Apomixis and farmers

                                           Apomixis and farmers

Farmers, and particularly poor farmers in developing countries, are expected to benefit from apomixis in two ways: saving hybrid seeds and stabilizing their best plants. Commercial farmers are to benefit as clients of a more responsive seed industry.

First and most publicized, apomixis would allow farmers to save the seeds from hybrid plants but still conserve the superior yields. Farmers would no longer need to access or purchase new hybrid seed for every planting season in order to ensure a marketable surplus. In particular, apomixis would serve farmers living in remote areas where neither the seed industry nor governments can guarantee a yearly supply of hybrid seed. But apomictic seeds would still be hybrids, which mean they would demand dependency on fertilizers and pesticides. Like other hybrids, apomictic hybrids would still be designed to perform their best under certain environmental conditions, which small farmers are unlikely to achieve and maintain. Apomixis might increase farmers’ access to hybrids, but not their control of them.

Second and perhaps more important in the long run, apomixis would allow farmers to fix the genetic characteristics of any of their individual crop plants, by crossing them with an apomictic line. Apomixis would allow farmers to become faster breeders, just as it would for formal breeders. It would give farmers more control of their local agro-environment. It would theoretically guarantee yield and uniformity (and therefore, marketability) of their own selected varieties. For the pro-poor proponents of apomixis research, here lies its main potential.

Others are unconvinced. Many people working directly with farmers think that existing approaches to participatory plant breeding would be much more helpful. From her work on participatory breeding with Brazilian family farmers, Angela Cordeiro has learnt that skilled farmers breed for variability rather than yield, to afford security in the face of unpredictable environmental conditions. The stability and fixation entailed by apomixis is alien to small farmers’ traditional strategies. In addition, Cordeiro’s work has demonstrated that yields in traditional, open-pollinated maize varieties are limited by bottlenecks in soil management and seed storage, rather than genetic potential.

Farmers, and especially commercial farmers, are expected to benefit from the acceleration in formal plant breeding that apomixis would create: cheaper seed, more varieties adapted to their particular growing conditions and more potential end-product markets to choose from. This would depend on whether apomixis is accessible to all seed companies or only to a small group of them. In the latter case, companies might lower seed prices to wipe competitors out, and then raise them to whatever price they choose.

One of the significant threats to farmers getting any benefits from apomixis is the potential use of Traitor/Terminator Technologies, also known as Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs). Because in principle apomixis would allow farmers to save hybrid seed, it has been touted as the antidote to Terminator, which renders seeds sterile. However, seed companies will only capitalize on apomixis if they prevent farmers and competitors from obtaining clones from apomictic varieties. It seems likely that companies will use GURTs in conjunction with their apomictic varieties, just as they plan to do with other seeds. As a result, apomixis would not be an antidote to the Terminator: it would simply complement it.

Sadiq Amin

(Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics)






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