By Joanna Mackenzie

Farmers and plant breeders are often pitted against each other in the media, due to the tension that arises from the breeder’s intellectual property rights and the farmer’s sovereignty over seed use. However, participatory plant breeding (PPB) is a novel approach that involves collaboration between farmers and scientists, as well as other stakeholders such as NGOs and seed producers, to develop improved crops through plant breeding.

Farmers have been engaged in plant breeding since time immemorial, but modern PPB was originally conceived as a possible solution to the low adoption of improved technologies and seeds by farmers living in remote and low resource areas with harsh growing conditions.

Although conventional breeding programs have led to wide implementation of improved seeds, these breeding programs are still not accessible to many marginalized farmers due to the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation necessary to grow them, along with the cost of the seeds themselves. Also, seeds improved through conventional breeding were designed to be broadly adaptable, and may not grow well in areas prone to severe drought and cold weather.

PPB differs from conventional plant breeding in that the farmer is involved in all stages of the research process, resulting in improved seeds that are tailored to the community’s specific growing conditions and crop preferences. While scientists provide technical inputs, the farmers provide local plant genetic materials and insider knowledge about crops and farming practices, manage crop trials on their land, and evaluate crops for specific traits.

Unlike conventional plant breeding, PPB encompasses large social goals, such as protecting plant biodiversity and increasing the research capacity and skills of low resource farmers. PPB engages farmers through respectful relationships; their guidance and opinions actively shape the research process. Rather than just focusing on crops with high global market potential, PPB aims to improve food security by increasing yields from nutritious crops that are used in communities for either human consumption or animal feed.

PPB also addresses gender disparities by empowering female farmers, who represent 43% of the world’s agricultural labor, and developing crops that meet women’s specific needs. For example, in some cases women value different crop traits than men, such as palatability, stem flexibility for weaving, and ease of harvesting by hand. Most conventional breeding programs do not take considerations like this into account.

So how well does PPB work? PPB has been successfully implemented in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), a global agricultural research center established by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to address food insecurity in dry areas.

ICARDA ‘s PPB program in Syria, which involved scientists at two research stations and over 1000 Syrian farmers from 24 low resource villages, resulted in the production of improved barley seeds that were successfully integrated into the local agricultural system.  Farmers chose which crops to improve, designed and managed the plant trials on their fields, evaluated the experimental crops and selected crops for further production. From 2005-2011, farmers in Syria contributed to the development and release of 93 crop varieties, a huge improvement over the 7 varieties introduced by conventional breeding in the 35 years prior (Ceccarelli, 2012). This landmark project led to the introduction of PPB to other countries, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen and Iran.

Despite all the positive benefits that PPB provides to researchers and marginalized communities, PPB raises ethical issues due to the lack of legal protection for farmers’ rights to the genetic materials and products they help develop. On a local level, farmers have created informal methods to ensure equal access to benefits; however, there are few, if any legal mechanisms in place to ensure continued access and equitable benefit sharing.

International treaties such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the Nagoya Protocol, include measures to ensure equal benefit sharing and promote farmer sovereignty over plant genetic materials, but have been criticized for their lack of political and legal clout.

These treaties have also been undermined by international laws, such as the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which stipulates that products derived from local knowledge and plant genes can be patented by outside entities.

One potential solution to the problem is to create an open source licensing system as is currently being introduced in the US by a group known as the Open Source Seed Initiative. Seeds sold under this system are freely available but users must pledge not to restrict their use or any seed varieties derived from them, with patents, or other intellectual property laws. It is a novel approach, but it is unlikely to have a global impact at this point.

Farmers’ contributions are integral to preserving biodiversity and cultivating improved seeds. In order to ensure that farmers have continued access to and receive an equitable share of benefits from PPB, there must be a system in place that recognizes their contributions to agriculture and affords them equal protection under the law.

Joanna Mackenzie is a Registered Dietitian and Research Assistant for the Global Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  She is also working towards obtaining an MSPH in Health Education and Communication from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She received a B.S. in Nutrition Science from Russell Sage College in 2010.  Prior to coming to Hopkins, Joanna was a Public Health Nutritionist for the New York State Child and Adult Care Food Program. Previous work included using nutrition interventions to enhance the quality of life of HIV/AIDS populations in upstate New York.


  • Ceccarelli, S. (2012). Plant breeding with farmers: A technical Manual. International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.
  • CGIAR (2014). Old knowledge and new science: using traditional knowledge in CGIAR research. News from the CGIAR Consortium.
  • ICARDA. 2013. ICARDA Annual Report 2012. International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, Beirut, Lebanon. 70 pp.
  • Ruiz, M. & Vernooy, R. (2012). The Custodians of Biodiversity: Sharing Access and Benefits of Genetic Resources. International Development Research Centre, Canada. Accessed at: file:///Users/Jo/Documents/Global%20Food%20Project/GMOS/PPB/The%20Custodians%20of%20Biodiversity.webarchive
  • Sanghara, G., Dar, SH., Kashyap SC, Parray GA. (2013) Crop Improvement: An Integrated Approach (Book)
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Global Food Ethics
Joanna Mackenzie

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