleges were first formed in the United States, with a really close co-operation between agricultural scientists and farmers.

Advantages for the local farmers

Farmer-participation in research. Institutional plant breeding has become so esoteric that farmers cannot understand it. Nor can they participate in it. Farmers should be encouraged to form their own clubs, assisted, no doubt, by some of their children who have graduated from a university that had plant breeding clubs. Equally, a university club might do well to instruct a few farmer-members who would themselves provide practical input.

Greatly increased breeding activity. One of the chief criticisms of institutional and corporate plant breeding is that their work is so expensive, and that they are so specialised, and so technical, that their total breeding output is severely limited. Hence the need for the ‘big space and high profile’ of vertical resistance breeding. A multiplicity of plant breeding clubs would provide a greatly increased amount of plant breeding.

Constructive competition between many breeding clubs. If there were many plant breeding clubs, operated both by universities and farmers themselves, there would be constructive competition that would lead to an abundance of competing cultivars with gradually improving horizontal resistance to all locally important pests and diseases, as well as improving yield, quality of crop product, and agronomic suitability. This competition would continue until a ceiling was reached, when little further progress would be possible.

Cultivars suited to local agro-ecosystem. These competing cultivars would all be the result of on-site selection in the local agro-ecosystem. They would be well balanced with all the variables in that agro-ecosystem.

Wide choice of new cultivars. An abundance of good cultivars would give both farmers and consumers a wide choice of cultivars.

Freedom from the hazards, labour, and cost of pesticides. Once adequate horizontal resistance had been accumulated, farmers would be freed from the environmental and human hazards, as well as the labour and costs of applying crop protection chemicals.

Reduction of crop losses. As horizontal resistance accumulated, the crop losses from pests and diseases would decline.

Reduction of biological anarchy. As horizontal resistance accumulated, the biological anarchy that was induced by crop protection chemicals would decline, as biological control agents returned and increased in numbers.

Cumulative crop improvement. Because a good horizontally resistant cultivar need never be replaced, except with a better cultivar, breeding for horizontal resistance is cumulative and progressive. The overall effect of plant breeding clubs, therefore, would be a cumulative crop improvement.

Advantages for the environment

A return to resistance breeding. Plant breeding clubs would lead to a return to the resistance breeding that was taken for granted before 1900.

Exponential increase in plant breeding expertise and activity. Plant breeding clubs would lead to an exponential increase in the total plant breeding expertise and activity. This increase would be comparable to the exponential increase that we are witnessing now in both computer literacy and the use of the Internet.

Widespread reduction in pesticide use. There would also be a widespread reduction in the use of crop protection chemicals, with a corresponding reduction in health and environmental hazards.

Improved bio-diversity. An abundance of competing cultivars would provide a greatly improved bio-diversity. This diversity would occur between crops rather than within crops. Nevertheless, it is fundamental ecological principle that diversity provides stability (see 1.14)

Economic benefits

Cost of pesticides reduced. The cost of crop protection chemicals, now running into billions of dollars annually, would be greatly reduced and, in some corps, largely eliminated.

Cost of pesticide application reduced. The same is true of the costs of application of crop protection chemicals.

Crop losses reduced. The pre-harvest crop losses from parasites average more than 20%, worldwide, in spite of the use of crop protection chemicals. These loses could be greatly reduced by the proper use of horizontal resistance.

Increased yields of a cheaper and healthier product. The overall effect of a multiplicity of plant breeding clubs would be improved yields of crop products that were both cheaper to produce and healthier for the consumers.

Advantages for overseas aid organisations

New assistance technique. Plant breeding clubs could provide an entirely new technique for overseas aid in agriculture. Overseas aid organisations could initiate these clubs in Third World universities, and support them with technical and financial assistance until they could stand on their own feet. If successful, these clubs could eventually prove to be the most effective agricultural assistance technique of them all. Overseas aid is often sub-divided into ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aid. Soft aid consists or studies and research that result in advice and reports that are soon neglected and forgotten. Hard aid results in new physical entities that make a very real contribution to welfare, such as new roads, schools, or systems of communication. New, improved cultivars constitute hard aid.

Cheap technique. These clubs could also prove to be one of the cheapest and most effective techniques of overseas aid.

University Plant Breeding Clubs

A special feature of university breeding clubs is the university ambience. Students are far more likely than amateurs to overcome the intimidation, and the initial hesitation, about breeding crops for horizontal resistance. The students would do all the work of breeding, supervised and guided by a professor. This would provide them with the initial ‘ice‑breaking’ and the essential ‘hands-on’ experience. The students would earn course credits from their club membership, and their teacher would earn teaching credits.

The main function of university breeding clubs is to teach. This teaching will promote a widespread proliferation of breeding clubs. Graduates, with life membership in their clubs, will most likely return to their family farms, or become agricultural scientists. If they become farmers, they might initiate one or more farmers’ breeding clubs in their own locality. If they become scientists, they might initiate one or more private breeding clubs among concerned amateurs in the vicinity of their work. Or they may become entrepreneurs themselves, relying on breeder’s royalties to earn a living.

In any event, both the concept and the practice of plant breeding clubs will begin to spread. As increasing proofs of the viability of horizontal resistance, and the ease and usefulness of amateur breeding, begin to accumulate, the proliferation of clubs will increase. The public interest in pure food, and a clean environment, to say nothing of the farmer interest in high yields and cheap production, is so strong that the process of growth and proliferation will increase exponentially.

That these developments have not occurred before now is due to a lack of knowledge. No member of the public was even aware of this possibility. The professional plant breeders, in their breeding institutes, have had no interest in promoting either amateur breeding or horizontal resistance. Indeed, they genuinely believed both to be impractical, if not impossible. And the chemical corporations, with their concept of crop protection chemicals substituting for host resistance, have also had no interest in promoting horizontal resistance.

The advantages of plant breeding clubs, particularly university clubs, over institutional and corporate plant breeding, are so marked that they merit emphasis.

Advantages for the students

Overcome the initial intimidation.

For anyone who has not tried it before, the very thought of plant breeding is somewhat intimidating, in the same way that the first use of a computer, or the first dive into deep water, is intimidating. Once this intimidation is overcome, plant breeding for horizontal resistance turns out to be very easy, and very rewarding. The ambience of a university breeding club is undoubtedly the best way of overcoming this intimidation, but this comment should not discourage other amateurs from starting their own clubs.

Learning to breed for horizontal resistance.

The use of computers cannot be learned from manuals, and ‘hands-on’ experience is essential. The techniques of breeding for horizontal resistance also require ‘hands-on’ experience and a breeding club is the best means of providing such experience. The students themselves would do all the work of breeding and they would gain practical experience in every aspect of the breeding process.

Improved participation and interest.

Many agricultural students, who grew up on a farm, find there is a gap between their own farming experience and the somewhat academic teaching within the university. A breeding club closes this gap very effectively, and it demonstrates the practical utility of various scientific concepts. The club also provides students with active participation, and a sense of achievement, as alternatives to passive learning.

Earn course credits.

As one of the inducements to join, students should earn course credits from their breeding club membership and participation.

Life-membership.

On graduation, students should be given life membership in their club or clubs. This would entitle them to consult the university experts, and to receive, test, report on, and utilise new lines coming out of their club(s) for the rest of their lives. They would also be encouraged to donate some of their best lines to the university club, and to attend club meetings.

Start new breeding clubs.

Having returned to their family farm, or arrived at their new place of work, graduates would be encouraged to start one or more new breeding clubs among farmers and other interested parties. This would lead to a proliferation of breeding activity. Their knowledge of breeding for horizontal resistance, as well as their life memberships in their university club(s) would be valuable assets in these activities.

Advantages for the professors

A new approach to teaching.

Plant breeding clubs would provide a new kind of teaching in which the students themselves are involved in the actual achievements of both demonstrating the value of horizontal resistance, and of producing new resistant cultivars.

Teaching credits.

Each club would have a professor in charge of it and the professor would earn teaching credits for this activity.

Long-term research.

Short-term research grants have no guarantee of renewal and our system of financing agricultural research discourages long‑term research projects, such as breeding for horizontal resistance. Because the breeding club work would be a teaching activity, its continuation would be secure, and the professor in charge could undertake long-term research in this topic. It need hardly be added that this is an area that has been seriously neglected, and that such research is urgently needed. In no small measure, this neglect has been due to the long-term nature of the research, and the insecurity of the research grant system.

Advantages for amateur breeding clubs

A scientific basis for amateur breeders.

Amateur breeding clubs that were initiated by a graduate with membership in his university club(s) would have the advantage of doing breeding that was technically sound. Their members could proceed with confidence.

Overcome intimidation.

Such a club would be the best method of over‑coming the intimidation that discourages an inexperienced amateur.

Rewards.

The club could provide very considerable rewards for its members. These include a sense of achievement, improved new cultivars for farmer-members, breeders’ royalties, and the satisfaction of participating in a successful communal activity.

Advantages for the university

A new approach to teaching.

In addition to the learning process, plant breeding clubs would provide advantages that the students would not obtain from the more conventional lab and field classes. These advantages include the actual participation in the production of new cultivars, and life membership in the club. Members of existing clubs have also discovered that their clubs provide a useful link between their practical experience on their family farm, and the relatively academic teaching of the university.

A new approach to research.

Most universities have abandoned research that involves plant breeding designed to produce new cultivars. Plant breeding clubs would provide new opportunities for providing farmers with the practical assistance that emerges from successful research.

Prestige from successful new cultivars.

The production of an assortment of valuable new cultivars in a range of locally important crops could provide valuable prestige for a university.

A renewal of the land-grant college concept.

The prestige earned from new cultivars would represent a return to the esteem that existed when the land grant colleges were first formed in the United States, with a really close co‑operation between agricultural scientists and farmers.

Advantages for the local farmers

Farmer-participation in research.

Institutional plant breeding has become so esoteric that farmers cannot understand it. Nor can they participate in it. Farmers should be encouraged to form their own clubs, assisted, no doubt, by some of their children who have graduated from a university that had plant breeding clubs. Equally, a university club might do well to instruct a few farmer-members who would themselves provide practical input.

Greatly increased breeding activity.

One of the chief criticisms of institutional and corporate plant breeding is that their work is so expensive, and that they are so specialised, and so technical, that their total breeding output is severely limited. A multiplicity of plant breeding clubs would provide a greatly increased amount of plant breeding.

Constructive competition between many breeding clubs.

If there were many plant breeding clubs, operated both by universities and farmers themselves, there would be constructive competition that would lead to an abundance of competing cultivars with gradually improving horizontal resistance to all locally important pests and diseases, as well as improving yield, quality of crop product, and agronomic suitability. This competition would continue until a ceiling was reached, when little further progress would be possible.

Cultivars suited to local agro-ecosystem.

These competing cultivars would all be the result of on-site selection in the local agro-ecosystem. They would be well balanced with all the variables in that agro-ecosystem.

Wide choice of new cultivars.

An abundance of good cultivars would give both farmers and consumers a wide choice of cultivars.

Freedom from the hazards, labour, and cost of pesticides.

Once adequate horizontal resistance had been accumulated, farmers would be freed from the environmental and human hazards, as well as the labour and costs of applying crop protection chemicals.

Reduction of crop losses.

As horizontal resistance accumulated, the crop losses from pests and diseases would decline.

Reduction of biological anarchy.

As horizontal resistance accumulated, the biological anarchy that was induced by crop protection chemicals would decline, as biological control agents returned and increased in numbers.

Cumulative crop improvement.

Because a good horizontally resistant cultivar need never be replaced, except with a better cultivar, breeding for horizontal resistance is cumulative and progressive. The overall effect of plant breeding clubs, therefore, would be a cumulative crop improvement.

Advantages for the environment

A return to resistance breeding.

Plant breeding clubs would lead to a return to the resistance breeding that was taken for granted before 1900.

Exponential increase in plant breeding expertise and activity.

Plant breeding clubs would lead to an exponential increase in the total plant breeding expertise and activity. This increase would be comparable to the exponential increase that we are witnessing now in both computer literacy and the use of the Internet.

Widespread reduction in pesticide use.

There would also be a widespread reduction in the use of crop protection chemicals, with a corresponding reduction in health and environmental hazards.

Improved bio-diversity.

An abundance of competing cultivars would provide a greatly improved bio-diversity. This diversity would occur between crops rather than within crops. Nevertheless, it is fundamental ecological principle that diversity provides stability.

Economic benefits

Cost of pesticides reduced.

The cost of crop protection chemicals, now running into billions of dollars annually, would be greatly reduced and, in some corps, largely eliminated.

Cost of pesticide application reduced.

The same is true of the costs of application of crop protection chemicals.

Crop losses reduced.

The pre-harvest crop losses from parasites average more than 20%, worldwide, in spite of the use of crop protection chemicals. These loses could be greatly reduced by the proper use of horizontal resistance.

Increased yields of a cheaper and healthier product.

The overall effect of a multiplicity of plant breeding clubs would be improved yields of crop products that were both cheaper to produce and healthier for the consumers.

 

Advantages for overseas aid organisations

New assistance technique.

Plant breeding clubs could provide an entirely new technique for overseas aid in agriculture. Overseas aid organisations could initiate these clubs in Third World universities, and support them with technical and financial assistance until they could stand on their own feet. If successful, these clubs could eventually prove to be the most effective agricultural assistance technique of them all. Overseas aid is often sub-divided into ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aid. Soft aid consists or studies and research that result in advice and reports that are soon neglected and forgotten. Hard aid results in new physical entities that make a very real contribution to welfare, such as new roads, schools, or systems of communication. New, improved cultivars constitute hard aid.

Inexpensive technique.

These clubs could also prove to be one of the least expensive techniques of overseas aid.

Ug99: a wheat fungus that is threatening the world's food supply

Virtually all wheat breeding during the past 100 years has employed single-gene (i.e., vertical) resistances which usually provide a complete protection, but which are liable to break down to new strains of wheat parasites. One of the worst diseases of wheat is caused by a fungus called ‘stem rust’ (Puccinia graminis) and much of the world’s wheat is protected against it by a resistance gene called Sr24.

In 1999, a new 'strain' (i.e., vertical pathotype) of the stem rust fungus was identified in Uganda and it is now known as Ug99. This strain is particularly dangerous because it can match Sr24 and, as a consequence, much of the world’s wheat is in grave danger. During the past few years, this rust spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Yemen. It has now been recorded in Iran, and it is thought to have reached Pakistan. This is bad news indeed because it is only a matter of time before it reaches the Punjab and the ‘bread basket’ of Asia.

There is an urgent need for horizontal resistance breeding against wheat parasites but none of the professional wheat breeders seem prepared to tackle this. This reluctance to test anything new, and to stick with old concepts and techniques, is known as ‘scientific fundamentalism’, and it is much more common than most people realise. One of the more important objectives of the Open Plant Breeding Foundation is to promote horizontal resistance and to demonstrate just how easy horizontal resistance is to work with, and just how effective it can be.

Wheat is not the easiest crop to breed and it is not normally recommended for breeding clubs made up of amateurs. But it is a suitable project for university breeding clubs which are backed up by the university resources and expertise.

We beg agricultural colleges and universities in the countries where Ug99 is already present to establish wheat breeding clubs working with horizontal resistance to all the locally important wheat parasites. This may well prove to be the only means of overcoming the scientific fundamentalism within wheat breeding.

Wheat Breeding

Breeding wheat for horizontal resistance is becoming an urgent necessity for the world's food supply. Almost all wheat breeding during the last century has worked with single-gene vertical resistances. These can provide protection for some time, but they almost inevitably break down to new strains of diseases and parasites.

One of the worst diseases of wheat is stem rust, caused by the Puccinia graminis fungus. Most of the world’s wheat is protected against this fungus by a resistance gene called Sr24, and this gene has allowed wheat to be grown in relative safety from stem rust.  But in 1999, a new strain of Puccinia graminis was discovered in Uganda which breaks down the Sr24 resistance. And this new strain of fungus is already spreading.