Do We Need Organic Variety Breeding Programs?

Texas A&M AgriLife Peanut Breeding

Yes!  That was easy.

Many plant breeders and seed companies are hesitant to grow and sell organic varieties – as you know there is a lot of paperwork!  Also, even if the organic variety is superior there is the concern that conventional growers won’t buy or even look at a great variety with an organic label.  But there is a growing body of evidence that we need to be looking at varieties from below the ground first before looking at the above ground yields.

            What am I talking about?  Well according to many sources but in particular an article in Trends in Plant Science, “Breeding crop varieties with the target of improving soil health and reducing soil degradation will produce better conditions for crop growth through more efficient resource use and stress tolerance, so a win-win is possible where both yield and soil are improved and could be the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture.”

            “By targeting soil structure building traits (in plant breeding), abiotic (environmental) stress resistance of both plants and soils could increase through microbial habitat formation to improve nutrient cycling, stabilization of soil against erosion, and a greater capacity of soil to absorb, store and drain water,  … but these processes are generally ignored in plant breeding, where the primary focus is yield.”

            In other words, the scientific ability to monitor and measure what roots are actually doing is teaching us how important they are to “naturally” living and interacting with soil and all the microbiome in soil.

            “Perhaps plant breeding exacerbated soil degradation by focusing on yield and resource capture in conventionally fertilized soils.  Fertilizers (conventional) decrease the benefit of root-soil interface plant traits such as exudates and root hairs to capture nutrients (the normal, natural process) making those exudates and root hairs expendable.”

            This article, like many others, gets very technical and in-depth, but the premise is we need to look at what a variety is doing below ground as well as above ground.  In organic systems, plants must be able to interact with the soil microbiome in the root rhizosphere to take in nutrients, protect itself, and be more water efficient.  So, YES, we need organic breeding programs producing highly efficient, high yielding organic varieties!

Author: Bob Whitney, Regents Fellow & Extension Organic Specialist

Agriculturalist, extension educator and researcher, organic agriculture enthusiast and promoter, international program developer, Christian, husband, father and friend.

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