Seeds and Breeds Conference, September 11-14, 2005, Ames IA
Seeds and Breeds

Reinvigorating the breeding of germplasm and animals for a healthy 21st Century.

By Theresa Podoll
Posted December 8, 2005

A farmer’s perspective

Ron Rosmann is an endangered species—he is a mid-sized farmer. He farms 620 certified-organic acres in 40 fields using a management-intensive, systems approach with a six-year rotation. Rosmann selects crops and livestock that have an ability to maximize the energy of the sun and nature’s nutrient cycles.

What do farmers need?

Rosmann lists seven important factors to consider in breeding for plants and animals:

  1. Adaptation to local environments
  2. Productivity and yield
  3. Economic sustainability
  4. Disease and pest resistance
  5. Quality
  6. Appropriate body types, habits, and characteristics (Animals)
  7. Symbiotic relationships

Rosmann emphasizes the need for good information and information sharing among farmers, researchers and breeders in mutual participatory support groups. From his perspective, land grant universities must support this model if they are truly going to serve the public. If our land grant universities are going to serve the corporations, he said, we may as well close the doors.


Questions of farmer seed saving, adapted varieties and the future of plant breeding filled the 2005 Seeds and Breeds Conference, hosted this fall by Nan Bonfils and Don Adams at their Full Circle Farm near Madrid, Iowa.

Bill Tracey, a plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wondered aloud about the future, asking “Will plant breeders continue to exist?” He stated that the reigning genetic engineering paradigm is in direct opposition to the “selectionist” paradigm of working with the genetic material within a species. Unaddressed, he said, is the question of how plants will respond to genetic engineering. He stated that plant breeding programs increasingly focus on publishing papers rather than working with and developing a feel for the organism that leads to improving and releasing new cultivars.

Keeping plant breeding publicly funded and managed can be a cost-effective form of social insurance, Tracey said, explaining that commercial seed development can work against food security because efficiency of scale works against a positive diversity of people and plants.

Public plant breeders have to be in touch with the needs of the local farmers and the local ecology to know what farmers want to change in terms of energy use and crop selection, Tracey said.

Role of the farmer in plant breeding

Matthew Dillon, executive director of the Organic Seed Alliance, said the basic premise behind organic plant breeding is the need for resilient genetics bred and adapted to the ecology of the area of intended use. This allows the farmer to avoid the need for inputs, he said, adding that organic crops must be able to perform under an array of pressures. Dillon said the key role of decentralized plant breeding systems is suitability to the local ecological context and to local markets.

Dillon posed some difficult questions: Is it enough to involve the farmer in field trials? Is the concept of participatory plant breeding just to gain funder advantages? What about skills, time and desire? Do farmers simply want their varieties handed out to them? Plant breeders may have a desire to work with farmers but will farmers have them? After all, he said, farmers have been excluded from this role for decades as plant breeding has been relegated to specialists. Therefore, if seed breeders want farmers to participate, Dillon said, the farmer must be recognized as a specialist (and farmers must recognize a benefit to managing their own genetic resources just as they do the nutrients in their soil).

Ecosystem health and farming systems

Don Wyse, professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota, asked two poignant questions: “How do we develop systems that produce ecological health and human health?” and “What type of crop and animal systems produce ecosystem services?” The answer to the first question, he said, lies in creating functionally diverse agricultural systems. Nutrient cycles, flood management, natural pest management, soil health, wildlife diversity, water quality, erosion control, carbon sequestration, and climate mediation, he said, are all examples of ecosystem services. Wyse challenged the audience to engage plant breeders in providing these services. He said we must develop plant material for diverse agricultural systems that have an economic pull into the marketplace, tying plant breeding programs to finding solutions to major issues through ecosystem services.

Farming for Human Health

Michael Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University, spoke about the direct links between healthy soil, plants, animals, people, families and communities. Agriculture, he said, can be an effective economic development tool by focusing on health and the environment as well as the economy. Hamm posed the question: “What would happen to farming if we ate the way we should?” We have a public health problem, he said, because we have a public consumption problem (we don’t eat like we should) and we have a production problem (we don’t produce what we should, like we should).

An animal perspective

As the executive director for the American Grassfed Association (AGA), Carrie Balkcom works closely with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), which seeks to conserve the diversity of livestock breeds on working farms. Conserving irreplaceable genetic resources in these breeds is a critical service, she said, for farmers seeking animals with distinctive traits that are best suited to their farms, farming systems and markets.