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1 May 2009 The Demise of Public Plant Breeding
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Agriculture is subject to evolutionary processes that have transformed it from simple food production into a globally interconnected, industrial activity that feeds and clothes billions and supplies critical inputs to a vast array of manufactures. Steps toward the spatial integration and intensification that characterize contemporary agriculture have been evident since early post-Neolithic times, although they became especially obvious in the agricultural revolutions of the early 20th century, during which mechanization, industrially produced fertilizer, and plant breeding arrived on the scene. The last of these revolutions is the subject of Denis Murphy's book Plant Breeding and Biotechnology: Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture.

Laid out in six parts, the book describes the development of plant breeding, the public and private social contexts that have organized it, the ascendancy of the private sector, the emergence of the current “agbiotech paradigm,” plant breeding's relation to contemporary patterns and problems of agriculture, and the future of plant breeding. Murphy's primary goal is to demystify plant breeding so as to advance public knowledge and reinvigorate public plant breeding. Frustration with the collapse of public support for plant breeding, polemical disputes over transgenic seeds, and academic retreat from plant breeding are recurrent themes. The social context alluded to in the subtitle is the policy and institutional environment surrounding plant breeding. Murphy's secondary goal is to examine public attitudes about the activities and outputs of plant breeders,but he is interested mainly in the “upstream” context of plant breeding, which shapes the institutional environment. Virtually no attention is given to the downstream social context of plant breeding: its impact, as part of agricultural intensification and modernization, on the social environment of farming communities.


The centerpiece of Plant Breeding and Biotechnology is Murphy's analysis of the changes that occurred in plant breeding in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of market fundamentalism emanating from the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, along with emergent transgenic breeding practices. The coincidence of these two changes, compounded by negative public attitudes molded by misunderstanding and misrepresentation of plant breeding, had a dramatic impact. The result was the dismantling of public crop-breeding programs, most visibly in Great Britain but also in many national and international agricultural research institutions. A short-lived golden age of plant breeding—the green revolution its crowning achievement—was followed by a withdrawal from public research. While the remnants of public plant breeding in universities and national research laboratories retreated into more academic research, commercial “agbiotech” arose to supply farmers with new varieties. The reigning agbiotech paradigm, which combines a radical shift to privatization and heavy reliance on transgenic breeding, gives us the worst of all possible worlds. Consequently, the public, which otherwise might oppose the gutting of such venerable institutions that have provided so much benefit, has been put off by the rhetoric targeted against genetic modification.

Appointed in 1989 to head one of three departments of Britain's Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) that remained in the public sector, Murphy has had an excellent vantage point from which to observe these changes. In 1987, the year that PBI was sold to Unilever, almost 90 percent of Britain's cereal area was planted in PBI varieties. While the United Kingdom remains innovative in plant science, it has lost its former capacity in practical crop breeding. The tragedy is that crop breeding is jeopardized at a time when it is sorely needed to help feed the growing world population, to meet changing diets, and to cope with environmental protection and change. Meanwhile, the commercial agbiotech sector has profited from two traits—insect resistance and herbicide tolerance—but it has not been technically innovative or quick to address more pressing needs of farmers and consumers.

Murphy's history of scientific plant breeding shows how new crops were developed by induced mutation and through wide crossbreeding of species and genus lines, belying the argument by both proponents and the opposition that transgenesis is a radical departure from previous practices. A serious issue is the emergence of a four-company oligopoly that controls a large portion of commercial breeding and patents relating to transgene technology. Companies are stymied by the public's hostile attitude toward plant breeding, but they have not signed onto such popular causes as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or increasing agricultural sustainability.

An irony is that the plagues of privatization and antitransgenesis have most affected the United Kingdom and Europe. Despite its association with the economists of the University of Chicago and the political rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, privatization has not affected public plant breeding at US universities as much as it has in the United Kingdom, Europe, and developing countries that were subjected to structural adjustment. Murphy explores the causes behind this difference to some degree, but he overlooks the structural factors in American politics that help explain American exceptionalism. The disengagement of the American public from the anti-genetic modification movement is likewise overlooked in his discussion of rebalancing the public debate about plant breeding. Nevertheless, the fact remains that US preeminence in plant breeding has been strengthened by European malaise, characterized by a disconnect between plant science research and its application.

Murphy is bold enough to make several recommendations. Prospects for the United States are brighter than for Europe, but in both areas, public research needs to be strengthened through such steps as improving school and university curricula, giving greater recognition for applied research, and developing open-access technologies. The private sector needs to find more effective ways to cooperate with public institutions and to diversify. Governments must pursue patent reform, deregulation of crop production, and reduction of subsidies.

The tragedy is that crop breeding is jeopardized at a time when it is sorely needed to help feed the growing world population. to meet changing diets, and to cope with environmental protection and change.

Given his ambitious and comprehensive exploration of an important but troubled field of science, Murphy may be forgiven for neglecting the downstream social contexts of plant breeding, which have drawn the critical attention of social scientists. Since the rapid diffusion of hybrid maize in the United States after 1930 (the first agricultural revolution fueled by plant breeding), social scientists have observed unintended negative impacts, such as the restructuring of agriculture toward fewer and larger farms (Kloppenberg 1988) and the loss of local knowledge and skills among farmers (Fitzgerald 1990). These issues, the grist of popular writing on American agriculture (Berry 1977), were amplified in criticisms of the green revolution (Griffin 1974). As Murphy successfully shows, plant breeding is subject to the vagaries of social policy and attitudes. Although plant breeding cannot be fully separated from the wider context of agricultural intensification, it is appropriate to scrutinizethe impact of plant breeding on the social context of agriculture. Plant Breeding and Biotechnology is prophetic in these times of questioning the wisdom of retreating from publically supported science. However, rebalancing the public debate about plant breeding will not be accomplished until downstream contexts of plant breeding are put into a common framework with the upstream contexts. Murphy has provided a provocative, uncompromising, and valuable book toward this end.

References cited


W. Berry 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Sierra Club Books. Google Scholar


D. Fitzgerald 1990. The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois. Cornell University Press. Google Scholar


K. Griffin 1974. The Political Economy of Agrarian Change: An Essay on the Green Revolution. Harvard University Press. Google Scholar


JR Kloppenburg Jr. 1988. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology 1492–2000. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar
Stephen B. Brush "The Demise of Public Plant Breeding," BioScience 59(5), 441-443, (1 May 2009).
Published: 1 May 2009

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