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Decentralized-participatory plant breeding: an example of demand driven research

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It is widely recognized that conventional plant breeding has been more beneficial to farmers in high-potential environments or those who can profitably modify their environment to suit new cultivars, than to the poorest farmers who cannot afford to modify their environment through the application of additional inputs and cannot risk the replacement of their traditional, well known and reliable varieties. As a consequence, low yields, crop failures, malnutrition, famine, and eventually poverty still affect a large proportion of humanity. Participatory plant breeding (PPB) is seen by several scientists as a way to overcome the limitations of conventional breeding by offering farmers the possibility to choose, in their own environment, which varieties suit better their needs and conditions. PPB exploits the potential gains of breeding for specific adaptation through decentralized selection, defined as selection in the target environment, and is the ultimate conceptual consequence of a positive interpretation of genotype × environment interactions. The paper describes a model of PPB developed by The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and used successfully in several countries in West Asia and North Africa. Genetic variability is generated by breeders, selection is conducted jointly by breeders, farmers, and extension specialists in a number of target environments, and the best selections are used in further cycles of recombination and selection. Technically, the process is similar to conventional breeding, with three main differences. Testing and selection take place on-farm rather than on-station, key decisions are taken jointly by farmers and the breeder, and the process can be independently implemented at a large number of locations. The model also incorporates seed production. Farmers handle the initial phases, multiplying promising breeding material in village-based seed production systems. The PPB model is flexible; it can generate populations, pure lines, and eventually mixtures of pure lines in self-pollinated crops; as well as hybrids, populations, and synthetics in cross-pollinated crops. PPB has several advantages. New varieties reach the release phase much faster than in conventional breeding, and are better suited to farmers’ needs and willingness to invest in inputs and management. Release and seed multiplication activities concentrate on varieties known to be farmer-acceptable. These advantages are particularly relevant to developing countries where large investments in plant breeding have not yielded returns, and many “improved” varieties developed through conventional breeding are not adopted by farmers. PPB also ensures that biodiversity is maintained or increased because different varieties are selected at different locations. In addition to the economical benefits, participatory research has a number of psychological, moral, and ethical benefits, which are the consequence of a progressive empowerment of the farmers’ communities; these benefits affect sectors of their life beyond the agricultural aspects. In conclusion, PPB, as a case of demand driven research, gives voice to farmers, including those who have been traditionally the most marginalized such as the women, and elevates local knowledge to the role of science.

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The authors thank the several hundreds farmers and research staff of the various countries who made this work possible and the donors who support participatory plant breeding at ICARDA: the OPEC Fund for International Development, the Governments of Italy and Denmark, der Bundesministerium für Wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit (BMZ, Germany), the International Development Research Center (IDRC, Canada), the System Wide Program on Participatory Research and Gender Analysis (SWP PRGA), and the Water and Food Challenge Program of the CGIAR.

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Correspondence to Salvatore Ceccarelli.

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Ceccarelli, S., Grando, S. Decentralized-participatory plant breeding: an example of demand driven research. Euphytica 155, 349–360 (2007).

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