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.
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.
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.
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.