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Week 3 (Unit 6) International Crop Improvement Strategies

Modern Cultivar Development - Role of Public and Private Agencies

The field of plant breeding has changed dramatically in the past ten years and continues to evolve at a rapid rate. There has been a dramatic shift from public breeding efforts to privatization of breeding programs. A survey conducted by Ken Frey at Iowa State University showed that the number of scientist-years devoted to plant breeding research and development in the public sector decreased 2.5 scientist-years per year from 1990 to 1994. In contrast, during the same period private industry was found to have an annual net growth of 32 scientist-years. There has also been a major shift from traditional field selection programs to breeding programs that integrate field selection and molecular approaches.

Prior to the biotechnology revolution, private breeding efforts were generally targeted on crops such as maize that had well-developed hybrid seed industries, or crops with a very high cash value. Responsibility for improvement of self-pollinating crops such as wheat was generally in the public domain. International research centers conducted large-scale crop improvement programs to develop germplasm suitable for agricultural production systems in the developing world.

This model is rapidly changing. The following information is taken from an article by Steven C. Price of the University of Wisconsin:

"The development of stronger plant intellectual property rights has most certainly fueled corporate interest in plant breeding and varietal development and release. There is no doubt that the availability of Plant Variety Certificates, plant patents, and the extension of utility patents to cover new varieties as well as plant tissues and genes has contributed to industrial interest in the area. All major chemical companies, both national and international Hoechst, DuPont, CIBA Geigy, Imperial Chemical Company, and Monsanto, for example, have acquired or developed corporate divisions with deep capabilities in agricultural biotechnology--the most recent consolidation is DuPont's acquisition of Pioneer Hi-Bred."

Based on a survey conducted of public plant breeders, he concluded that...

"... public sector plant breeding has been negatively impacted by the private sector's development and control of proprietary genetic stocks. Nearly 50% of public plant breeders have had difficulties obtaining genetic stocks from companies; the most shocking result is that almost 1/4 of the breeders responded that graduate student training has been harmed."

Along with the shift in emphasis from public sector breeding to private breeding efforts, it has become increasingly difficult for public breeders and the international centers to obtain funding for crop improvement efforts.

Nonetheless, public breeding programs still have an important role to play. Tripp and Byerlee (2000) made the following recommendations concerning the role of the public sector in breeding programs, particularly in developing countries:

Policy conclusions
  • Increasing the emphasis on opportunities for private agricultural research must be balanced by sharpening the focus and defining the comparative advantage of public research programmes.
  • Public breeding programmes should explore opportunities to recover some costs, but not at the expense of generating broad social benefits, their basic mandate.
  • Public plant breeding can be made more efficient through a flexible strategy that tests varieties from a range of sources while shifting from national towards regional testing and release approaches.
  • Public plant breeding must improve its links with the commercial seed sector, becoming more proactive in promoting its products and moving them through appropriate private channels to the ultimate user.
  • Countries need to establish adequate plant variety protection regimes in order to stimulate private seed activity and to facilitate use of public varieties by the private seed sector. An appropriate plant variety protection system will allow continued open exchange of public germplasm and preserve farmersí ability to save seed of protected varieties.
  • Public plant breeding programmes need to increase their negotiating and legal skills in intellectual property management in order to access privately held tools and technologies that can help the public sector address its mandate, especially to serve small-scale farmers.

International Agriculture Research Centers

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)


Established in 1971 to coordinate goals and activities of 16 International Agricultural Research Centers (IARC’s), now known as Future Harvest Centers, that work in more than 100 countries.

Mission of CGIAR:

To contribute to food security and poverty eradication in developing countries through research, partnerships, capacity building, and policy support, promoting sustainable agricultural development based on the environmentally sound management of natural resources.

International Agricultural Research Centers

  CIAT - Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical
CIFOR - Center for International Forestry Research
CIMMYT - Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo
CIP - Centro Internacional de la Papa
ICARDA - International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
ICRISAT - International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
IFPRI - International Food Policy Research Institute
IITA - International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
ILRI - International Livestock Research Institute
IPGRI - International Plant Genetic Resources Institute
IRRI - International Rice Research Institute
IWMI - International Water Management Institute
WARDA - West Africa Rice Development Association
World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)
WorldFish Center

The CGIAR partnership includes 24 developing and 22 industrialized countries, 4 private foundations, and 12 regional and international organizations that provide financing, technical support, and strategic direction. In 2002, contributions to the CGIAR amounted to $357 million.

Cosponsors of the CGIAR:

  • FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • UNDP – United Nations Development Program
  • UNEP – United Nations Environment Program
  • World Bank

The CGIAR undertakes research that the private sector is unlikely to undertake, national research programs are unable to undertake, and where international coordination is needed and beneficial.

Examples of activities:

  • genetic improvements in plants, livestock, fish, and trees
  • developing improved natural resource management practices
  • saving biodiversity through the CGIAR genebank network
  • helping to streamline and improve policies that strongly influence the spread of new technologies and the management and use of natural resources
  • strengthening of National Agricultural Research (NAR’s) programs
  • training of researchers, educators, extension agents, government administrators
  • applications and implications of biotechnology for developing countries

Application of CGIAR research:

Products of CGIAR research constitute ‘international public goods’, freely available to benefit the global public. Germplasm and varieties developed through the CGIAR system are in the ‘public domain’, held in trust under the auspices of FAO.

The challenge now is applications of modern biotechnology and concern that, through Intellectual Property Right (IPR) restrictions, benefits of modern biotechnology will bypass poor people, resulting in ‘scientific apartheid’. Centers are struggling now to deal with international IPR issues, as well as public acceptance of biotechnology in developing countries. Centers may need to take out ‘defensive IPR protection’ to maintain ‘freedom to operate’, but IPR claims also consume time and funds.

Other International Research Centers involved in Crop Improvement


CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement)
is a French organization with a mandate to "contribute to rural development in tropical and subtropical countries through research, experimentation, training operations in France and overseas, and scientific and technical information, primarily in the fields of agriculture, forestry and agrifoods". CIRAD works in over 50 countries worldwide and had an annual budget of about $150 million in 2001.

Green Revolution

IFPRI. 2002. Green Revolution, Curse or Blessing?

In the mid-1960's, hunger was widespread in Asia and India, exasperated by several years of drought in India. In response, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations provided support for establishment of the international centers to help to transfer scientific advances in agriculture to developing countries. The Mexican Agricultural Program evolved into CIMMYT - The International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations also funded research at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to work on rice.

Improvements in wheat and rice focused on development of high yielding semi-dwarf varieties with short, stiff straw that could withstand higher production inputs and increased grain yields. These varieties could be planted at high densities (more plants per hectare), in contrast to many traditional varieties that would lodge (fall over in the field) at high density and high fertility levels. In wheat, the semidwarf genes (Rht1 and Rht2) had been identified in agricultural trials in post-war Japan by a USDA agricultural officer. Crosses were made between the japanese variety, 'Norin 10', and a variety adapted to the US at Washington State University. Seed of this cross was provided to Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT. The high yielding varieties (HYVs) that were developed responded to nitrogen fertilizer, irrigation, and intensive management. Norman Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the Green Revolution.


Dr. M.S. Swaminathan was a prominent Indian scientist and plant breeder based at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. He collaborated with Dr. Borlaug on seed introductions, testing, and adoption of high yield varieties and production systems in India. The result was rapid acceptance of the new varieties and technology. In 1964, 20 tons each of 'Sonora 63' and 'Sonora 64' semi-dwarf wheat were introduced to India. By 1973, 10 million hectares were planted to CIMMYT HYV’s. The term 'Green Revolution' was coined by William Gaud of the US-Agency for International Development (USAID) to describe this dramatic growth in agriculture. Dr. Swaminathan was winner of the 1987 World Food Prize for his contributions to the Green Revolution and Indian food production.

What were the features of Dr. Borlaug's breeding and technology dissemination strategies that contributed to their success?
  • Shuttle breeding
    • alternated between Toluca and Obregon breeding sites (contrasting environments) in Mexico
  • Daylength insensitivity in varieties
    • Resulted in broad adaptation, yield stability
    • High levels of disease resistance
  • Rust and disease resistance
    • Screening and evaluation
    • Discovery of new genes and their deployment
    • Anticipated changes in rust races
What was accomplished during the 'Green Revolution'?
  • Reversal of food shortages in India and Pakistan in the 1960’s
    • Averted mass starvations due to exponential population growth in Indian subcontinent
    • 1950: 692 million tons of cereal grain produced worldwide-->1992: 1.9 billion tons of grain
  • Increased national security through reduced hunger
  • Contributed to increases in global food production
  • Raised farmer income and stimulated rural non-farm economies
  • Better nutrition was attained through increased income and reduced food prices
What are the criticisms of the Green Revolution?
  • Environmental concerns related to intensive production practices
    • Fertilizer, pesticide use
    • Irrigation requirements, higher water use
    • soil erosion
  • Some outcomes were inevitable as millions of illiterate farmers used new technologies for the first time; but also related to inadequate extension programs, lack of regulation of water quality, and policies that subsidized input prices.

    But, what would have been the impact on the environment if it had been necessary to expand farming into new areas of marginal lands and forested areas in order to produce adequate food? The total increase in cultivated land for cereals was only 4% during the Green Revolution.

  • Decreased biodiversity, increased genetic vulnerability related to monoculture, high yielding varieties
    • Farmers abandoned local land races to grow high yielding varieties

    Resulted in increased efforts worldwide to collect and preserve germplasm and to broaden the genetic base of modern cultivars.

  • Inequitable sharing of benefits and income among regions and within the population
    • Large farmers were the primary adapters of technology
    • Encouraged unnecessary mechanization, reducing employment

Large numbers of poor people were lifted out of poverty through lower food prices and increased employment. In some instances small farmers and landless laborers gained proportionally more income than larger farmers.

Post Green Revolution Crop Improvement Strategies

Development practitioners now have a better understanding the conditions under which the Green Revolution and similar yield-enhancing technologies are likely to have equitable benefits among farmers. These conditions include:

  1. A scale neutral technology package that can be profitably adopted on farms of all sizes
  2. An equitable distribution of land with secure ownership or tenancy rights
  3. Efficient input, credit, and product markets so that farms of all sizes have access to modern farm inputs and information and are able to receive similar prices for their products
  4. Policies that do not discriminate against small farms and landless laborers (for instance, no subsidies on mechanization and no scale biases in agricultural research and extension).

These conditions are not easy to meet. Typically, governments must make a concerted effort to ensure that small farmers have fair access to land, knowledge, and modern inputs.

Innovative approaches must be employed to reduce the environmental impact of high yielding varieties. These would include:

  • Reduced tillage systems that leave some debris on the soil surface help to conserve moisture and organic matter and reduce erosion. The drawback to these methods is that they often require increased use of pesticides.
  • Biological control methods using natural predators and pathogens can be used to control agricultural pests and reduce reliance on pesticides
  • Improved water management and efficient irrigation systems that conserve water
  • Use of organic fertilizers and enhanced biological nitrogen fixation
  • Greater biodiversity in farming systems

Sasakawa-Global 2000 Program for Sub-Saharan Africa


Sub-Saharan Africa is the only continent that has experienced a decline in per capita calorie consumption in the past thirty years.

A collaborative initiative has been undertaken by Norman Borlaug, Jimmy Carter and the late Ryoichi Sasakawa of Japan. This is a joint venture between Sasakawa African Association and Carter Center’s Global 2000 program. It is funded by the Nippon Foundation of Japan.

the focus of the Sasakawa-Global 2000 program is on small-scale farmers in 14 sub-Sarahan African countries. It arose from food aid efforts needed in the early 1980’s during severe drought affecting 20 sub-Sarahan African countries. Sasakawa recognized the need for small-farm level assistance to improve food production.

There was concern that the ‘Green Revolution’ technologies and information were not reaching small farmers, or being adapted to subsistence farming, which are critical for expanding food production in Africa.

Features of the program:
  • The bulk of the work of SG 2000 projects is carried out by national extension workers; this ensures that the benefits of the project will last after the project has officially ended
  • Initially, SG 2000 projects focus on training extension workers and farmers in better production technology for the principal food crops.
  • Demonstration plots are used as a ‘classroom’ to show technology and provide extension outlet for research.
  • After several years, SG 2000 shifts from direct involvement in production demonstration programs and expands work in grain storage, draft power, agro-processing, and seed production.

Current status of US International Agricultural Research Support

CRSPs - The US Agency for International Development (USAID) funds international partnerships with Land-grant universities through Collaborative Research Support Programs http://crsps.org/

There are nine CRSPs currently in operation to help build sustainable capacities of National Agricultural Research Systems of developing countries so that they can solve problems of agricultural production and utilization over the long term. The collaborative research of scientists in these programs benefits American agriculture, as well as agriculture in these developing countries.

Biotechnology, Breeding and Seed Systems for African Crops

The Rockefeller Foundation has recently undertaken a major initiative to increase food production in sub-Saharan Africa. The program recognizes the diversity and complexity of agroecosystems in Africa and aims to develop technologies that are tailored to local conditions.

Program Strategy: To increase food access through a yield-increasing and stabilizing strategy directed at needs of producers in low-input systems through:

  1. increased investment in multi-crop, multi-trait programs
  2. understanding agro-ecological diversity through applied GIS and combined data bases
  3. biotechnology aimed at intractable problems
  4. combining improved soils and crops
  5. decentralized, well-funded national breeding programs supported by strategies for variety development
  6. increase in funding at national level resulting in wider range of crop varieties
  7. improving farmer participation through priority setting and participatory variety selection
  8. developing indigenous agricultural input sector.

For more information about this program, see http://www.africancrops.net/

Role of Biotechnology and Agricultural Chemical Companies in Crop Improvement

Multinational companies are also playing an increasing role in crop improvement efforts worldwide, particularly through applications of biotechnology and Intellectual Property Rights legislation.

Biotechnology can be broadly defined as the use of living organisms to provide products for humanity. For the plant breeder, biotechnology offers an additional array of tools for incorporating desirable traits into new varieties. The controversy around biotechnology arises in regard to transgenic varieties that contain genes from other organisms that were inserted using the techniques of genetic engineering.

If you would like to understand more about the science involved in the application of biotechnology tools, The University of Nebraska - Lincoln has an excellent Library of Crop Technology Lessons that covers topics such as

  • Gene cloning
  • Basic Biotechnology
  • Biotechnology and the consumer
  • Allergenicity of foods in relation to biotechnology

These lessons are simple and can be viewed free of charge.

Another excellent reference on biotechnological techniques is the NCBI Science Primer.

If you would like to have access to balanced information about the science and social issues pertaining to transgenic crops (genetically modified organisms or GMOs), please see Transgenic Crops: an Introduction and Resource Guide from Colorado State University. The site discusses topics such as

  • The regulatory process for release of transgenic crops in the US
  • Current and future transgenic products
  • Risks and concerns about transgenic crops
  • Golden rice
  • GM corn in Mexico
  • Labelling GM foods
  • The terminator technology
  • Starlink corn

Not all applications of biotechnology for crop improvement involve the use of transgenics. It is also possible to use molecular techniques to track genes that already exist in a species through the selection process. Often this involves the use of genetic markers that are closely linked to genes that control important traits, but in other cases the genes themselves have been identified and can be monitored in the breeding program. For a basic introduction to Marker Assisted Selection in animal science, see the notes by Julius van der Werf and Brain Kinghorn.

We will discuss various applications of biotechnology in the units on specific crops.


Reading and discussion

Read the IFPRI article entitled "the Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing"

Go to the discussion board and let us know what you think are critical components of a post Green Revolution strategy for increasing food security. Respond to the comments of at least one of your classmates.

Written assignment

Due April 26th

Select one of the CGIAR centers and review its web site. Briefly summarize:

  1. the major research objectives of the center
  2. the principal crops that it works on
  3. its geographic focus
  4. important achievements
Submit your findings via the Assignments function on Blackboard.


Take the quiz on this Unit on the Blackboard.


Center for Global Food Issues. 2005. High-yield Conservation Protects Biodiversity.

Easterbrook, G. 1997. Forgotten benefactor of humanity. The Atlantic Online.

International Food Policy Research Institute. 2002. Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing? IFPRI Issue Brief #11. http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/ib/ib11.pdf

Levetin, E. and K. McMahon. 2005. Feeding a hungry world. Chapter 15 in Plants and Society, 4th edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. Additional on-line notes and references:

Perkins, J.H. 1997. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, genes, and the cold war. Oxford University Press.

Price, S.C. 1999. Public and private plant breeding. Nature Biotechnology 17:938.

Tripp, R. and D. Byerlee. 2000. Public plant breeding in an era of privatisation. ODI Natural Resource Perspectives. http://www.odi.org.uk/nrp/57.html