Translator Disclaimer
1 November 2003 Farmers and Scientists Working Together to Improve Crops
Author Affiliations +

Farmers, Scientists, and Plant Breeding: Integrating Knowledge and Practice. David A. Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, eds. CABI Publishing, Wallingford, United Kingdom, 2002. 368 pp. $100.00 (ISBN 0851995853 cloth).

By examining crop improvement issues from the perspectives of the farmer and scientist, David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, both from the University of California–Santa Barbara, render a considerable service to the field of plant breeding, especially to that subfield directed toward crop improvement in developing countries. There is no question that conventional plant breeding has made enormous contributions to global food security. In developing countries, yields of improved rice, wheat, and, to a lesser extent, maize varieties have increased dramatically in favorable growing environments over the last 30 years as a result of plant breeding. However, the performance of these varieties under less favorable conditions has been disappointing, and other important food crops in developing countries have benefited much less from the efforts of breeders.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists and development experts involved in crop improvement for developing countries observed that the environments in experiment station–based breeding programs did not represent those in which many disadvantaged rural farming populations lived and cultivated their crops. Similarly, the target traits of classical breeding programs (primarily yield and to some extent pest resistance) were not necessarily those of greatest importance to impoverished small farmers. As a result of these observations, on-farm and farmer-participatory plant breeding schemes were developed to better identify which traits are indeed of importance to farmers and to better evaluate the environmental adaptation of breeding materials. Somewhat later, the objective of maintaining genetic diversity was added as another rationale for farmer participation in plant breeding, though I confess that this connection always seemed to be tenuous at best.

In this volume, Cleveland and Soleri assemble a broad set of participatory plant breeding (PPB) experiences from around the world. Although their stated objective is to try to tease out what scientists and farmers can learn from one another's very different approaches to plant breeding, their 11 case studies also end up providing a reasonable summary of the state of the art of PPB. In most chapters, there is a well-developed rationale for adopting a participatory approach under the environmental and socioeconomic conditions at hand. Many of the chapters clearly demonstrate that breeders can learn a tremendous amount from farmers.

The comprehensive chapters by Soleri and colleagues and Joshi and colleagues draw from many years of experience in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. They include in-depth discussions of methodologies and reasonable conjectures as to which outcomes may be more site-specific and which may have broader applicability. Ceccarelli, one of the fathers of PPB, and Grando present a compelling and well-documented case for the applicability of the approach to cereal systems in the semiarid environments of the Middle East and North Africa. Bänziger and de Meyer also present a very useful summary of their PPB efforts to develop stress-tolerant maize for southern Africa; however, their described work extended only over a two-year period. Indeed, several of the participatory breeding studies included in this volume covered only a few years' work, far too short a period to assess any impact of such a radical change in breeding approaches.

This leads to one of my significant criticisms, not only of this volume but of PPB in general. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that this approach can be effective. But I am aware of very few peer-reviewed critical analyses of how cost-effective it is or why it is effective. A number of chapters state categorically that they have no quantitative data demonstrating that PPB is actually better than conventional breeding. A PPB program can be very costly in terms of researcher and farmer time, travel, and land resources. If the positive outcomes are simply the result of a better understanding or sampling of the environment and farmer needs, could the same result not be obtained simply by identifying the target populations, conducting well-designed farmer surveys, and carefully distributing selection and evaluation fields across the target environments? There are many ways to improve a breeding program through a solid connection with farmers, without requiring that the farmers participate actively in most stages of the breeding program or become plant breeders themselves. It is important to develop tools for determining which aspects of a PPB approach, under what circumstances, are likely to pay significant dividends. I had hoped that this volume would begin to provide these tools, but I was disappointed.

I was struck by the range of philosophical rigor captured within this volume. Most of the chapters communicated some sense of missionary zeal associated with PPB. This was generally well within acceptable levels, with the exception of the chapter by Frossard. This attack on the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, where I worked during the years he refers to) lacks supporting data and is laden with ideological rhetoric. What is striking is that the politically motivated (anti–Ferdinand Marcos) farmer's movement known as MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Sayantipiko Para sa Ikauunlad ng Agham Pang-Agrikultura, or Farmer–Scientist Partnership for Development), which Frossard praises, has been in the business of developing rice varieties for 15 years. MASIPAG began its rice improvement activities because the modern semidwarf varieties being produced by IRRI and Filipino national rice scientists allegedly did not meet the needs of local farmers. Yet, as Frossard freely admits, MASIPAG cannot demonstrate that its results are superior to classical rice-breeding efforts carried out by Filipino or international scientists. Indeed, from his description of MASIPAG's methodology, it is simply replicating classical breeding approaches. Frossard grudgingly admits that IRRI has undergone massive changes in its research and breeding programs in response to farmers' needs and the desire to have an impact on less favorable rice environments. Not surprisingly, his admission is relegated to a lengthy footnote at the end of his chapter. I am somewhat surprised that the editors did not demand more rigor in this particular chapter.

At the other end of the philosophical spectrum is the excellent chapter by Duvick, “Theory, Empiricism and Intuition in Professional Plant Breeding.” Duvick's treatment of this subject serves as a worthy summary of the important take-home messages of this entire volume. He artfully illustrates how the interaction among farmers and breeders is a complex affair. Wise breeders will pay close attention to what farmers do and will weave the knowledge they gain into their breeding programs. Despite my earlier criticisms, Duvick makes a good case, as do other contributors, that not all of the benefits from PPB will be easily quantified. The organization of the volume would have been significantly improved if this chapter had come at the end, serving as a philosophical or intuitive synthesis.

This book will be of interest primarily to plant breeders with an interest in exploring PPB as a dimension of their crop improvement programs. Likewise, policymakers in developing countries and development assistance agencies should benefit from a number of the chapters as they wrestle with resource allocations for conventional and PPB approaches. I hope they will come away with the message that some degree of farmer participation is necessary for breeding programs that target difficult environments to be successful.

ROBERT S. ZEIGLER "Farmers and Scientists Working Together to Improve Crops," BioScience 53(11), 1130-1132, (1 November 2003).[1130:FASWTT]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 November 2003

Back to Top