Research successes in organic plant breeding

Over the past half century, most plant breeding programs, both public and private, have been developed in response to the needs of large-scale industrial agriculture with a focus on yield improvement, the ability to stand up to storage and transport, and appearance. However, not only do breeding programs for conventional crops often use techniques banned under organic standards, they also can result in the loss of traits critical for the success of crops managed without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Organic growers deal with unique sets of challenges due to the fundamental differences in the organic agricultural system. In addition to the need for high consistent yields, organic growers need varieties with increased resilience to insect, weed, and disease pressures to compensate for the lack of synthetic chemical preventive measures or treatments. To address these farmer needs, organic plant breeding programs focus on breeding for such characteristics as adaptation to local climate or environmental variation, resistance against pests and diseases, weed tolerance, increased yield, and nutritional quality.

With the increase in popularity of organic products, many recent plant breeding programs have been developed that are dedicated to improving organic plant varieties. Several of the researchers working on this issue are on The Organic Center’s Science Advisory Board. They include Dr. Jim Myers at Oregon State University (OSU), Dr. Erin Silva at the University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Girish Kumar Panicker at Alcorn State University.

Dr. Jim Myers holds the Baggett-Frazier Endowed Chair of Vegetable Breeding and Genetics in the Department of Horticulture at OSU, and works with the OSU vegetable breeding program to develop organic vegetable varieties that meet the needs of Oregon’s gardeners, fresh market, and processed vegetable growers and processors. While focused on the Pacific Northwest, many of the varieties developed by the group have historically been useful to growers throughout the United States and abroad.

Dr. Myers focuses on organic because of the sustainability associated with this production system. “The overarching theme of my breeding efforts—even predating organic breeding—has been to select and breed for traits that promote sustainability,” said Dr. Myers.

Dr. Myers’ initial foray into the area of organic breeding was with a project that identified varieties of broccoli well-suited for organic management. He developed a broad-based broccoli population, including both commercial and experimental lines, and sent seeds out to organic growers, asking them to grow and select the most productive individuals in their population.

The program has been an unmitigated success, and this year saw the completion of the fifth season of selection. The outcome is a variety of broccoli that is uniform for maturity, plant height, and head shape, but variable for many other traits. As such, it retains a broad genetic base.

Dr. Myers is also project director of the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a collaborative effort with Organic Seed Alliance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, USDA-Geneva, and OSU. His current work focuses on developing late blight-resistant tomato varieties adapted to organic production. The project as a whole conducts trials on sweet corn, bell pepper, tomato, cabbage, and delicata squash, with each crop chosen based on farmer feedback on needs and priorities. For example, for sweet corn, growers need varieties that can germinate and emerge with good stands in cool soils, and which are competitive with weeds as the plants continue to grow. 

One of Dr. Myers’ collaborators is Dr. Erin Silva, a professor in Organic Cropping Systems at the University of Wisconsin and another member of The Organic Center’s Science Advisory Board. Together, they have been working with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researcher Dr. Phil Simons to use genomic techniques to improve understanding of the factors driving differences in variety performance in organic versus conventional production environments.

Funded by USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the research team will measure response to selection under organic management for several key crop traits important to organic producers, tracking both plant characteristics in the field and genetic changes in the laboratory. While contributing to our understanding of how to more effectively and efficiently breed for organic systems, this project will also directly develop new germplasm for new carrot and snap bean varieties for organic vegetable farmers.

Dr. Silva also works on other research projects combining participatory, on-farm research approaches with cutting-edge laboratory techniques to explore the impact of both breeding for and selection of vegetable varieties adapted to Wisconsin’s organic vegetable farms. Along with graduate student Ginny Moore, Dr. Silva has been collecting environmental data from organic farms participating in the organic vegetable variety trialing network across Wisconsin to better understand the relationship between vegetable varieties and specific farm microclimates. 

Additionally, with graduate student Michelle Keller-Pearson and collaborator Dr. Jean-Michel Ané, Dr. Silva is investigating the relationship between heirloom and modern cultivars and soil microorganisms, with the goal of understanding the role of these partnerships between cultivar and soil symbionts in creating resilience in organic systems.

Dr. Girish Kumar Panicker, a professor at Alcorn State University and the Chairman of Division of Agriculture of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences, is another member of The Center’s Science Advisory Board focusing on organic breeding. He has put together a multidisciplinary team (including researchers from Alcorn State University such as Germania Salazar-Mejia and Victor Njiti, and researchers from West Virginia State University including Padma Nimmakayala, Yan Tomason, and Umesh Reddy) to breed melon varieties for organic production.

Development of resistant and high-quality melon varieties is critical to the economic prosperity of U.S. melon growers, so Dr. Panicker and his team examined melon fruit quality, disease resistance, adaptability, and yield of over 100 melon cultivars grown under organic conditions. The main goal of their program is to characterize the genes of diverse melon groups and use favorable allele combinations to breed superior melon types for organic management. Based on their research, they selected the 20 melon varieties that farmers can grow organically without the need for weeding or irrigation to help prevent the loss of soil moisture evaporation, nutrient runoff, or erosion. They also recently received a large-scale grant from USDA to introduce 103 melons from around the globe to organic growers. Their program has been extremely successful, with over 400 farmers visiting the site in the past two years to increase their knowledge about melon varieties well-suited for organic management.

These three researchers are just a few of the many scientists using traditional breeding techniques to solve challenges in organic farming. Organic farmers not only need crop varieties adapted to specific environmental conditions and marketing niches, but also require varieties that perform well across the wide range of growing regions and production approaches characterizing organic vegetable farms.

With more research, many of the common hurdles to organic farming may be reduced through well-adapted crop varieties. //