plant phys use in breeding

Ricardo J Salvador rjsalvad at IASTATE.EDU
Sun Sep 20 14:04:51 EST 1992

In article <1992Sep11.150747.26922 at>,
toby at (Toby Bradshaw) writes:

> >[I]t seems that a good argument
> >can be made that the hybrid seed corn industry was created and exists
> >largely for the benefit of the seed corn industry, and NOT because it
> >has been better for farmers OR for society at large.
> Maybe it seems that way to you.  Nobody is holding a gun to the
> farmer's head and forcing him/her to fork over the $1E9 for
> hybrid seed.

To discuss this adequately, the conditions of the 1930s must be considered
differently from those of the present.  Don Duvick once told me that his
father adopted corn hybrids (Duvick was raised on what he terms a
"subsistence farm" in Illinois) because the first year he tried a few
acres planted with hybrid seed there was a serious drought in the corn
belt.  The OP corn wilted and failed while the hybrid seed produced a
crop.  The decision to be made was simple and most of us would have
concurred, though I think it only fair to mention that hybridization in
itself need not necessarily confer greater drought resistance, and that
plenty of examples of land races outperforming improved hybrids under
drought stress (or stress X) can as easily be given.

Perhaps the point I sought to make originally needs clarifying.  A hybrid
that can perform better than a given population can always be found.  I
stated as much in the original message.  There has been astounding progress
made in improving corn hybrids for disease resistance, drought resistance,
standability and yield.  Now then, what I argue is that if as much work
had been put into improving populations, 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.  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.

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.  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.  
I'd say the gun is an economic one.  One example. The corn crop is often
referred to in the corn belt as "government acres."  It is the security
crop for those farmers who participate in government programs whose
intent it is to indirectly regulate the supply of grain generated
annually.  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. 
>The U.S. pays a lower percentage of its GNP for
> food than any nation on earth, so its difficult to argue that
> the consumer hasn't benefited.

This is something else that I think is not well understood, though
you have stated it more accurately than I know from experience that
the average US citizen would.  Most consumers here persist in the
belief that their food is of the highest quality and that it is about
the least expensive in the world, when in fact food in the US is
outrageously expensive but, as you point out, US consumers pay a
relatively small percentage of their incomes for food because, a ratio
being what it is, people in the US are vastly richer than their
counterparts in other parts of the world.  For example, in Mexico the
average household size is 4.8, the avg. income/household is $3,680 annually,
and the percentage of that necessary to subsist is 39.3 (FAO figures for
1983).  In Italy, avg. household size is 2.9, avg. income/household is
$11,208 and the percentage devoted to food is 25.5%.  I pick countries
that are not basket cases in terms of food supply in order to avoid
extremes, but compare these to the US figures: avg. household size 2.6,
avg. annual income/household $35,700, and percentage devoted to food:
17.1%, and it is plain that the reason behind your statistic is that
Americans are very wealthy and not that their food is cheap (the same
figures cited above can be used to see that the absolute cost of food is
astronomical in the US compared with just about any country you please).
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.


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