Chosen to Compete — Organic Breeding Shows Value in Understanding Selection Environment

Knowing the context in which a plant variety was selected is critical in understanding how it should be managed in the field.

As an example, in the video above, Martin Entz of the University of Manitoba explains what happens when cereal crop varieties developed in a conventional breeding system are grown in an organic system, or vice versa.

Researchers at the U of M have been studying organic farming for around 25 years. For the first decade, they used common cereal varieties developed for conventional farming systems. However, Entz notes, the selection process for most conventional crop varieties happens under near-pristine field conditions, where there’s ample fertility and plants don’t have to compete with weeds.

“After about 10 years, we were really wondering if our varieties were well-suited to the organic system, with a few more weeds, nutrients delivered in a different mechanism with compost and green manures, and so we collaborated with two Ag Canada breeders — Stephen Fox on wheat and Jennifer Mitchell-Fetch on oats,” he explains.

Some of the plots in the organic oat nursery at the U of M's Glenlea Research Station.

Some of the plots in the organic oat nursery at the U of M’s Glenlea Research Station.

“What we’ve learned is that when the plant breeding process takes place exclusively on organic land, we actually end up with a variety that yields 10 percent more when grown organically then that same population if the breeding process had been done conventionally,” says Entz. “A 10 percent yield increase due to breeding method convinced us it was worthwhile to continue to do this.”

He says they suspect the varieties selected under organic conditions are more micorrhizal, as research has shown they’re more efficient at taking in nitrogen from the soil. Height could also be a factor in competing with weeds, says Entz.

“I hate to admit it but we don’t really know, and I hate to admit this even more, but we don’t necessarily care how the variety does what it does. What we know is selection environment is really important,” he says.

So could the traits in these organically-developed varieties provide value on conventional farms?

“We found when we grew it conventionally without fungicide we had larger seeds, so yeah, that was a benefit,” says Entz. “I don’t think there’s any question that conventional growers will kick the tires on these organic varieties, and I think they should.”

Related: Gaining Ground: Feed the Soil to feed the Plant

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