PPB with Organic Growers

Participatory plant breeding (PPB) is now quite commonly used for breeding organic varieties. There are various reasons for this and they mostly fit around a not-for-much-profit, sharing ethos, caring for nature theme. Thus, the breeders usually work for  organisations in which profit is relatively unimportant. Retaining ownership of breeding lines is usually less important too so the breeders are freer to give them out to their organic grower partners to test.

Organic growers do not use synthetic pesticides to control pests and diseases. This caring for nature also goes with a sharing ethos, so it is more natural to organic growers and seed producers to collaborate in PPB projects. They also are often tightly bonded together in an organic association, so making it easy for plant breeders to link with them. At the same time, the organic growers are likely to insist no technologies which counteract organic tenets, including adversely affecting seed sovereignty; indeed, many such projects involve some form of open access to seeds.

Organic seeds also provide a small market, attractive only to small seed companies. They need the seed to be uncomplicated to produce and the open pollinated varieties created by PPB suit them.

And the organisations the breeders belong to are likely to be relatively less well funded so they may actually require grower partners in order to have access to large farms for testing early forms of new varieties.

Colley et al, 2021 lists nearly 50 current or recent PPB projects in developed countries; because of the above reasons, almost all are with organic growers.

They follow a similar methodology to that used by PPB projects in developing countries. The following examples are therefore just a few showing their general characteristics. In all cases, much of the plant selection is done during farmer field days examining trials on organic farms.

The major driving force behind a Dutch organic potato PPB project, Bio-Impuls was a lack of potato varieties that are resistant to late blight so organic growers couldn’t grow the susceptible varieties grown commercially using a fungicide-spraying regime. The Dutch Louis Bolk Institute coordinates this programme, working closely with Wageningen University to include modern sources of natural resistance to blight.

In Germany, the University of Kassel collaborated with organic growers (The Or­ga­nic Out­door To­ma­to Pro­ject) to develop late blight-resistant varieties of tomato, again using newly-discovered sources of natural resistance. I am growing a few of these on my allotment in 2022, comparing them with various other varieties! Seeds are available commercially, mainly through organic seed companies.

And the Georg-August University at Gottingen collaborated with organic growers to breed a composite variety of field beans (Vicia faba). Growers could save its seeds so it was able to evolve to suit the local conditions, in that way also making use of evolutionary plant breeding (EPB) concepts, and so also have a high and stable yield at a range of sites. Neat, eh!

In the USA, a collaboration between Cornell University plant breeders and organic growers bred a variety of bell peppers known as Peacework. This variety is resistant to Cucumber mosaic virus, a common virus on organic farms because the control of its weed hosts is difficult in organic farming.

Ripe ‘Peacework’ fruit. Credit: Mazourek et al, 2009
A plant in the field in New York. Credit: Mazourek et al, 2009

Despite this considerable interest in PPB by organic growers, gardeners still tended to be excluded from PPB. Yet there are now a very few recent examples showing how modern communication methods have enabled even gardeners to become involved in PPB.