| 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
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.