How PPB began – its historical context

Participatory plant breeding has only a short history. It was unnecessary till professionals dominated plant breeding and separated from at least some of the users of their varieties.

An early documented example is in the Netherlands. Here there is a long history of individuals breeding potatoes but after World War II government plant breeding institutes and, since 1959, private companies have worked with keen potato farmers.

The farmers each run a farm that includes seed-potato production so they are already skilled in selectively discarding diseased and off-types of current varieties.

Company plant breeders make crosses with inputs from their farmer selectors. The farmer selectors receive a list of available new clones (Each seedling produces potatoes vegetatively, so creating a clone) and choose those that seem to fit their selection goals to grow in a trial on their farm.

Their consequent recommendations coupled with supplementary trials by the company determine which clones are released as varieties, in which case the farmer-selectors receive a share of any royalties.

But money is not the main driving force for the farmers. Instead, enthusiasm is maintained by social activities organized by regional potato breeding associations. The farmer-selectors and seed potato company breeders share trials, field days, excursions and meetings in which they make social contacts and exchange information. Above all, it is knowing they are contributing to something useful and that their contribution is valued.

The seed potato companies and their breeders get very early and practical feedback on potential new varieties and, because potato plants are large, using farmers’ land allows them to test many more clones than they could otherwise do as well as having the advantage of doing it in the farm environment.

One resulting variety was Spunta, released in 1967 and occupying the largest seed acreage (12%) in the Netherlands in 2014. Some farmer selectors have been exceptionally successful; one has 13 varieties registered in his name.

In 2009, 409 potato varieties were planted in the Netherlands for seed potato production. Of these, 293 (just over 70%) were bred in the Netherlands. And half of those Dutch varieties were selected by farmer selectors, covering 44% of the total area planted with seed potatoes!

Dutch farmer-breeder Joute Miedema explains to a researcher what his selection criteria are. Photo: Louis Bolk Instituut

The Netherlands exports FIVE TIMES more seed potatoes than any other country (worth over half a billion US dollars!); clearly PPB can be highly successful!

And the worldwide spread of the concept of PPB was also aided by the fact that Wageningen University, a very large and international agricultural university,  is in The Netherlands.

 

Another early PPB project in Europe was maize breeding in Portugal by Dr Silas Pêgo. Dr Pêgo came from a poor farming community and so he understood the work and values of smallholder farmers – yet he was also a scientist (Moreira, 2006).

Farmer-breeder, Mr Francisco Meireles (holding corn cobs) of the association Centro de Gestão de Vale do Sousa and Dr Silas Pêgo, breeder and founder of the Vale do Sousa (VASO) Project. Photo by Pedro Mendes-Moreira.

He was initially employed at the Estação Agrária de Braga in Braga city in Portugal and, in the early 1980s, worked on the participatory plant breeding of maize with smallholder farmers in the Sousa Valley.

He and his team identified Amuido and Pigarro as superior landraces amongst their collection. They also created Fandango by mixing elite Portuguese and American seed lines.

And they selected Fandango in two ways. One was ‘scientific’ and the other prioritised farmers’ choices – PPB. This latter quickly showed great promise and led to the release of six varieties.

And Dr Pêgo’s project was adopted by CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and founder institute of the worldwide chain of CGIAR institutes responsible for the improved production of staple food crops in developing countries. This fortunate occurrence, like the location of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, helped spread the idea of PPB internationally.

And as a result of these early links, PPB first became widely used in developing countries.