On The Importance of Pre-Breeding

A Q&A with CWR Project Reviewer Elcio Guimarães

The 2nd External Progress Review of the Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) Project has concluded. This six-month long evaluation was carried out by four independent consultants who recently visited the Crop Trust to present their findings. Among them, Dr. Elcio Guimarães, a plant breeder and plant genetic resources expert who has more than 40 years of experience, most of which have been spent at Embrapa, Brazil’s national agricultural research corporation.

Elcio’s long involvement with Embrapa, still going strong today, was interrupted on two occasions: in the early 90s, he spent some years as a rice breeder at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Colombia. And at the turn of the century, he joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, where his major task was the preparation of the 2nd Report of the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources. So Elcio had a very solid preparation for the task he was charged with in the independent review of the CWR Project: evaluating the pre-breeding component, where presently 97 partners in 48 countries around the world are exploring and using the diversity of wild relatives of 19 food crops. His investigations took him to India, Spain, Morocco and Peru, where he met researchers who are working with the wild relatives of barley, durum wheat, eggplant, grass pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, potato and sweetpotato.

Quick with a smile, and never at a loss for words, Elcio was happy to discuss his findings, which will help guide the last year and a half of the CWR Project’s pre-breeding efforts. Moreover, the overall results of the review will inform any future projects the Crop Trust may lead in its ongoing efforts to help the world safeguard, make available and use the crop diversity of our most important food crops.

Luis Salazar: How would you describe the overarching goal of the pre-breeding component of the CWR Project?

Elcio Guimaraes: In short, to stimulate countries to use genetic resources. The use of crop wild relatives (CWR) is highlighted in the FAO’s Global Plan of Action on PGRFA. It is put forth as one way forward in finding new traits for crops, mainly to address problems related to climate change. Or problems that are present today for which we cannot find answers in the genetic resources that plant breeders normally use. Unfortunately, aside from some isolated efforts carried out on some major crops (like wheat, for example), up until now there has not been much use of wild relatives in breeding. This is where the importance of this major initiative lies, which is bringing to the world a completely different vision and set of opportunities.

LS: How so?

EG: The opportunity that this initiative is putting in front of its partners – those who are implementing the project — is amazing. What the CWR Project is saying to the breeding community is this: there is a range of diversity much broader than what you’ve been working with, and which you haven’t explored yet. Go on, see if you find new and useful traits there.

That is simple to say. But to do that, you have to have a different set of skills and objectives to a “normal” breeder. Regular breeders are working on solutions targeted to the end users; their business is to breed, breed, breed, and regularly release improved varieties for farmers. Pre-breeders are not interested in releasing varieties. They march to a different drummer.

LS: In other words, the CWR Project is supporting things that might not happen otherwise? Is this what makes the pre-breeding component of the CWR Project different?

EG: In the countries that I visited, you could sense the excitement of these researchers, identifying and transferring new, wild traits that can contribute to the fight against climate change. This is the beauty of this project.

I had the opportunity to discuss the pre-breeding activities related to five crops, and the level of complexity in these efforts varied a lot. I’ll give you two brief but different examples.

In eggplant, researchers in Spain, Cote d’Ivoire and Sri Lanka are crossing half a dozen wild species with the crops and evaluating thousands of the results. They are testing them in different environments, and each partner is contributing her or his unique expertise. The differences – in the way they do things; in use of and access to technology; in the agricultural challenges – is what makes the project very rich. And the diversity of the materials that are being generated is amazing too.

In sweetpotato, the pre-breeders are in a much earlier stage, they are exploring to what extent the domesticated species even crosses with its wild relatives, say from the secondary or tertiary genepool, quite distantly related, that is. Basic but essential work that absolutely needs to happen, but that nobody was funding.

Some of these CWR pre-breeding projects are right at the edge of having good things to share, new things to fight climate change effects — drought, heat and so on. And remember, several of the crops being studied have really no global commercial appeal; they certainly have local and regional importance, but lack the investment and overall interest that major crops benefit from.

Also, these pre-breeding efforts are mainly aimed at finding ways to combat abiotic stress, that means those not caused by pests and diseases. Yes, some are also studying ways to combat biotic stress that come about due to climate change, but with abiotic stress, you are talking about more complex traits. And with complex traits, it is better to have more choice. If you have more variability, if you have more species, then you have more options. Also, they’re not limiting themselves to sorting out one problem, some are tackling multiple problems.

For me the CWR Project is a milestone. We’ll be talking about this project ten, twenty years from now, saying: ‘Remember when this was put in place? That was the beginning of something.’ And that’s how the CWR Project should be seen.


LS: In a way, these pre-breeding efforts are also helping to strengthen that link between genebanks and breeders.

EG: Yes. Though there is still a long way to go. Ideally, you should be thinking about a continuum. The flow of genetic resources from a genebank all the way to the end user has to pass through two, three, or four groups of people, but all these groups should know each other more. Genebanks should know what materials to offer you. In turn, pre-breeder should know what to ask for. And that interaction will add up to knowledge and opportunities to explore the materials further. Then, a pre-breeder should be able to dialogue with a breeder and share the most promising pre-bred materials for her breeding pipeline. Hopefully then, breeders will be putting pressure on pre-breeders, asking for more materials. That continuum is what we’re really looking for. It’s not there yet.

Also, because these pre-breeding projects are exploring different ways to use crop wild relatives, you need to involve experts from other disciplines as well. Biotechnologists. Entomologists. Pathologists. The CWR Project brings together all of these actors, and many more, creating the space for all of this knowledge to come together.

LS: Were there any unexpected findings? Any surprises?

EG: The project is without a doubt a big step forward in terms of providing to breeders a wealth of new and interesting genetic materials. With pearl millet, for example, the team led by ICRISAT [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics] has already developed crosses that are being evaluated by the private sector. That was a big surprise for me.

Today, the center of excellence for CWR work in eggplant is at the university in Valencia, Spain. The research team there is seen by their peers in the scientific community as the point of reference – even by scientists working with other species, like pepper. You now have Capsicum breeders using protocols and methodologies that were developed by Jaime Prohens and his colleagues in Valencia. Nobody, I think, was expecting this spill-over effect.

In the case of potato, in Peru, the team led by the International Potato Center brought to the project the participation of Yanapai Group, an NGO that promotes participatory processes for the development of sustainable family farming in the Andes. CIP wanted to get the farmers’ perspective and inputs as to how to move forward. Their participation went well beyond expectations. In fact, a few farmers even requested seeds and are already growing five pre-bred materials. These things you do not impose on farmers. If they do not like it, forget about it.

Another unexpected but positive thing I found was that all partner institutions, no matter if international or national, big or small, are making tremendous contributions to the Project. For example, in Morocco: if it wasn’t for the great work INRA [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique] carried out, ICARDA would still be struggling to make the challenging crosses between wild and domesticated grasspea. It was the researchers at the national program who developed the crossing technique, involving embryo rescue, that have proven so useful to the project leader.

That’s true for all the pre-breeding efforts I visited: national partners grappling with complex issues, sorting out problems that the leading partners were facing, and vice versa, everyone contributing. And I only visited four countries. There are 48 countries involved in these 19 pre-breeding efforts – imagine the many groundbreaking results still in the pipeline.

LS: During this short visit to the Crop Trust Secretariat, you’ve met the other reviewers, and discussed other activities that the CWR Project is supporting. Looking across all these efforts, what other highlights can you share with us?

EG: The project is very well structured; it goes from collecting wild relatives out in the field to safeguarding them in genebanks, to using them, and making all these materials available to users through international legal agreements. You can see the beginning and the end of such a project.

Collecting and conserving CWR was the first step. And the major take-away there clearly was the willingness of so many countries to partner with the CWR Project. And through it, contribute to the global community.

It’s also very interesting to see how much the CWR Project is contributing to developing capacity — in collecting, processing, and using plant genetic materials, as well as in data management. Many students are involved in this process – MSs, PhDs and post-docs. And there is a two-way benefit here: the project gains from their knowledge and work, and, at the same time, builds capacity for the future. These students are the pre-breeders of the future. They most probably will be, I should say, the ones that will use the genetic variability that is being generated now through these CWR pre-breeding efforts.

Overall, this Project is allowing the world to know what crop wild relatives can offer – their potential – and it is helping us learn how to take advantage of these materials. Obviously, there is still a long way to go. The Crop Trust must have that in mind. This is a first step. Now you need to look for the second, third and fourth steps. How it this going to get done? I do not know. But it needs to be done. That message has to be clearly conveyed to donors and supporters. Yes, the first step is quite important. But it alone will not produce what the world expects and needs, unless there are other steps in the pipeline.

LS: Based on this experience, what role do you see the Crop Trust playing in the future? What should it do to build on this effort?

EG: There is no other organization like the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Its mandate is unique. Its work focuses on the full spectrum of activities that is needed when dealing with conservation in, and availability of plant genetic resources from, genebanks.

The Crop Trust also has the impartiality that countries want in efforts like this one. In other words, they trust the Crop Trust. And the CWR Project is a good example of how the Crop Trust is implementing its mandate – collecting, conserving and making these materials available to others.

If you do not give opportunities to countries to use the diversity that is being preserved, something is missing. Through its pre-breeding component, the CWR Project is showing us all that there are many alternatives that countries can use to help their farmers. And the Crop Trust must continue to be the catalyst to move all this forward.


— ENDS —


The project ‘Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives’, is funded by the Norwegian Government, and coordinated by the Crop Trust with the Millennium Seed Bank, Kew. (http://www.cwrdiversity.org/).  

All material collected under the Crop Wild Relatives project is shared under the terms of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) within the framework of the multi-lateral system of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Pre-breeding data generated by this project will be publicly available, most on Germinate 3, an open source database which provides a standard and common interface to genetic resources collections.

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