Thoughts on plant breeding

by Celine Schreiber

2020

 

Yesterday we helped David Rice at Sweetcore farm. David is an organic farmer that specialized in producing organic fruits from orchards. We have visited David a couple of weeks ago already, where he showed us how to train the trees, which means guiding the branches to grow vertically instead of horizontally by fixing them with rubber bands. This time we thinned out the apple trees and removed any unripe apples that had holes, did not get pollinated or had a pest. Some of the varieties were bred resistant to apple scab, a fungus that causes the leaves to turn brown and leaves apples dry and with brown spots that hinders their growth. The difference of the resistant versus the non-resistant trees was stunning. Not only did the apples look shiny, spotless and round, they were also almost double the size compared to the sad, weirdly shaped and spotty apples in the varieties that are not resistant.

I have always been very critical of breeding plants that seem to be “supernatural” in that they are super resistant to pests and chemicals, produce ridiculously big fruits and with their dominance often rule out native species. But David is a small scale organic farmer that tries to make a living in the North Country, far away from eco-friendly hipsters and upper-middle class families that are willing to pay higher prices. Therefore, he has to make sure that enough of his apples are being sold to make a living and for that, they have to look and taste good and should not require expensive and aggressive chemicals. So selecting for a specific bread that, for example, is resistant to apple scab, is what ensures that David and Farmers like him can make a living and do not have to spray chemicals (which is better for the environment).

That does not mean I am uncritical of GMO’s, but there are actually many varieties of plants that are naturally resistant to a pest or especially tolerant of soil-conditions. Those varieties might not always be the regional ones, and there is something to be said about preserving local breeds as a part of the local culture. However, many farmers try to do that, but the truth is that they cannot really rely on them. I think we should acknowledge the struggle many organic farmers have with the expectations they are confronted with: being environmentalists, producing excellent quality produce, preserving local breeds and making all of that affordable to us.