What is participatory plant breeding? It’s farmer-led innovation

January 16, 2021

Complex farming systems need more than one-size-fits-all solutions. Participatory plant breeding helps farmers like Santos discover what solutions work for their farms.

Santos Luis Merlo is passionate about seeds.

“A seed is a living being that we must take care of,” he says. “How could we not take care of what our grandparents passed down to us?”

Santos lives and farms in El Rosario, Pueblo Nuevo, Nicaragua. His love of seeds, coupled with his curiosity and willingness to experiment, led him to plant breeding. He has spent years collaborating with farmers and researchers in his region to improve bean and maize varieties, selecting for plants that grow well under traditional farming practices while holding up to the extremes climate change brings.

A seed is a living being that we must take care of. How could we not take care of what our grandparents passed down to us?

Santos Luis Merlo, farmer in Nicaragua
Tweet this

Through this process, known as participatory plant breeding, he helped develop Pueblo Nuevo Santos Luis (SL) maize, named for him because of his contribution.

What is participatory plant breeding?

Participatory plant breeding (PPB) is crop breeding with farmers in the driver’s seat. Farmers work to improve crops and develop resilient plant varieties in collaboration with researchers, scientists and other stakeholders—even eaters!

Farmers like Santos know their needs best. They set breeding goals based on their local environments, conditions, tastes and cultures—and then can judge a variety’s success in their own fields against these real-life criteria.

Breeding for climate resilience

With the region’s worsening droughts in mind, Santos helped breed Pueblo Nuevo SL with the ability to withstand prolonged dry periods. It means farmers are more likely to be able to bring corn to harvest, provide food for their families, and make a living.

The photos above show the difference this can make. These two farms are just 200 metres apart and both had not seen rain for weeks. The farm on the left is growing a local corn variety that is struggling with the drought. The farm on the right is growing Pueblo Nuevo SL, which Santos and others bred to endure the intense new climate conditions—and it is working.

“[Santos] is the best example of how the application of ancestral science accompanied by modern science can generate changes to improve the agricultural production of a region or the country,” wrote Blanca Castro, who works with our local partner, Federation of Cooperatives for Development (Federación de Cooperativas para el Desarrollo, FECODESA). 

“His passion for participatory plant breeding has brought him great recognition from scientists, technicians, farmers and different personalities in the country and abroad.”

SeedChange now works with FECODESA to support farmers growing Pueblo Nuevo SL seeds, and other locally-adapted varieties, that will then be disseminated to other family farmers across the region. 

Around the world, SeedChange supports hundreds of plant breeding farmers. In Canada, our program, The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, supports farmers as early-generation plant breeders, selecting for varieties that are adapted to their regional climate and farm needs. The program, focused on wheat, oat, potatoes, and corn, is implemented in partnership with the University of Manitoba, and is the only of its kind in Canada.

Why is participatory plant breeding important?

Most commercial seeds are developed with a narrow set of farming conditions in mind. They’re produced to work in uniform farming systems, often monocultures, that require synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

But complex farming systems, like Santos’s, need more than one-size-fits-all solutions. This model of plant breeding is a process through which farmers can meet their own needs.