MetadataShow full item record
Labrada, Humberto Reos. 2002. Breeding capacity. Spore 102. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/47812
Internet URL: http://spore.cta.int/images/stories/pdf/old/spore102.pdf
Historically, plant breeding has followed two independent, parallel tracks a formal, scientific one and one followed by farmers. Tuning scientific research and formal breeding programmes to farmers knowledge and selection criteria is an...
Historically, plant breeding has followed two independent, parallel tracks a formal, scientific one and one followed by farmers. Tuning scientific research and formal breeding programmes to farmers knowledge and selection criteria is an important step for achieving food security, especially if food security has to be ensured by resource-poor farmers. As one might expect from an academic plant breeder, I started my career as a formal researcher, trying to develop and release improved varieties. The problem in Cuba nowadays is that most farmers cannot afford expensive inputs such as seeds, machinery and agro-chemicals. Launching new high-yielding varieties that require inputs in order to perform is therefore not always very useful. At one point, I discovered that scientific breeding in itself can be rather useless. I had to refocus my thinking. From just breeding plants, I became the kind of plant breeder who works with farmers, a facilitator in agrobiodiversity who breeds capacity too. And, all the time, convinced that working for low input agriculture is absolutely scientific. Stress situations A major change swept across Cuba after the collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Cuba s export market evaporated, the country s purchasing power for fuel and agrochemicals was greatly reduced and agricultural production was heavily affected. By 1998, the production of seeds for maize and beans, for instance, was half of what it had been in the 1980s. This crisis mainly hit large-scale, industrial agriculture. The subsistence producers were less affected. At the same time, small-scale production mushroomed. A pending food crisis encouraged many to start some sort of agricultural production, not only in the rural areas, urban agriculture also rose significantly. The agricultural research evidently had to refocus too. Crop associations, biofertilisers, biological control and organic agriculture became new areas of attention. And we, as breeders, also face new challenges. One example concerned the pumpkin, a popular vegetable in Cuba. In the 1990s, yields of pumpkin gradually decreased to the extent that pumpkin virtually disappeared from Cuban markets. Lack of inputs had taken its toll and it became clear that these pumpkin breeds were bred to be highly responsive to external inputs. At that moment the search began for varieties that would have good yields even in stress situations, such as drought, high temperatures, and pest and disease outbreaks without using expensive inputs. This was a major challenge. Until then, varieties had been tested and evaluated under controlled circumstances against one type of stress, and not in multiple stress situations. We traced 33 pumpkin landraces and some 20 modern pumpkin varieties and evaluated them. That is when participatory plant breeding was born in Cuba. The involvement of farmers in growing, breeding and selecting pumpkin varieties on their own fields and not in pilot stations, which is very important and comparing these with what they usually grew, led to two varieties that had promising yields under low input and high stress conditions. In this example we managed to improve the access of farmers to biodiversity and learn from their ways of selecting varieties. In another trial, we asked farmers to grow various kinds of rice, landraces and formal breeds on plots in two different locations. One in a slightly hilly area on poor sandy soils and one in a flat and industrial agricultural area, with farmers used to applying fertilisers and other inputs. The farmers on the sandy soils and the scientists selected a mixture of both landraces and formal breeds as favourites. The farmers in the industrial area preferred the formal sector rice varieties. They were familiar only with these varieties and lacked the knowledge to evaluate the other breeds. Biodiversity is thus also a prerequisite for knowledge. Traditional farmers have a tremendous amount of both experimental and conceptual knowledge about plants, seeds and the performance characteristics of different varieties. They also maintain a rich diversity of varieties of certain plants in their own fields. Gardens of biodiversity In the early eighties, when Cuba was at its peak of industrial agriculture, a study showed that the country s diversity in plant genetic resources was being managed and maintained mainly by non-industrial farmers. The home gardens, particularly, were and still are the cradle of biodiversity. Here, farmers maintain varieties for many purposes, such as food, medicine, marketing and religious purposes, that were not met by the formal agricultural institutions. So, by involving farmers in the selection and breeding process, both farmers and researchers not only learn from each other, it is also the logical way to increase biodiversity and to improve farmers access to biodiversity. Furthermore, if you want farmers to be responsible for the country s food security, you will have to take those farmers and their socio-economic situation as the starting point. The world of plant breeding and seed production, as well as that of policy-makers have to be more open and responsive to this. [caption to illustration] Humberto Ríos Labrada is co-ordinator of the Participatory Plant Breeding Programme at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INCA) of Cuba. He recently received the Innovative Rural Development Award of the International Agricultural Centre in The Netherlands. Humberto Ríos Labrada, INCA Gaveta Postal 1, San José de los Lajos, La Havana, Cuba, CP 32700 Fax: +53 64 63867 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org The opinions expressed in Viewpoint are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CTA.