Written by Matt DiLeo
Among plant geneticists, breeders are always held up as the pragmatic experts who know what matters in the Real World. But not all fields perceive breeders this way…
Sustainable agriculture was a popular session topic at the tri-societies joint meeting in San Antonio. More specifically, many speakers took pleasure (rightly so) in pointing out the subtle complexities of local agricultural systems that many of us in breeding gloss over when trying to help.
- Agronomy comes first. In most situations, productivity is most directly limited by poor agronomic practices. For example, it’s not uncommon for poor field design and maintenance practices to route only 10-30 % of rainfall within reach of the crop. The majority runs off the surface, scraping away much of the organic matter in the process. And while there’s lots of potential for more complex intercropping, aquaculture, perennials etc., you need to settle the basics (a productive, reliable staple harvest) first.
- The right varieties already exist. Multiple speakers implored breeders to stop arbitrarily improving varieties and traits they hope to be useful. Instead they emphasized that major improvements can be made simply by introducing modern varieties that are appropriate to the respective region. Additionally, no crop is grown in a vacuum (i.e. iron biofortification of grain is not super useful if a higher yield of grain could be used to raise livestock).
- Infrastructure is essential. Producing higher yields is virtually worthless if you can’t get it to a market. Some groups are finding that helping villages safely store extra grain is one of the most valuable things that can be done for poor farmers. This not only protects against famine but allows farmers to spread out when they sell their harvest, thus obtaining better prices. And farmers can’t plant improved seed in the first place if there’s no local shops that sell (the right) seed. And this is all worthless without roads.
- Risk matters as much as payoff. Farmers aren’t going to (and hopefully won’t) invest in fertilizers, higher quality seed, or putting a lot of extra effort into their crop in general if there’s a good chance drought will wipe out everything despite it – or if they don’t have a way to get surplus yield to a market. For example, many of those farmer suicides occurred because farmers were convinced to take out loans on extra supplies but weren’t able to recoup the investment.
- Don’t forget the social system! Some crops are traditionally tended by (and benefit) men and others by women (and children). One study argued that while grains may not be super nutritious, a reliable staple harvest will encourage farmers to invest more of their remaining effort/time/resources on nutritious garden crops and profitable market crops. Finally, another study found that one of the main results of introducing grain silos was that farmers directed more of their harvest to raise livestock (with positive health outcomes).
Written by Guest Expert
Matt DiLeo has a PhD in Plant Pathology from UC, Davis. During his postdoctoral research at Boyce Thompson Institute, he researched unintentional effects of genetic engineering. Matt builds R&D teams and biotech platforms: genome editing, gene discovery, microbials, and controlled environment agriculture.