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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.