Missing links in the grain chain: the benefits of participatory plant breeding from Syria to Scotland

A crop breeder visits a field in which a new variety of tef, a staple cereal crop, is being grown by a local farmer in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia

Photo: A crop breeder visits a field in which a new variety of tef, a staple cereal crop, is being grown by a local farmer in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia [Tara Wight 2018]

By Tara Wight

Cereal production in Scotland is dominated by a small number of conventionally bred varieties of barley, wheat and oats. These have low genetic diversity and tend to require a large amount of chemical input to achieve high yields. Most of the grain produced from these varieties is made into alcohol or animal feed. Many of Scotland’s locally adapted, traditional grain varieties have been lost forever. However, projects such as Scotland The Bread are working to restore diversity to our grain systems. Through participatory growing and selecting of Scottish heritage varieties, as well as genetically diverse populations from Europe, Scotland The Bread hope to be able to develop resilient landraces of wheat and rye which are particularly suited to the local conditions on Scottish farms.

I have recently started an internship with Nourish Scotland and Scotland The Bread in which I am exploring the use of participatory plant breeding as a way of strengthening local grain economies. As a first step, this blog looks at how seed selection has changed in recent decades, examples of participatory plant breeding being used elsewhere, and opportunities for its use by farmers here in Scotland.

Changes in plant breeding

Over thousands of years, people have effectively bred wild grasses to become the bountiful cereal crops we see today. For the vast majority of this time, the selection of seed for growing the next generation of plants has been carried out at a local level by farmers, who not only grew the grain, but also milled, cooked and ate it.

In recent history, the nature of plant breeding has changed drastically. Rapid advances in scientific knowledge have led to the development of very efficient breeding techniques in terms of increasing yield, and conventional breeding is now carried out primarily by professional breeders on agricultural research stations. The selection of crops has become almost entirely separated from the people who eat them and the farming systems in which they are grown.

Conventional plant breeders systematically select for specific traits, such as larger grain size or shorter height, and develop genetically homogenous populations of plants. This approach has had a huge impact in increasing yields of many crops, especially cereals, and advances in conventional plant breeding have contributed to what is known as the ‘Green Revolution’. Taking place in the 1960-70s, this saw impressive increases in wheat and rice production due to the development of new varieties, primarily in Europe and Asia.

However, smaller-scale or subsistence farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s food producers, rarely feel the benefits of commercial crop breeding programs, which mainly provide for well-off farmers and food corporations. This is partly because the research stations where conventional breeding takes place tend to be situated in areas with favourable growing conditions, so varieties developed there are often not suitable for the more marginal agroecological areas where smaller-scale farmers live.  Breeders also tend to focus on conventional crops such as wheat and maize, and ignore locally-adapted traditional species which may be preferred by farmers for their taste, resilience to local environmental stress and cultural relevance.

Another major drawback of conventional breeding is that it creates homogenous crop varieties with very low genetic diversity. While these varieties may produce high yields under ideal circumstances, they are less able to cope with severe weather events and unstable climatic conditions. When a population of plants is genetically diverse, then even in unfavourable conditions, such as drought or high wind, some plants may still have the genes that allow them to survive. For the same reason, diverse crops are also more likely to have resistance to pests and diseases. The importance of genetic diversity is increasingly being appreciated to ensure crops are more resilient to the effects of climate change, as well as to allow them to adapt over time to local conditions.

Value of a more participatory approach

Participatory plant breeding provides an alternative approach that aims to tackle these limitations of conventional breeding and empower smaller-scale farmers to have more control over the crops they grow locally. Broadly speaking, this is the development of plant breeding programmes through collaboration between farmers, breeders, marketers, processors, consumers and policymakers. The selection of new crop varieties often takes place on farms and involves farmers throughout the process, taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge that they have about their own crops.

Crop varieties developed using a participatory approach tend to be much more genetically diverse, better adapted to their local environment, and more culturally appropriate for local people. The traits valued by farmers may be quite different to those selected for by breeders, and are often specific to the local environment and cultural preferences. For example, a participatory project in Ethiopia found that when selecting cereal varieties, farmers took into account not only yield but also taste, nutritional value and the ability of plants to grow with fewer chemical inputs.

Beyond the advantages for crop development, participatory plant breeding programmes have been shown to have far-reaching benefits for the farming communities involved. By recognising the value of indigenous agricultural knowledge and centring farmers in decision making, participatory plant breeding empowers smaller-scale farmers who are otherwise left behind by conventional agriculture. Enabling farmers to take the lead in crop development increases the rate of adoption of new and improved varieties. Knowledge exchange with breeders allows farmers to gain new skills that enhance their farming practice. Seeds from collaborative breeding programmes tend to be shared among neighbours, leading to the development of local seed networks and strengthening of communities.

Women in rural communities, in particular, have been shown to benefit from participation in plant breeding. A participatory barley breeding programme in Syria, for example, had a considerable impact in increasing women’s empowerment by enabling them to have a greater role in decision making and increasing their access to wider farming networks.

Potential for use in Scotland

While much of its success has been demonstrated in areas where subsistence farming predominates, participatory plant breeding could offer an attractive alternative to conventional breeding for farmers in the Scotland. This may be especially true for organic farmers.

Crop varieties, especially cereals, developed by conventional breeding tend to rely heavily on chemical inputs, making them unsuitable for organic production. Organic farmers frequently have to contend with variable local environments, smaller production scale and disinterest from formal breeders. There is therefore great potential for organic farming here to learn from the more collaborative approach demonstrated by participatory breeding programmes such as those in Ethiopia and Syria, in order to develop new, local crop varieties with improved genetic diversity and increased resilience to climatic variation.

A few projects in Europe and North America have illustrated the benefits of including farmers in plant breeding and variety selection for organic cereal production. In France, varieties of organic bread wheat selected by farmers on their own farms showed greater genetic diversity and greater stability in terms of yield than two commonly grown conventional varieties. Similarly, a study carried out in Canada demonstrated that wheat varieties selected by farmers out-performed conventionally bred varieties under organic conditions.

So far there has been little focus in Europe and North America on the additional benefits that participatory plant breeding might be able to bring, such as empowering farmers and building collaboration across the grain value chain. In contrast to the more prolific examples from subsistence farming communities, where farmers tend to be involved in all aspects of the grain system including processing, milling and baking, farmers in the Scotland are involved primarily at the growing stage. A wide range of different stakeholders then take part in the journey from soil to slice, often with little connection to one another. Farmers may prize high-yielding locally adapted varieties, while millers and bakers may value specific grain traits that improve the quality of flour, and consumers may be most interested in the taste and nutritional content of their bread.

My internship is exploring the potential for participatory seed selection processes in Scotland that involve stakeholders from all aspects of the local grain system. We hope that collaborative grain selection can provide an opportunity to bring together a wide range of stakeholders to learn from each other, empower people at every stage of the grain system, and get everyone involved in shaping the development of our own local grain varieties in Scotland.

For more information about this project, please get in touch: tara.wight@ed.ac.uk

If you would like to learn more about participatory plant breeding or learn about other examples of this practise, here are some interesting sources:

  • Bhargava, A., Srivastava, S., (2019), Participatory plant breeding: concepts and applications, Springer Nature, Singapore
  • Bioversity International, Seeds for Needs policy brief, viewed 18/06/2020, <https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Seeds_for_Needs_participatory_variety_selection_1686.pdf>
  • Chable et al., (2020), Embedding cultivated diversity in society for agro-ecological transition, Sustainability, 12, 784
  • Gailie et al., (2017), Women’s empowerment through seed improvement and governance: evidence from participatory barley breeding in pre-war Syria, NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 81, 1-8
  • Van Frank et al., (2020), Genetic diversity and stability of performance of wheat population varieties developed by participatory breeding, Sustainability, 12(1), 384

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