Workshop on participatory forage breeding

What would plants look like if they were designed by those who plant and harvest them?

Forage plants are the pastures that are grown to feed animals. In a country with a strong cattle-raising tradition such as Argentina, they are an important part of the agricultural production chain. For this reason, Bioleft included them in our participatory breeding pilot program.

We brought together some thirty producers and breeders from the province of Buenos Aires to discuss the production of forage crops: what are the main challenges, what place do seeds occupy, and how do they imagine the most suitable plants for their activity. It was an atypical workshop, since due to the pandemic it had to be carried out through a video call, each one with their mate at home. But it paid off: it was clear that more and more people want to participate in a community of open seeds, and are willing to experiment with them in their fields to contribute to participatory breeding.

We talked with producers who are members of the National Network of Municipalities for Agroecology, breeders of the Forage Network promoted by the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Buenos Aires, agronomists and biotechnologists from the National Institute of Agricultural Technology and national universities, with a significant presence of women. There were representatives from the areas of Ayacucho, Chascomús, Guaminí and the Salado river basin, among others. The president of the National Seed Institute, Joaquín Serrano, also joined the talk.

After two hours of intense exchange of knowledge between producers and breeders, it was clear that there is a generalized desire to start an integral collaborative breeding process, and that the commitment they show makes this dream an immediate project.

Challenges and ideals

We began by sharing the challenges encountered in the production of forage crops. The first thing was a shared idea: that there is a lack of seeds for agroecological production and other alternative agriculture that the current market does not solve. “The main challenge is seed production and circulation,” it was said. “There is a lack of locally multiplied seeds.” Another producer added: “In the southwest area (of Buenos Aires) it is impossible to get forage seeds. There is no collective knowledge circulating and there is no dissemination of native varieties.” The need for locally developed native seeds was emphasized, so that they can be adapted to each agro-climatic zone.

It was remarked that in agroecological management there is an unmet need to obtain seeds that can compete from the beginning with other species, since agrotoxins will not be used; seed companies only develop seeds adapted to herbicides. Therefore, one objective for breeding will be to look for more resistant seeds. The need for protection in the storage of agroecological seeds was also mentioned.

One participant commented on the opportunities that are beginning to open up in municipalities where agrochemical-restricted areas are being established, such as Chascomús. “There are spaces that were direct seeding that can be filled with pastures,” he explained. With the community decision to move forward with an agroecological transition, the land use changes and therefore the seed profile needed; there are semi-natural environments that will change from agricultural to livestock. It was pointed out that this requires a real study of the productive profitability of the native forage crops that will be planted there. It is also necessary to facilitate access to native grassland seeds in order to obtain carbon fixation data and other information of agronomic relevance.

In terms of breeding, the difficulty of studying seed successions that were affected by chemical management was raised. “There is a dissociation between the breeding and the product,” said Pablo Rush, from the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Buenos Aires. “We have to design succession systems that allow lotus, for example, to establish itself. We need to put dissociated things back together again: in grassland restoration we need the producer’s point of view. We should not think of isolated species, but within integrated management systems. The need for greater knowledge and collective data on native seeds was highlighted. Clara Milano, a specialist in native plants from the Universidad Nacional del Centro, proposed: “Instead of breeding, we should evaluate the diversity of ecotypes. It has the advantage of speed and very wide genetic variability.”

Co-designing parameters

The meeting took place within the framework of the participatory breeding experiments that Bioleft carries out with the support of The Conservation, Food and Health Foundation. In 2019, three crops –tomato, corn and fescue, a forage crop- were chosen and seeds were transferred under Bioleft license to three different groups of farmers. During the summer of 2020, workshops were held with those who had planted tomato and corn; finally it was time for the forage crop. This is a very special crop for Bioleft, since the first seeds transferred in the system were precisely forage crops: Ubuntu melilotus, from the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Buenos Aires.

The objectives of the workshops are multiple: to strengthen the mixed communities of producers and breeders, to foster exchange and mutual learning, and also to test and improve Bioleft’s tools for participatory breeding. Specifically, the workshops work on the identification of relevant traits of each crop, with a view to converting them into standardized observation categories in the “field notebook” of the new version of the Bioleft platform, currently under development.

In this workshop, knowing that the word “forage” applies to a very wide number of species, the focus was on a few: fast-growing legumes (mentioned as suitable for changing the use of agricultural soils), such as alfalfa low group, and grasses. The most important selection criteria agreed upon during the workshop were success in establishment and the ability to establish without herbicides or fertilizers, interaction with micro-organisms, variability, ability to recover soil fertility, root production and nodulation.

The meeting left the conviction that there is much work to be done: there are many producers and breeders in the province of Buenos Aires with the will and commitment to advance in collaborative breeding processes, sharing knowledge and seeds on the way to a more sustainable production.