plant phys use in breeding

Toby Bradshaw toby at
Mon Sep 21 11:17:55 EST 1992

>Now then, what I argue is that if as much work had been put into improving
>populations [as has put into hybrids], there would also be populations
>available today with as much improvement in such traits, when compared to
>the starting populations, as today's hybrids have been improved over the
>first hybrids.

Depends on the genetics.  Whatever role overdominance plays in
heterosis (admittedly the evidence for overdominance is
relatively unimpressive so far) will not be matched in populations.
The cost of improving populations, with many segregating
QTLs (even dominant ones) is very, very high compared with the
cost of hybridization to achieve the same QTL suite.

> Note that this was also stated in the first note (similar
>_rates of progress_).  What is the difference between the two scenarios?
>At least two are of real importance:
>1. There would be less profit to be made from the sale of populations
>   because a farmer who produced his corn with care wouldn't need to
>   replenish her seed every year, and could perhaps get away with saving
>   her own seed for 4 or 5 years.

Of course, each farmer's private "population" will be subject to
genetic drift and unintentional selection.  I wonder what the effect
of these might be (positive and negative).

>2. Profit margins of _farmers_ would probably be comparable.  Of course 
>   this is speculative, but let us say that hybrids enjoy a 15% advantage
>   in yield returned to investment over improved OPs. One can readily
>   derive the scenario where (ignoring all other inputs save seed, a
>   condition that favors hybrids in this comparison) the yield advantage
>   of the hybrids _over 5 years_ is made up by the saved cost due to seed
>   for the population (assuming the OP seed costs 1/5th of hybrid seed). 
>In other words, it is self evident that there is less money to be made
>for the _seed industry_ in the improvement of populations, but farmers
>would be equally served.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from your premises: 1)
your estimates of profit are wrong, or 2) you are right and farmers
are too stupid to figure this out.  Either is possible.  If
you are right, why not take up farming :)

>Therefore, the main impetus for the development
>of the seed as "proprietary technology" has been the greater profits
>available to industry.  This is why I would argue, as in the first note,
>that the interests of industry, rather than of farmers and society at
>large, drove this particular technology.  I hasten to add that I see
>nothing wrong with industrial activity per se.  I believe entrepeneurs
>are entitled to profits that cover both their costs and the risks they
>take when developing new products.  But I think that the best interests
>of society ought to be taken into account and should be the ultimate
>aim of entrepeneurial activity.  I don't thin hybrids are a good example

>of this.  

Wow.  Asking an entrepeneur, or anyone else, to work in other than
his/her own self-interest, is counter to my (limited) understanding
of human nature.  Self-interest does not have to mean "short-term
self-interest", either, for those who want to flame me as a
social Darwinist.  Who would determine the global "best interest"?
Not the same government that props up hybrid corn, as you
describe below, I hope.
>The program is complex, but a key feature of the program is
>that farmers who maintain a government-verified quantity of acres in
>corn production from year to year are qualified to participate in the
>program (this is how the government assures the regulatory effect). The
>program subsidizes corn production by guaranteeing to make up differences
>in market price of corn as compared to a guaranteed price set by the
>government.  To avoid abuse of the program, a number of conditions must
>be met. For example, aside from the constant quantity of acres ("corn base")
>over a span of years, participation in the program must be agreed prior to
>the growing season (preventing opportunistic participation due to transient
>influence of the market), AND a given level of productivity must be shown.
>The latter yield levels are determined by the known productivity of
>soil associations and by regional yield averages.  The result is that to
>guarantee a government payment, the pressure on farmers is to maintain
>high productivity.  Hybrid seed are one certain way of guaranteeing this.
>High N fertility rates are another.  These two are in essence the recipe
>for "living off the land," quite literally, in the US corn belt. 

[some stuff on %GNP to food deleted]

>I'd say the consumer has NOT benefitted from this for 1) general reasons:
>an unaccounted ecological cost that will certainly catch up with us in
>Aesops's rabbit/hare fashion, and 2) specific reasons: we do not know
>how our food was produced, where it was produced, and at what true
>expense in terms material and human.

I'd say we're not worse off than most places where food is "cheaper"
on an absolute scale.  If we didn't pay ridiculous agricultural
price supports our food would be cheaper still.  As for quality,
there are (expensive) alterntives to agribusiness-produced food.
It depends on how you wish to allocate your time and money,
but you can eat food produced by your own hands if that's all
you trust.


Toby Bradshaw
Department of Biochemistry and College of Forest Resources
University of Washington, Seattle
toby at

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