They say that variety is the spice of life. Well, you can’t get much more variety than in the plant world. Genetic variation exists for many traits in all crops. For example, although most carrots on grocers’ shelves are orange, carrots can also be white, yellow, green, or purple. Most potatoes are susceptible to potato late blight, but some wild potato species are immune. Carrot color may be unrelated to where the carrots are grown, so a local grower can grow whatever color carrot people enjoy. Variation for disease resistance or tolerance to different soil types, however, does affect local adaptation.
Many local foods can be bred specifically to adapt to local conditions and preferences. Since local breeding takes manpower, the costs for these seeds can spill over to the customers. One solution is participatory plant breeding where breeders and farmers collaborate to contribute genetic variation; resources such as fields and labor; and expertise in breeding, crops, and farming.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has a century-long tradition of support for genetic variation and plant breeding. Recent news is that there are now NIFA competitive grant opportunities for participatory breeding. They include the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension, and, most recently, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. In late 2010, NIFA will co-organize a symposium to explore methods and contributions of successful participatory plant breeding.
A recent example of participatory plant breeding is the Organic Seed Partnership. This NIFA-funded project partnered Cornell University, the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) with local farmer-breeders, local seed growers, and local farmers and markets to develop seven new varieties of vegetables and fruits for local adaption to organic farms in the northeast. The project also used community seed days to develop the capability of local farmers and small seed companies to produce high-quality seed.
To make sure that genetic variation is always available, NPGS serves as a storehouse of seeds that includes wild relatives of crops from across the globe, heirloom seeds, local and traditional varieties, and varieties from earlier eras of plant breeding. The NPGS is a partnership activity, led by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and including NIFA and state land-grant universities. The private seed industry and crop commodity groups are active in their support for the entire NPGS.
Many resources are available if you’d like to try plant breeding on your own farm or garden. To get started, you need to have genetic variation among your plants for the trait you want. It’s best to start one trait at a time as succeeding in breeding for multiple traits is more difficult and takes more time. Visiting with an experienced breeder who knows the crop you want to breed is a good idea; this may be a neighbor or even a breeder at a land-grant university. You can also contact your local Cooperative Extension office and ask them to help you locate information, plant materials for genetic variation, and expert contacts. USDA’s National Ag Library also has a list of plant breeding resources to help you get started.