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Public Domain Plant Breeding

Biopiracy is big business

Alan M. Kapuler Ph.D.

Biopiracy is big business, so is owning and controlling the food system. Tied to the land, water, and resources, conventional agriculture is suffering from monocultures, petrochemical inputs, machines, insufficiency of human labor, and the hegemony of Wall Street.


Control of seeds, particularly the control of availability, variety and diversity of crop plant seeds, reflects the directions of breeding and selection by governments, corporations, universities, plant breeders, seed companies and backyard gardeners. All this determines what is available to us as cooks, gardeners, farmers and eaters. It is with these things in mind that in the 1970’s and 1980’s we began collecting seeds and breeding new varieties for the organic movement and the public domain.


In the 1980’s, we made a public domain vine snap pea (Sugaree) because all the available ones were plant variety patent protected. The company controlling these peas wasn’t interested in organics. Yet organically grown snap peas were important plants in our diets and our cuisine. So we used classical plant breeding to liberate some garden peas. This work continues. We developed a yellow podded vine snap pea (Opal Creek) with unusually sweet leaves, and in collaboration with Carl Jones of UC Davis, a vine snow pea with delicious 8-9” pods (Green Beauty). Recently, we used the parsley bush pea which has leafy fronds (rather than tendrils), to develop hyper-tendril peas, that have snow, snap and shell characters in different lines. This year, in collaboration with Phil Gouy, we identified several traits likely to increase the productivity of bush and vine peas up to three-fold and began crossing them into our favorite cultivars.


From this we reckoned that organically grown, adapted and selected cultivars held by the public would be vital for the organic movement, and for humanity in general. In addition, these cultivated varieties would have to reflect as many aspects of the local gardening food system as possible; namely, temperate zone crops adapted to the coast, the valleys and the mountains. We needed to explore and develop new, superior and original varieties to promote, enhance and distinguish organic, biological agriculture. Recognizing that F1 hybrids and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) were further aspects of the privatization of the genome pool, our organic varieties would be open pollinated, free from imposed transgenes and selected under organic conditions.


To us, the organic evolution has moved from 60 centuries of Chinese Agriculture, from the Indore System of Composting, from Steinerian Biodynamics, to the era of the Molecular Biology of Organisms. In particular, microbes that make up an essential part of organic soil cooperate to form biosomes, groups of interacting creatures that promote, enhance and sustain plant growth and health. Bacteria and archaea integrally connect to mycorhizal fungi and viruses in the soil network that biologists call the rhizosphere, the root zone of plants.


For decades, farmers have been using reduced nitrogen fertilizers like urea and ammonium sulfate, to enhance the growth of the plants they grow. Yet plants don’t utilize reduced ammonia very well, preferring concentrated nitrate and oxidized nitrogen in their cell vacuoles. The conversion of reduced nitrogen, provided by a variety of microbes, into nitrate has been discovered to take place thanks to a previously unrecognized group of archaea called “crens.” Crens are present in most soils, in most ecosystems on Earth. Bacteria doesn’t convert as much ammonia into nitrate as crens do. This opens up vistas for further developments in microbially enhanced fertility regimes to increase the output of organic food.


Since part of our work with seeds was to provide for the kinds of foods we love to eat, and flowers that improve our gardens, we began with our favorite garden crops: sweet corn, broccoli, onions, winter squash, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias.


At the same time, we were fortunate to collaborate with Dr. Sarangamat Gurusiddiah, head of the Bioanalytical Laboratory at Washington State University at Pullman, WA (retired), in making hundreds of amino acid analyses of organically grown crops, looking at nutritional selection criteria for many of our crops. One of our brassica cultivars–Nutribud broccoli–was found to have significant amounts of glutamine, one of the energy sources for our brains.


Since we began growing food with heirloom cultivars, it soon became apparent that some heirlooms did better than others in terms of vigor, productivity, seed production and food quality. We continue to look for fine heirlooms as parents in making new kinds.


After growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes in decades of organic gardening, we picked our favorites for parents. It takes just a few minutes to make a cross, but many months, even years, to follow the cross to new and improved varieties.


While our first crosses were with heirlooms, many new kinds come from the intercrossing of varieties that have taken us years to develop. Familiarity and experience is necessary to sustaining and developing worthwhile new cultivars.


A key aspect of laying out a garden for developing new varieties is to know the how’s, what’s and when’s for each and every kind of plant. Are the plants insect, bird, bat, ant, wind or water pollinated? Are there complete flowers, ones with both pollen and stigmas, or plants with male and female flowers on the same plant or are there both male plants and female plants? And then there are the critical issues of inbreeding and outcrossing. Some plants like sunflowers, brassicas and cucurbits prefer to outbreed. Others like tomatoes, legumes and marigolds are usually self-fertile.


So many aspects of fertility have to do with timing–when the flowers open, when the pollen is mature, when the stigmas are receptive, whether the sun is shining or rain is falling, the emergence of insects from larva to adult, direction and timing of the wind, daily and diurnal temperature and the interventions that a grower interposes to aid or limit pollination –are all important in the conjunctions leading to seed production.


Taking your hand to seed collecting and plant breeding opens possibilities for uniquenesses in your garden. New vistas unfold with each crop. The unknown as a friend and ally.


Dr. Alan Kapuler is the president of Peace Seeds.

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