Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Two interesting articles on plant breeding and its social context

This is an article about so-called "open source seeds", an initiative not only to make certain plant varieties available without intellectual protection, but to legally prevent the claiming of any exclusive intellectual property rights on any improved varieties derived from these "open source seeds".  The idea derives from legal provisions for certain published and online material, that operates almost like a reverse copyright--anyone can use, reproduce, and share open source material, but no one can put a copyright or patent on it or anything arising from it.  Hence this goes two steps beyond simply using and sharing non-protected traditional plant varieties (or improved varieties with no intellectual property protection), and one step beyond officially recognizing these varieties so that no one can patent or otherwise claim them as private intellectual property.  No, this even protects anything derived from such varieties from being appropriated as someone else's private property.  It is a 21st-century way of ensuring and continuing the 10,000-year-old seed-sharing practices that have given rise to all of our planet's agrobiodiversity.  I just wish we'd thought of it in the 1970s or 80s, when sharing of germplasm was still common among plant breeders and open source seeds were the de facto norm.  Humanity's greatest achievements in plant breeding (the Neolithic Revolution 10000 years ago and the Green Revolution in the 1940s-1970s) both occurred under such an intellectual property regime.

On the other hand, here is a scientific article that throws some doubt on the potential for improved crop varieties to deliver the drastic yield increases we often claim for them.  The researchers in this study found that, when farmers knew they were receiving improved varieties of cowpea, they took special care of their crop, and that this accounted for a large portion of the yield increase seen in these plots.  Conversely, when they knew they were receiving traditional varieties to plant, they neglected them, and this accounted for a large part of the yield decrease seen in these control plots.  When farmers were not told which variety they were receiving, there was little significant difference in yields between improved and traditional varieties. 

This study by no means negates the importance of plant breeding for improving yield, disease resistance, and countless other factors, but it does indicate that we should be cautious when claiming massive yield increases in farmer fields due only to the genetic potential of improved germplasm.  Indeed, as many agronomists already know, taking better agronomic care of your field (weeding thoroughly and on time, preventing pest and disease infestation, enriching soil) can often give much more impressive results than changing your seed variety.  This is especially the case in the low-input agriculture practiced in difficult environmental conditions by many of the world's peasant farmers.  In such situations, existing traditional germplasm is often more resilient to adverse conditions than is improved germplasm; removing some of those adverse conditions (through irrigation, fertilizer, etc.) is the surest way to increase yield, while maintaining traditional varieties allows you to keep the resilience factor in case something goes wrong despite the improved agronomic practices.

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