Why the science of plant breeding needs to think practically

Plant breeding at the International Atomic Energy Agency laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. Photo by: IAEA / CC BY-SA

CANBERRA — At the International Tropical Agriculture Conference 2017, held in Brisbane from November 20 to 22, the world’s leading scientists and researchers for innovation in plant, animal, and food sciences were brought together to discuss the issues and breakthroughs for the sector.

On day one of the conference, a panel discussion on market-driven approaches to plant breeding highlighted the gap between science and demand in breeding — particularly in developing countries where some new breeds are being rejected by farmers and consumers because they are not practical to their way of life.

For scientists and researchers breeding new plant varieties, there are key questions they must consider to ensure their work can improve livelihoods in developing countries.

Vivienne Anthony, a senior scientific advisor with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture working in Africa, spoke with Devex about the development challenges she has seen in plant breeding that fails to take into account market needs, consumer needs, and industry needs. And she urged for plant design to become a common fixture in education for breeders and researchers in this space.

The importance of market research in plant breeding

The nature of scientific approaches to plant breeding, Anthony explained to Devex, is a barrier to developing plants that are practical for their intended audience.

“Although common sense should prevail, it is not always easy,” Anthony said. “If scientists are focused on achieving breakthroughs, they are too busy to talk to people, which could influence what it is you should be doing. Most scientists aren’t used to going out and doing market research, but they need to.”

The importance, she explained, was to eliminate waste — in research time, money, and food.

“The area I work in for the Syngenta Foundation in Africa works with plant breeders, and we knew there was a gap between science and need because many of the new plant breeds were not being adopted,” Anthony said. “Instead, people were carrying on growing things their grandparents had been growing. And we asked, why is that?”

In Mali, scientists believed the green revolution could be replicated locally for rice. “But what they didn’t understand was they harvest is done by women who often have infants with them — usually carrying them — and this makes it difficult to bend down,” Anthony said. “The new breeds were not practical. But unless you are in these communities and know exactly how farming is taking place, how would you know that?”

Anthony said this was a classic case where scientists could spend eight years trying to improve yield, only to see their scientific breakthrough rejected on the ground. In East Africa, new breeds of sorghum had also been rejected due to impracticality during cooking.

In West Africa, plant breeding is creating fruits and vegetables that grow in a standard shape and size. But when aubergines in a uniform shape are packed, for example, they do not fit together tightly, producing more air in bags. With less produce per truck, this increases transport costs and reduces profitability. “So again scientists need to know how vegetables are transported to get the optimal shape,” Anthony said. “The whole thing is about communication, making science practical, and meeting people.”

Collating the literature for improved knowledge

While there are many cases like these that show the gap between the lab and the land, Anthony said they are difficult to find in literature and project reviews. “People are not going to write that their products are not being taken up, so when you hunt for examples you actually have to talk to people. Scientists often say they learned a lot, but it is not being written down.”

Anthony is urging plant design to become mainstreamed. “Scientists need to think more about — which is what we all tend to do,” she said. “We need to spend more time really researching what people want, what is the best design and who we are breeding this for.”

But when Anthony looked into who was teaching the design of plant varieties, she drew a blank. “There was no one,” she said. In response, she has been working in sourcing the expertise of researchers, scientists, and the private sector to develop resources to assist the best postgraduate breeding educators in Africa in developing training — including putting all of the best practice together in a teaching textbook, The Business of Plant Breeding.

The aim, she said, is to encourage greater entrepreneurial approaches in determining the relevant new varieties needed within the public sector plant breeding.

“If you start to look at smaller crops, especially in Africa where there is limited plant breeding apart from corn, that there needs to be more entrepreneurial spirit in public breeding and perhaps start-up type breeding organization that are more customer focused,” Anthony said. “They can use a business style approach to doing the science and benefit from early stage funding to support their research.”

An action plan for changing approaches

Anthony’s work, based in Africa and targeting the needs in Africa, will be investing in a range of training programs and workshops targeting early stage breeders through workshops. And the new training will be embedding the curriculum of a range of programs supporting plant breeding.

“The next step we feel is really, really important — aside from training — is implementing ideas of best practice, supporting scientists in making the change and seeing how they are getting on,” Anthony said. “And in trying to support scientists to communicate through the value chain. This means talking to farmers, going to markets, speaking with transporters as well as consumers.”

It also means talking to the rapidly growing urban consumer population and learning what they need and want to eat.

She will also be advocating for a greater mandate of practical results of scientific research and funding.

“There are two parts of science. You need science that is about breakthroughs in knowledge, but you also need science that has a practical application or it won’t be used. I believe more mandate is needed on this. It’s important because science takes so long.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.