Ecology Action
submit search

March 27-29, 2000 GROW BIOINTENSIVE conference on the U.C. Davis campus
Home | Intro | Presentations | Breakout Sessions | Friends: Old & New | Sponsors

Optimal Genetic Diversity
Raoul Robinson | Hope Shand | Kent Whealy

Raoul Robinson was formerly with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. He trained in agricultural botany at Reading and Cambridge Universities, has worked mainly with crops in developing countries and is the author of several books on plant pathology.

Robinson said that for the last 100 years scientists have been breeding agricultural crops. However, for 9,000 years farmers themselves have been successfully breeding new plant cultivars. Scientific crop breeders had 4 goals - to increase:

  • yields,
  • quality of product,
  • economic sustainability, and
  • resistance to pests and diseases.

Robinson believes that they have succeeded in the first 3 goals but have been "disastrously unsuccessful" in the last one. He cites the reason as being the domination of the science since 1900 by Mendelians, who base resistance control on a single gene.

The problem with this system is that it quickly breaks down - a type of "boom and bust" - so that that particular cultivar has to be replaced with another in just a few years. As a result, in the 1960's plant breeders decided they weren't going to deal with resistance anymore. They would leave it to the plant pathologists and entomologists. He believes that is why crop protection chemicals now have to be used in such great quantities.

Robinson stated there is another type of resistance control, based on poly genes. This type of cultivar will never break down and will only get progressively better until it reaches a plateau. Plant breeding for resistance with poly genes is also very easy and can be done by anyone.

He mentioned that one of his books, Return to Resistance, discusses plant breeding clubs. He hopes that eventually there will be thousands of plant breeding clubs worldwide, each one producing the best cultivars for its own ecosystem. When this happens, he feels this process will go a long way towards eliminating chemicals from crops.


Hope Shand is the research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International. She writes on the topics of agricultural biodiversity, as well as the social and economic impacts of new biotechnologies. She is editor of RAFI Communique and author of Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-Based Food Security.

Shand mentioned 3 trends she sees as challenges: The first is an unprecedented rate of erosion of crop genetic resources, animal species, tropical forests, soil and biodiversity. This cannot be separated from the breakdown of human cultural diversity: the loss of traditional farming communities, languages, indigenous cultures, all on a massive scale. With this loss we also lose scientific information, innovative capacity and traditional knowledge.

The second trend is privatization of plant genetic breeding resources and seed sales. She cites gigantic transnational enterprises which have gained unprecedented control over patents, food security, farming and health. Shand notes that 20 years ago there were thousands of seed companies, most of which were small and family-owned.

Today the top 10 companies control one-third of the $23 billion commercial seed trade. The same companies now dominate in all sectors: plant breeding, pesticides, veterinary medicines and pharmaceuticals. Fewer companies are making decisions about the future of agriculture worldwide.

The third trend concerns farmers and their role in using and conserving agricultural biological diversity. In the long run they are the ones that crop biodiversity depends on, particularly those farmers in marginal areas.

Shand is alarmed at the erosion of their rights to save seeds and breed their own crops. This is important because farmers are plant breeders who are continually improving plants to fit their own specific conditions. She sees this as the key to maintaining food security and points out that corporate breeders are taking out patents on the modification of plants that were originally developed by farmers over the centuries.


Kent Whealy is the director of Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit grassroots network of gardeners, orchardists and plant collectors whose efforts are saving a significant part of the genetic diversity of our planet.

Kent has traveled globally to save thousands of endangered species and is the editor of The Garden Seed Inventory and The Fruit and Nut Tree Inventory. These invaluable resources are periodically updated and revised. They list all the open-pollinated varieties in the United States that are not extinct and give sources for obtaining seeds or saplings for these varieties.

Whealy started by saying he was glad to be present on such a "momentous occasion." Then he spoke of the irreplaceable nature of our genetic wealth, which can only live in living systems and can disappear in a year. These resources provide a thin line between us and worldwide starvation.

Whealy traced his involvement with heritage seeds. It all began 25 years ago when his wife's grandfather gave them 2 varieties of seeds he had brought with him from Bavaria. At the same time, he read about the erosion of genetic diversity that was accelerating worldwide.

He realized there must be a tremendous heritage of heirloom varieties in the country which had been passed down in families. Immigrants always brought the best of their seeds with them to provide a tie to their place of birth and to allow them to eat foods they were used to.

He placed ads in gardening and back-to-the-land publications, trying to locate more of these seeds and found there were real "treasure troves" of seeds available, particularly in isolated areas like the Smoky Mountains.

Today, Seed Savers puts out a 500-page yearbook listing a network of 1,000 people who have about 11,000 varieties of seeds not offered commercially. Whealy is pleased that Native Americans are gradually starting to offer their seedsÑthese "sparks of life"Ñ to this network.

Seed Savers Exchange, located on a farm in Iowa, maintains about 18,000 varieties as a central backup collection for its members and grows out 2,000 of these each summer. Whealy ended his presentation with a beautiful and inspiring slide show of some of the amazing varieties of vegetables they have grown out from their heritage seeds.


Ecology Action has been a small 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization since 1971.

©2006 Ecology Action.

Memberships/Contributions | Site Map