Forum - Beyond the news
home news forum careers events suppliers solutions markets resources directories advertise contacts search news site plan
SeedQuest presents
The University of Chicago Press
1427 E. 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

You may purchase this title
at University of Chicago Press 
at these fine bookstores
or at Amazon

Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding
by Noel Kingsbury
Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago Press
Published by The University of Chicago Press

From the Introduction

Shopping for food – we all do it, whether at the supermarket, or from traditional neighborhood shops, or in a market. It’s the modern equivalent of what our ancestors would have done in long-gone hunter-gatherer days. The hunters (nearly always men) have perhaps earned a bit too much of the limelight in our popular reconstructions of life in these times, as in most such societies the bulk of the food would have been gathered rather than hunted, mostly by groups of women. Digging up roots and picking berries is a rather more unglamorous activity than chasing after and spearing mammoths, but it undoubtedly brought in more calories and fed more mouths. Shopping is more like gathering than hunting, although those who like to track down obscure wines and rare cheeses might disagree.

Our ancestors would have had an immediate and very direct experience of what they were gathering, as they clawed tubers out of the ground, got pricked by thorny stems as they gathered berries or trekked miles to find a particularly rich source of mushrooms. By contrast we know so little about where our food actually comes from. I do not mean its country of origin, although we often know little enough about that, but its historical origins. As you trundle your shopping trolley around the aisles and gather up tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), carrots (Daucus carota) and apples (Malus domestica), think about this: is there an Eden somewhere in the world where tribal people pick big juicy tomatoes - just like the supermarket ones, but from vines clambering over bushes; ease nice fat orange carrots from the earth with a digging stick or gather rosy apples from trees in large woven baskets? A moment’s reflection and we realize this is too rosy a vision of Eden to be true.

Meet the ancestors – wild crops

For a better idea of what our ancestors had as plant food resources take a trip to the seaside – I’m thinking specifically of the coastline of Britain and northwest Europe. Whether it is just co-incidence or not might be interesting to speculate, but it is possible to find the ancestors of several of our most familiar vegetables growing on the cliff tops. Meeting them, and realizing their connections with the plastic and Styrofoam-wrapped contents of our supermarket trolley (or even our vegetable patch in the garden – if we have one) brings home very forcefully just how far we have come. Let’s start with wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea). It grows usually on the very cliff edge itself; tough, almost woody stems jutting out into the wind, with large grey succulent-looking leaves, and sometimes, heads of yellow flowers. Many who walk by will miss it, for it looks nothing like cabbage, although home vegetable growers may recognize more than a passing resemblance to a broccoli plant. Rubbing a leaf and smelling it however will trigger instant recognition.. Pick some and take it home, or back to the self-catering cottage you may have rented for your coastal break, chop it up, cook it and see what you think. Most will find it tough and very strongly flavored, but recognizably cabbage-like. Having met wild cabbage, we inevitably ask how the wild plant got to look like the neat, tightly wrapped balls of leaves we buy in the shops. And what is the connection with broccoli? And of those other vegetables that are grouped under the heading of ‘brassicas’: cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens?

The story of plant breeding

This book is aimed at those in the plant sciences, or just interested in plants, agriculture, or the environment, and who want to know more about the history behind today’s high technology and headlines. It is also aimed at those interested in history and human culture who are perhaps unfamiliar with agriculture, gardening or genetics. Some understanding of genetics does help with the story, so some technical explanation is included in a series of Technical Notes at the end. We finish just short of laboratory-based plant breeding in the form of genetic engineering – to have included this would probably have doubled the size of the book, and much of this history is readily available elsewhere.

The book is divided into two parts.

Part One deals with what is almost a linear historical narrative, from the domestication of the first crops to the birth of Mendelian genetics. Mendel’s theories of how heredity works were not universally accepted at first by any means, and a discussion of this process of their acceptance, rapid in some countries, slow in others, is an important part of the story. Part Two looks at what happened when Mendelian genetics became accepted unequivocally. It, and a host of other scientific discoveries were then able to transform plant breeding. From here on a clear narrative thread disappears, and the science soon leaves non-specialists behind. Consequently, in Part Two a different approach is taken, looking more broadly at trends in different plant breeding technologies and their social and political implications.

Chapters One Origins deals with the domestication of crops, Chapter Two, Landraces, with traditional agriculture, which is dependent upon crop varieties which have evolved for a particular locale, are very particular to it and are hence incredibly diverse. The future of traditional crops, in these days of hi-tech crops may seem bleak, but reasons are suggested as to why this may not necessarily be the case. These two chapters are essentially about the ‘prehistory’ of plant breeding; we have no names or dates, but instead the evidence of archaeology and genetics; and observations made by anthropologists and others of people farming in traditional ways today.

We may all depend on agriculture, but growing crops has never been a high-status activity. Chapter Three, Improvement, describes how wealthy and educated of Europe began to become more interested in agriculture around the 17th century – one sign amongst many that a great shift in attitudes was happening. Europeans at this time were colonizing the Americas, and the role of English-speaking American colonists in early plant breeding and in making discoveries in plant sciences are a key part of this ‘European’ story. That it was not only Europeans who at particular times in history became more interested in farming is recognized – there were similar movements in China and Japan. The age of ‘improvement’ led into a more self-consciously scientific age, described in Chapter Four, Vegetable Mules, with a more academic interest in actively trying to improve plants. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that people started to make a more determined effort to cross plants to produce novelties, either for purposes of research or to produce more or better crops – breeding in other words, not just selecting.

The age of agricultural improvement was part of a complex interrelated series of changes in European society that resulted in the continent bursting out and thrusting its influence over the rest of globe, to explore, to trade, to rule, to plunder and often to overwhelm. European world domination and what this meant for crop plants and their breeding is explored in Chapter Five - Empire. Imperial expansion led to unprecedented exchanges of plant material between continents, leading to a sharp increase in breeding, all of which was conducted without a clear scientific understanding of genetics. It was Johann Mendel (1822-1884), generally known by his monastic name of Gregor, whose discovery of the basic principles of genetics in the late 19th century changed plant breeding from a technology to an applied science. The background to the acceptance of Mendel and the discovery of his work is discussed in Chapter Six - Breakthrough, and its varied reception and influence in different countries in Chapter Seven - Germination.

Perhaps one reason why plant breeding has attracted so little interest from historians is that most plant breeders are dedicated to their work rather than publicizing it or playing politics. One character is head and shoulders above all others however - Luther Burbank, a legend in his lifetime – but did he deserve his reputation? He certainly deserves a chapter all of his own – Luther Burbank, Chapter Eight. Burbank was an admirer of Darwin, but not of Mendel – making arguably him the last great pre-scientific plant breeder.
That the river of history sometimes follows markedly different routes in different places was illustrated by the importance of Marxist-Leninist political regimes in 20th century history – Chapter Nine, ‘Let History Judge’ follows the story of how a remarkably strong start in plant breeding was made by Soviet communism - and then shattered. Intrigue and ideology ensured that Mendelian genetics was discarded, with devastating results.

Part Two, the era of a genetics dominated by Mendelian principles, starts off by looking at one of the most decisive breakthroughs of all, the use of hybridization to produce high-yielding and consistent crops, in Chapter Ten, Hybrid! As the 20th century advanced, plant breeding flowered into a myriad of techniques which bent more and more plants to humanity’s will. This period of immense productivity is covered in Chapter Eleven - Cornucopia. Particular developments in plant breeding were then applied to a problem which had always affected humanity, but which was now finally being recognized as not just a moral outrage but a political threat – famine. That mass famine has been averted thanks largely to the role of plant breeding is explored in Chapter Twelve - Green Revolution.

The story of garden plants, in Chapter Thirteen, Ornament, is really another story entirely, even though it parallels that of crops in many ways. It engages much more with the cultural history of humanity. Increasingly though, many of the more political aspects of the ownership of genetic resources are as relevant for ornamental plant breeding as they are for crops. Finally, it is time to look at this increasingly politicized arena. Ownership of genetic resources and related issues are widely covered elsewhere, and are therefore looked at somewhat discursively in Chapter Fourteen - Ownership and Diversity.
In Conclusions, it is time to look at the grand narrative and to extract basic themes about how plant breeding has developed and its relationship with the rest of the human story. This is also a useful place to stand back and look at the GM controversy in the light of plant breeding history. Controversy inevitably means engaging with politics and ethics – aspects of life which once would have seemed completely alien to a field which appeared to deal only with benefiting humanity. The fact that plant breeding is now a politically contested area, even to the extent of there being opposition to the whole concept, has come as a shock to many in the profession – and we close with a look at the post-modern revolt against science.

 Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding is copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago Press
Published by The University of Chicago Press
All rights reserved

Copyright © SeedQuest - All rights reserved