What PPB is

Participatory plant breeding (PPB) is when different partners come together to breed new varieties collaboratively. The partners involved always include users of the potential varieties and professional plant breeders, expertise, knowledge and resources are shared.

The very considerable advantages that modern plant breeding can bring have already been described. Yet the involvement of big business in plant breeding has also brought many disadvantages to the users of modern varieties.  Perhaps the greatest advantage of involving the users in PPB is that such disadvantages are made much less likely to occur.

Professional plant breeders can contribute several specific benefits. They:

  • can access diverse parental breeding material through professional links, for example, with national and international plant collections;
  • have the facilities and know-how  to make difficult crosses between different species, genera etc using novel genetic methods;
  • can involve non-breeder researchers to provide extra skills and facilities, for example, measuring sugar content, analysing data and a farm where they can trial thousands of plants;
  • have the facilities to produce the hundreds or thousands of seedlings needed to develop a new variety;
  • they have the resources to enable the data that is developed to be appropriate to the needs and to analyse that data to obtain maximum benefit.

Yet unfamiliarity with customers’ requirements and inappropriate selection environments have hindered professional plant breeders when working by themselves to create varieties suitable for non- and less-commercial growers (See: Modern varieties) such as smallholder farmers in developing countries, and organic growers and gardeners in developed countries.

PPB gains advantages by involving  customers for the new varieties in plant breeding new varieties. Gardeners can contribute:

  • their gardens as representative of the environments and soil types the new varieties will be expected to flourish in;
  • themselves as representative of the management practices under which the new varieties will be expected to flourish;
  • themselves as skilled selectors of superior plant types under their conditions;
  • their households as keen observers of the taste, beauty or other requirements of the yield.

By working with gardeners, professional plant breeders become more ‘client-oriented‘. It is also cheaper because none of the above benefits are usually charged for. Gardeners are more than happy to participate, simply gaining the satisfaction of being involved in something benefitting others.

And gardeners get modern varieties with all their benefits including their vigour through stacking beneficial genes and introducing new sources of, for example, resistance to pests and diseases yet this is combined with the general ‘fitness for purpose’ of heirloom varieties ensured by gardeners’ and their gardens’ involvement in the selection of both the initial parents to be crossed and in the selection of superior seedling plants.

It can also mean extra sales for a company if gardeners in general become aware that varieties have been developed specifically with them in mind and that they really do fit their purposes.

Nonetheless, this pooling of knowledge and expertise can bring actions unwanted by one or other partners. For example, the plant breeders might want extremely distant crosses, genetic manipulation or genetic engineering. Whether such actions actually occur then have to be determined by negotiation; this may prevent them and at least bringing insights to one or other partner.

The benefits of participatory plant breeding

With all these apparent advantages, why has is it so sporadic. The history of how PPB developed and how it has succeeded with some helps us to understand the difficulties of the approach for gardeners. Fortunately,we at last seem able to surmount them.