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A new approach to plant breeding

An evolution in breeding methods

Crop breeding can include qualities like flavour, nutrition and disease resistanceBefore 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

Gardener holding soil -- photo: 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.

We ultimately plan to provide commercially-viable crop varieties to the general public in order to produce pesticide-free crops and reduce the global dependence on crop protection chemicals. As a volunteer, you will also welcome to keep any results of your breeding efforts for your own use.  Maybe you will discover a new variety; you get to name it!

Have a look through our plant-breeding wiki, online glossary and our plant breeding discussion forums, and be sure to check out our Get Involved! page.