Participatory Plant Breeding - China

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By Ronnie Vernooy:

"Farmers, led by women, have organized new local organizations for technology development, seed management, and market linkages. They use an approach known as participatory plant breeding, which unites professional breeders and farmer breeders to improve crops and maintain biodiversity, blending the best of scientific and traditional knowledge and expertise.

Green and certified organic agriculture have developed rapidly in China, with financial and technical support of government agencies. Domestic and foreign markets for organic produce are growing. Larger-scale conversion to green and organic agriculture requires considerable time and additional organizational, technical, and marketing support." (


"To address ... multiple challenges affecting rural China, in 1999 a novel initiative was started by several groups of women farmers, a number of rural villages, two plant-breeding organizations, and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP), the country’s leading public agricultural policy research organization. Research began in Guangxi Province, located in the southwest and a risk-prone area. In the mountains, which cover much of the province, farmers planted maize in minute pockets of soil on steep slopes and between rocks in flat fields. The topography makes irrigation water scarce, but rains can flood the land and wash away crops. There are no roads, and access to markets is limited. Maize is produced for consumption. It is a traditional staple crop in the area, where there is a diversity of maize landraces, including, for example, waxy maize. A second research area consisted of relatively better-off communities in the valleys and flat areas, where people tend to be a bit better educated and have livelihoods that are more integrated with the market economy. Maize used to be a traditional staple food, but it is now used more for pig feed. Pig farming is the main source of income for most villagers.

CCAP’s senior researcher Yiching Song developed the initiative, which launched an ambitious agenda that included crop rotation and organic fertilizers. Led by Song, who obtained her doctorate in rural development from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the team used participatory research to create synergies between the worlds of farmers and breeders, searching for innovative ways of using the best of traditional and modern knowledge and practices. The main aim was to establish cooperative and complementary relations between the formal seed system and farmers’ systems. Cooperation was necessary in order to empower farmers, mainly women farmers. At the heart of the efforts is an approach known as participatory plant breeding, in which professional breeders and farmer breeders join forces to improve crops, blending scientific and traditional knowledge.7

The work of the research team, including the farmers, built on local women farmers’ maize-breeding experience, developed over many years. At the same time, the team sought the expertise of formally trained plant breeders. Crop improvements were made through a number of crossing techniques and variety selection processes, which involved detasseling, mass selection, and line selection by farmers with support from breeders. Breeders went on to use more complex methods in the fields of the Guangxi Maize Research Institute (GMRI) in Nanning. So far, these trials have led to higher-yielding varieties that are at the same time more resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses, such as pests, diseases, and drought. More than 80 varieties have been used in the trials. Based on ten years of experimentation, four farmer-preferred varieties have been selected and released in the research villages. They have also spread beyond these villages. In 2008, similar work started in the neighboring provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou.

To share the benefits of the new crop products, the research team encouraged farmers and plant breeders to establish a formal agreement concerning the exchange of breeding material and seed production methods to further enhance their collaborative relationship. This sort of collaboration is still very new and requires time and effort by all parties to entrench the practice. It represents novel policymaking and is being followed with interest by both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It is a concrete example of giving meaning to international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The initiative is also exploring new efforts at marketing local crops. Two organic or green farming associations, established by local farmers but supported by the research team, are becoming more and more well-known in Hengxian County in southeast Guangxi. Various forms of green and certified organic agriculture in China have been developing rapidly. In many places, these forms of farming do build on historically developed farming systems that never relied heavily on industrial inputs; in other places, including in the more favorable regions, such as central and coastal China, the new forms have developed as a radical shift from Green Revolution practices. Government support, financial and technical, has been important in most cases, but there are also examples of mostly farmer-led change. Public research organizations played an important role in the start-up and development phases of supporting farmers technically and administratively, including with the establishment of internationally recognized certification schemes.8 The earliest examples of conversion to organic farming date to the beginning of the 1990s. By 2005, more than half a million hectares were dedicated to certified products, with over a thousand companies involved. Since then, the areas under production, the total production, as well as the number of crops produced have expanded all over China (including for tea and bamboo). In 2002, organic vegetables started to become available in some of the major supermarkets in large cities. Both domestic and foreign demand continue to rise.

The first organic products from Guangxi, rice and kohlrabi—which are being produced without the use of industrial inputs—are welcomed by many customers from Nanning, Liuzhou, and even as far away as Hong Kong. In the city of Nanning, a new organic-food restaurant purchases produce directly from the two organic associations, which offer only slightly higher prices than for conventional produce. This restaurant, the first of its kind in the province’s capital, is quickly gaining popularity.

The two organic associations, based in the villages of Chentang and Sancha, were established in 2005, a year after the conversion to organic farming was initiated in a move away from industrialized forms of farming, which were becoming increasingly costly and risky. Motivated to take a different approach to farming, farmers began to reorganize their work through more cooperation, relying on local resources (such as organic fertilizers and natural pesticides) and a collective spirit of crop management and experimentation. Starting with only ten farmers, they were soon able to obtain technical guidance and some financial support from Partners for Community Development (PCD), a Hong Kong–based NGO operating in various provinces of south China, supporting poverty alleviation and grassroots development.

In 2006, PCD staff began working with team members from CCAP and GRMI to improve local crop varieties. They received technical training and also support to improve the organizational processes, from production to marketing. The organic associations organize regular communications among their members to improve farming skills and give them a deeper understanding of the advantages of organic farming. The members are divided into small groups to monitor each other’s planting efforts and make sure that everyone avoids the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As farmers gradually enlarge the area devoted to organic farming, the local supply of fertilizer can no longer meet their needs. Because homemade fertilizer is the best choice, as it allows for strict quality control, the associations have begun to purchase the raw materials—such as bran and bone meal—for their members, encouraging the farmers to experiment to determine the best proportions of materials and the most effective amount of organic fertilizer to use.9

The growth of the organic associations has not been without challenges. The leaders, especially the chairpersons, both of whom are men, have invested a lot of time and energy, and also their own money, in organizing activities and exploring the market for the benefit of the associations, without receiving any payment. Their voluntary efforts are not sustainable in the long run, as they must also earn enough money to support their families. The associations’ income, which comes from annual member fees and a small percentage of the sales of organic products, is just enough to meet the associations’ office expenses. Thus, how to reimburse the leaders for their time and effort is a problem. Another challenge is how to respond adequately to the growing interest in the associations. As more members join, the associations struggle with adequate and timely provision of training in the basic techniques and skills of organic farming. How to professionalize the associations is becoming an issue, although this challenge can be viewed in a positive light: it indicates that the associations are serving an important function." (

More Information

  1. Song, Y & Vernooy, R, eds. Seeds and Synergies: Innovation in Rural Development in China [online] (Practical Action Publishing, Bourton on Dunsmore; International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2010).
  2. Song Y, Li, J & Vernooy, R in The Custodians of Biodiversity: Sharing Access to and Benefits of Genetic Resources (Ruiz, M & Vernooy, R, eds), China: designing policies and laws to ensure fair access and benefit sharing of genetic resources and participatory plant breeding products, 94–120 [online] (Earthscan, New York; International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2012).
  3. Vernooy, R. Seeds That Give: Participatory Plant Breeding [online] (International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2003).
  4. Sanders, R. A market road to sustainable agriculture? Ecological agriculture, green food and organic agriculture in China. Development and Change 37(1), 201–226 (2006).
  5. Yang Huan in Seeds and Synergies: Innovation in Rural Development in China (Song, Y & Vernooy, R, eds), Farmer coop and organization: new challenges, new networks, new identities, 65-84 [online] (Practical Action Publishing, Bourton on Dunsmore; International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2010).