Casaubon's Book

What Are You Breeding For?

Wendell Berry has an essay in which he argues that the greatest single evidence for the merits of British culture is that they developed sixty-five breeds of sheep:

What does it mean that an island not much bigger than Kansas or more than twice the size of Kentucky should have developed sixty or so breeds of sheep? It means that many thousands of farmers were paying the most discriminating attention, not only to their sheep, but also to the nature of their local landscapes and economies, for a long time. They were responding intelligently to the requirement of local adaptation. The result, when such an effort is carried on by enough intelligent farmers in the same region for a long time, is the dvelopment of a distinct breed that fits regional needs. Such local adaptation is the most important requirement for agriculture, wherever it occurs. If you are going to adapt your farming to a variety of landscapes, you are going to need a variety of livesotck breeds, and a variety of types within breeds.

The great diversity of livestock breeds, along with the great diversity of domestic plant varieties, can be thought of as a sort of vocabulary with which we may make appropriate responses to the demands of a great diversity of localities. The goal of intelligent farmers, who desire the long-term success of farming, is to adapt their work to their places. Local adaptation always requires reasonably correct answers to two questions: What is the nature – the need and opportunity – of the local economy? and, What is the nature of the place? For example, it is a mistake to answer the economic question by plowing too steep a hillside, just as it is a mistake to answer the geographic or ecological question in a way that denies the farmer a living. (Bringing It to the Table p. 49-50)

The idea that the genius of the place and farmer and local economy might arise together to produce something enormously valuable, not just even if its merits are not universal, but because its merits are not universal, is a very strange one in modern culture, and particularly in modern agriculture. Instead, the show ring and the meat processor and the idea that “bestness” is a universal, rather than a specific, have produced an overwhelming pressure towards there being, say, one kind of milk cow – Holstein-Friesien, and a small smattering of a few other secondary varieties, all pretty much with one kind of dairy body conformation. It has reduced the number of livestock varieties dramatically, as many breeds have died out over the years.

In some cases this happened because the economy changed – that is, the farmer’s economy no longer permitted animals that grew out more slowly than others – even if they were healthier overall or more suited to the environment. The economy of shipping cheap grain and our abundance meant that an animal that grew entirely on pasture wasn’t rewarding to the farmer for its natural thrift.

In other cases, it came about because of the dream of a single and unified best variety. The best tomato, the best sheep, the best chicken – how often do we hear that question – tell me what the best variety, the best breed is? And magazines and books do – even though the answer to that question is usually “well, for these particular circumstances…” Rarely do the caveats come through.

The consequences of this has been decades of breeding for show conformation, for industrial production, for cheap energy and cheap inputs. There’s nothing bad about showing, which can reveal a great deal, and the changes in agriculture economies were real – but the reality is that we have spent decades breeding livestock for conditions that will probably cease to exist, and that we undid centuries, and millenia of overspecialization in our breeding. Going back – or rather, going forward from where we are, will be a central project. The consequences of stock that is *inappropriate* to one’s place and economy is enormous – and can be devastating to farmers and local food systems.

In _Becoming Native to this Place_ Wes Jackson describes an incident in the history of livestock breeding – an attempt, after World War I, to introduce better milk genetics into the existing dairy goats of rural Germany by importing Swiss stock. The German goats were a motley bunch, producing only a cup or two of milk a day. It was done with the best of intentions – more milk seemed like an important goal in a nation with endemic hunger. And yet, a few years after the new goats were introduced, upon revisting the German villages in question, they found that there had been an enormous change- for the worse. Instead of everyone in the community owning a goat, and getting to drink a bit of milk every day, almost no one had a goat – only the most affluent members of the community. These people were indeed, drinking more milk. But the hungriest people were hungrier, and suffering overall greater malnutrition, because of the loss of their goats.

What happened? Well, the new goats did indeed produce more milk – but did so by requiring many more inputs than the previous goats. The original German goats were fed entirely on marginal weeds, grasses and food scraps – the Swiss goats required grain, which, if these people could have bought it at all, they would have eaten themselves. The same story has happened over and over again in history – Helena Norberg-Hodge documents the same change in Ladakh, where traditional dairy cows were introduced to take the place of the multi-purpose Dzo, which provided traction, milk and manure and was uniquely adapted to the high altitude terrain and could survive on local vegetation. The Jersey cows brought in required sturdy barns and lots of inputs, and became ill easily.

For ordinary people and their food systems, having animals appropriate to the economic and ecological realities of their world is a central project, and yet, very few Americans realize the degree to which the future of their dinners is wholly in the hands of farmers – some of whom are taking enormous economic risks to begin adapting our agriculture back to the realities of a life with fewer energy inputs, less wealth and a changing climate.

Consider an example near me, Dharma Lea Farms, presided over by Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh. Located in Sharon Springs, New York, they are engaged in an radical project – the reinvention of the dairy cow. I’ve not met Paul and Phyllis in person, although they don’t live that far from me and we’ve corresponded (there are an astonishing number of amazing farmers near me that I’m dying to meet – the price of everyone being busy, I guess). I helped find homes for many of their spring calves this year, to help keep them out of feedlots. I was then intrigued by a recent article in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s _Small Farm Quarterly_ about their project – the invention of a wholly grass-based dairy, and the development of a cow able to produce milk entirely on grass. Paul Van Amburgh writes:

In our crossbred herd, we are selecting for a thousand-pound cow that is highly fertile, has good feet and udder, and a reasonable production of milk with high components (protein and butterfat). This cow must be able to produce a calf every year and 9,000 pounds of milk (about half the conventional dairy average), while maintaining herself without any grain.

It sounds simple, but understand, for the last 75 years high production has been the central concern in dairy breeding. The end result has been lare cows, producing lare volumes of milk while also requiring great volumes of high quality feed. As an old farmer once observed, “We have bred everything out of her except the milk.” This single trait selection approach has been tragic for both teh cows adn the farmers. The high-maintenence animals taht we have ended up with are no longer economical to keep, and they do not return a profit to the farmer – one reason dairy farming is in free fall. Small Farm Quarterly Summer 2010, page 14

Van Amburgh goes on to note that just as there is a traditional “dairy conformation” he’s begun to see a new kind of conformation emerging in his most successful animals – but that that conformation isn’t recognized by other dairy farmers or in the show ring. Eventually, perhaps it will be – and eventually the merits of Van Amburgh’s project become obvious, particularly in our region, which does not produce a lot of grain.

I make no claims that our own project is as imaginative or ambitious as Van Amburgh’s or as those who attempt to restore lost breeds or invent new ones, but we too are asking ourselves that, as our babies are born. What are we breeding for? How do we begin to get it?

And the answer is that we are breeding our Nigerian Dwarf goats to be suitable for milk production on very small lots – so that urban and suburban folk can produce milk that is safe, healthy and nutritious even if they don’t live on a farm. Until recently the reality of moving to denser housing has meant that you are then wholly vulnerable to the food system that exists in your neighborhood – if there’s a great source of local milk, you are fortunate. If not, you have no options – but small dairy goats, able to live on a tiny piece of land and thrive there, small enough to be handled by children, quiet and easygoing enough to be pets as well as milk goats – that’s something we need, particularly given the likely rising costs of refrigerated transport in the coming decades.

We are also breeding for lower inputs – fewer grains and better seasonal milk production without grain. And on this point, we’re just beginning – most bucks and does have been evaluated primarily on their traditional dairy conformation and their total milk production, so it is almost impossible to go out and search for a buck whose mother and grandmother produce milk on pasture while remaining healthy and maintaining a good body weight. A “good buck” is one with good milk genetics, not with good thrift genetics. So we are starting largely from scratch here – figuring out how our does do on the new regimen, and experimenting with our breeding program.

Our goal eventually is to produce good, solid, strong, healthy goats that also give milk on pasture and require few inputs. We’d like also to explore fiber crosses with angora goats, and possibly working on meatier carcasses as well – eventually the goal would be the emergence of a triple purpose goat that was good for meat, milk and fiber – or perhaps several multi-purpose goats. Others have begun this work ahead of us, and are more advanced at it, and we are learning from them – and yet I think there’s value that we do it too, for our particular space and conditions. This is a project of time and place, and we are just beginning – and yet I think it has merit.

The genius of our place and economy, I hope will eventually overcome some of the initial deficits of the farmer – and we will eventually begin to speak the language of an appropriate agriculture again. It is a language that requires above all participation and engagement, not just good breeding but people who want the products of that breeding. While at the level of larger livestock, it may not be for everyone, at the most basic level – the project of adapting the plants and animals we depend on to our conditions, everyone can participate by purchasing products from farmers and gardeners who are engaged in these kinds of selection, and by the simplest kinds of home selection – saving seeds, choosing only the best plants to preserve, and, whether you are breeding plants or animals, thinking hard about what it is you are choosing to preserve for the next generation.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 MLR
    August 9, 2010

    A breed of sheep that I have always found interesting is the Gulf Coast Native. The unique trait that they have is a natural resistance to worms without any wormers at all. I wonder how hard it would be to develop an equivalent breed of dairy goats? That might be an interesting project and would be very useful here on the Gulf Coast. I am planning to get a few goats soon but am still debating between the Ngerian Dwarf breed and the Miniature Nubian breed. I am leaning toward the Miniature Nubians since I hope that they will tolerate the heat better.

  2. #2 dewey
    August 9, 2010

    I’ve heard something about a failed effort to introduce Western dairy cows or their genetics in an area where the African humped zebu is ubiquitous. The explanation given to me was that the locals rejected it because the appearance of the cattle is culturally important to them while milk production is not, and the introduced breed was not humped. Strong undercurrent of “silly natives, missing the opportunity to become a dairy-dependent culture just so they can have their humped cows.” Actual facts may have been that they could see dairy cows failing to thrive on the often meager forage available (feeding of any supplemental grain being totally out of the question).

  3. #3 aimee
    August 9, 2010

    I have nubians and LaManchas, and I have found that my goats require very few inputs to produce a lot of milk. They all get a couple cups of grain on the milking stand, but only while lactating. All spring and summer they subsist entirely on the weeds and grass in their two-acre pasture (three goats in 2 acres). All winter they live on very ordinary local grass hay – nothing special or expensive. Every year they throw twins or triplets, which we mostly let grow all summer and then butcher in the late fall.

    The main trouble I have is with parasites. Goats are prone in any case, and I live in a very wet area which raises the parasite load. I DO need the inputs of worm medicine, and plenty of it. I breed two types of goats: purebred Nubians and Nubian/LaMancha crosses. The Nubians I breeed for spots, since everybody loves spotty goats and they are worth more money. But the crossbreeds I find are MUCH more resistant to parasites. If I were trying to develop a herd suited to my area, I would cross purebred lines every year.

    Hybrid vigor is strongest in the first generation – that is, the crossed offspring of two purebreds receives the most benefit in terms of disease resistance. If you keep breeding crosses, that advantage will fade over a few generations. Other desirable traits may develop – good milk, curly horns, whatever – but the hybrid vigor requires constant inflow of new blood. Since parasites are my main problem, that’s what I would breed for.

    aimee

  4. #4 Don
    August 9, 2010

    I remember reading that essay of Berry’s. I was intrigued by his comments about British sheep breeding.

    Although this doesn’t relate to livestock breeding, I recently posted some blog musings about the future of grape growing and wine making here in the eastern part of North America. The problem that makes our part of the world unique as far as grapes are concerned is rampant fungus diseases. I argued that we won’t truly have a native grape/wine industry until we do some serious breeding with native grape varieties that are resistant. Everyone wants to grow Pinot Gris or Cabernet Franc, but to grow them successfully the vines need constant spraying during the growing season to control fungus. Whether these sprays are organically certified or not, we might not have these materials readily available in the age of scarcity that is coming.

    I recently learned about the work of the late Byron T. Johnson of Cincinnati. He was an amateur grape grower and breeder, and he selected several varieties that he claimed could make good juice and/or wine and that could be grown without fungicide spray in the humid midsection of the continent. Few of his varieties are commercially available. I’m trying one out–called Beaumont. I wish I had space to try some more.

    By contrast, institutional breeders tend to be less interested in disease resistance because of the availability of fungicide sprays.

    It would be great if someone with the space and the interest in doing some detective work to find, propagate, and make some of these varieties available to home growers.

    More work needs to be done here, because grapes that don’t need spraying against fungus and that are capable of making acceptable wine–that would be adapting in place.

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    August 9, 2010

    Aimee, that’s interesting that parasite resistance would be your priority. So far, with the single exception of meningeal worm, we’ve had no major parasite problems while using herbal worming routinely – but that doesn’t mean we won’t in the future. We’ve tried to keep the goats mostly eating up, with plenty of browse.

    The problem with meningeal parasite, of course, is that the doses of chemical wormer required to deal with it are greater than would be used routinely, so converting isn’t really an answer – but we are looking to breed increased parasite resistance into them.

    It is that grain when they are lactating that I’m concerned about – they don’t need much, but what they do is still potential human food being fed to goats, which is sub-optimal.

    Sharon

  6. #6 Don
    August 9, 2010

    dewey:
    You wrote that the locals where the humped zebu is ubiquitous didn’t think milk production was important. Does that mean that they didn’t drink milk or use milk products, or just that it wasn’t a major part of their diet?

    I ask because only in those parts of the world where cattle have long been domesticated and where humans long have consumed their milk did the humans develop adult lactose tolerance. It’s possible that the people in this region were not lactose tolerant and couldn’t have developed a dairy culture anyway.

  7. #7 Cindy
    August 9, 2010

    This is the first year that I have had Boer goats and have been amazed that they not only tolerate the heat, but love it. They never go in the shade and actually will lay in a large black tractor tire in the sun when it is over 100 degrees. I would like to have a real dual purpose goat and may try bringing in more Nubian.
    Sharon- can you direct me to some information on herbal wormers. I’ve been afraid to try them not knowing which combination is effective. Thanks.

  8. #8 Sarah
    August 9, 2010

    If I remember correctly the main reason that western style dairy cattle are not used in Africa is that their tsetse fly resistance is almost nil. Tsetse flies carry sleeping sickness. The local cattle are much more resistant. So I don’t think it is about how the cow looks or how much milk it gives.

    I have some heritage chickens for the first time and I am impressed by how much grass and weeds they eat and how many bugs they manage to find compared to my previous chickens. They haven’t started laying yet so we will see how the grain to egg ratio is.

    Also I have been dreaming about cows…….very small cows as I live on a city lot. My Swiss son in law has sent me a bunch of info on these Rätisches Grauvieh cows. They are thrify, good milkers, have tasty meat and they can pull a cart! If only we could spin their fur. http://www.raetischesgrauvieh.ch/site/index.php?id=27

  9. #9 Apple Jack Creek
    August 10, 2010

    You describe exactly why we settled on Icelandic sheep for our northern Alberta acreage – we originally had British Down breeds, but ‘winter’ in Britain is like a few of weeks of a nasty Alberta spring … not *winter* like we get here. And, the larger sheep eat a lot of hay (we did manage them okay on grass only, supplemented with alfalfa pellets, but it wasn’t ideal).

    Icelandics, on the other hand, do well with ‘benign neglect’, which is our chief management strategy – and the weather here is similar to the weather where they were bred … so it works well for *this* place and *this* farmer.

    They are seasonal breeding sheep, so we don’t have to worry about early lambs (Icelandics don’t come into season until later in the year, and that means they deliver lambs around Easter/Passover time, which is ‘late’ for many farmers but that’s about perfect for weather here), they browse and do well on our marginal pasture land (no supplementing needed, which is good ’cause there’s not much grain grown in our immediate area, although the province has a fair bit overall). Besides, there isn’t any grain to speak of in Iceland, so these sheep certainly aren’t bred for grain feeding. They are bred to cope well on their own – they have a poor flocking instinct compared to other breeds, but since we aren’t driving a mob down the road to the next field, like they used to do in England or NZ, that’s ok.

    It’s about what works where you are.

  10. #10 Andy Brown
    August 10, 2010

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been involved in some research and communications projects on sustainability — trying to get the public to understand the concept. It’s easy to get fooled into thinking that people get what you’re talking about, only to discover their understandings were quite different from what you thought. There are certain parts of the story that are easy to tell — resource depletion or economic viability, for example — and then there are parts of the story that are nearly impossible to tell. You touch on (and then veer away from) one of those: the importance of diversity (especially including sub-optimal, even maladaptive, traits and forms) in order to make whatever system more resilient and ready for changes across the long term. Americans, as you say, believe there is always a “best” variety, and it is very, very hard for most people to really see the value in having a system full of waste and noise and inefficiencies (that is, diversity).

    Evolutionary biologists have the best grasp on it, since non-optimal forms are exactly what evolutionary change relies on. In terms of _communicating_ this idea, Berry and you get half-way there, by showing that one-size-fits-all adaptation can make us vulnerable as soon as something changes (in this case, the available inputs). In terms of _actual practice_, I think the breeding efforts that you and others are doing are spot on in part because they are filled with enough noise, waste, and sub-optimal forms that the next generation’s breeds are doubtless in there somewhere.

    I think I’m going to want a herd of those all-purpose goats. If they have a taste for bittersweet and poison ivy all the better. Plenty of people around here would let me tether them out for free forage.

  11. #11 dewey
    August 10, 2010

    Don and Sarah – Those are good questions. I’m referring to a place where sleeping sickness is not a real problem, and where yogurt is available in town but rural people rarely consume dairy products, so yes, they are probably not highly lactose tolerant. Of course, that consideration has never stopped Western professional advice-givers from, e.g., blatting that every schoolchild in America needs to consume X amount of milk every day, and if that makes those from lactose-intolerant ethnic groups miserable, tough.

  12. #12 jamey
    August 10, 2010

    As one of Sharon’s fellow goat geeks, I think that these questions are what make breeding such a creative adventure. I have two thoughts.

    1. The flip side of the grain argument is “how to optimize milk production to minimize malnutrition?” True, in a subsistence scenario, this low- or no-grain milk production could be just a fraction of the grain-supplemented milk. But the goal is the key: assuming that these goats are going to backyard dairies and their milk will offset store-bought cow milk, then my giving more grain to the milking does yields more pounds of milk than an equivalent amount of grain at a high-input dairy (goats are more efficient than cows). This also assumes that any offset cow-milk is not dumped and wasted. But that should free up more grain for feeding hungry humans.

    2. Best to remember that any adaptation is possibly genetic (G), environmental (E), or a combo of both (G x E). We have been breeding for hardiness and milking potential for 5 years. Even though we give our herd of 16 access to 3 acres, our oldest does (that were adults at other farms before they came here) will not go out and graze unless we set out a single flake of hay (routine?). The younger does have never known differently and head out as soon as the buckets are empty – perhaps some operant conditioning or maybe a genetic twist (we sell even pretty doelings that aren’t “growthy”).

    Breeding is just as simple and just as complex as workign with any semi-chaotic system (agriculture, transportation, electrical grids). But that is what makes it fun.

  13. #13 darwinsdog
    August 10, 2010

    Andy, selection is perpetually tracking a moving target. Environmental conditions constantly change and attempting to generate adaptation to constantly changing environmental conditions by means of differential reproductive success is what maintains genetic variation in a population. If change were to cease selection would narrow the population down to a single optimum genotype & phenotype. Modern agriculture seeks to limit environmental change and to compensate for it. Hence, some optimum variety or landrace or breed is always going to be the goal of artificial selection in a particular region or environment. This is why we conduct variety trials: to determine what this optimum variety is. Farmers want to know. With some organisms, such as hybrid poplars, for instance, these trials are between vegetatively propagated clones. The goal is to ‘weed out’ all the ‘messy’ genetic variation in the population and to assess which clone is most productive given a particular set of environmental circumstances. Under circumstances that differ according to locale or temporally, a different clone will be preferred. Productivity will suffer if a secondary goal is the maintenance of diversity.

  14. #14 schwep
    August 10, 2010

    Tell Dharma Lea Farms that there is a race of cow that is content to be raised extensively, mostly on grass in pasture; that weights about 700 kilograms, produces one calf every year and up to 4000 litres of high-quality milk from which one of the world’s best cheeses is being made. Just look outside the US. It’s called the Salers. In France, in the Massif Central. There are other hardy varieties there as well: Limousin, Charolais (for beef), Ferrandais (also good for traction)… Mostly extensively bred and pasture-fed with little extra.
    No need for Americans to reinvent or breed the wheel. It still exists in some places in Europe – well, in France at least – and it is still round.
    Just look at http://salers.org/english/ .

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    August 10, 2010

    Jamey, that’s a good point – I don’t have a moral problem with my fairly minimal use of organic grain, although I wish I had better and more local sources at the moment – everything we do to reduce industrial dairy production is a huge net gain. That said, however, I think in the longer term, the difficulties of feeding this planet are going to mandate absolute minimum feeding of human food to livestock – and that seems doable to me.

    Sharon

  16. #16 Andy Brown
    August 10, 2010

    Darwinsdog, there are two levels here. One is the farmer who has specific desires (like poplar that is straight for lumber, or fast-growing for landscaping) and she’s certainly right to breed toward that end, even though it means reducing the genetic diversity of her tree stock. Across the short term, as long as conditions (whether the weather, the pests, or the economics) don’t change too much it’s fine. But I’m talking about non-optimal varieties being crucial for the long-term. Things always change eventually, and when change comes we’ll want more rather than fewer varieties to choose from. Obsessing about the best possible “one” has the tradeoff of short term productivity at the cost of long-term resilience. But as Berry and Susan point out, breeding for (rather than just bulldozing over) a wide variety of local conditions is one way that we can generate diversity without sacrificing actual productivity. And besides, it has the extra advantage of being more interesting and pleasant!

  17. #17 Stacy C.
    August 10, 2010

    I am wondering if it might be possible now for conference organizers (re:your previous post) to recognize that many of their speakers and attendees have applied projects they need to attend to, like goat birthing, and harvests etc. seasonally, as well as the more theoretical ones, like books and blogs, and change their schedules accordingly. If we’re going to become more local to our places, then I think we need to recognize and honor the work you do, Sharon, and its rhythms.

  18. #18 Mike
    August 10, 2010

    A couple of comments:
    Feeding small amounts of grain to animals is not necesarily suboptimal. There most likely will be grain that is not fit for humans due to too much weed seed or something else, yet is fit for animals.

    Even if goats in general are more efficient at converting 1 pound of grain into milk, will that hold true for a backyard goat farmer compared to a professional dairy cow farmer? I do not know.

    I do not know if what you see as a beneficial number of large breeds is in part just a humane way of branding. Many breeds are developed for their looks in order to separate from the rest. That is not to say all breeds are developed that way, but for such a small island to have so many breeds seems to speak more to human vanity than to environmental niches.

  19. #19 darwinsdog
    August 10, 2010

    ..I’m talking about non-optimal varieties being crucial for the long-term. Things always change eventually, and when change comes we’ll want more rather than fewer varieties to choose from.

    This is basically a restatement of R.A. Fisher’s “Fundamental Theorem” of natural selection (1930): “The rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time.” In other words, the more genetic variation in a population the faster selection can promote fitness by effecting adaptation to changing circumstances.

    To my mind, the two levels you speak of as being operational here are the dichotomous “goals” of natural versus artificial selection. The “goal” (to speak metaphorically) of natural selection is to promote individual fitness by effecting adaptation whereas that of artificial selection is to increase productivity and hence profit. For the agriculturalist to breed for or even tolerate diversity defeats his/her purpose of maximizing profit by means of increasing yield. In nature diversity is maintained automatically by selection constantly seeking to maximize fitness in an ever changing environment. The goal of having artificial selection more closely conform to natural selection defeats the very purpose of domestication. May as well go all the way and revert to hunting & gathering the “wild type” varieties of our cereal grains & livestock. Farming, by its very nature, seeks to create a genetically uniform monoculture where once stood a biodiverse natural ecosystem. This is the only way the biosphere can be forced to support a human population nearly two full orders of magnitude in excess of the natural carrying capacity.

  20. #20 Andy Brown
    August 10, 2010

    darwinsdog, (and apologies to you goat folks who just want to compare notes here) I don’t think it has anything to do with the distinction between artificial and natural selection. Leaving aside GMO and building creatures from scratch, selective breeding is basically the same as natural selection – differential survival rates of certain genes and thus a different population over time. So I’ll stand by my point that diversity that can be a drag in the short term is absolutely a strength in the long term, even especially for food systems. As an aside, I think that heading into global climate instability with a system built around extreme monoculture is pretty much suicidal.

  21. #21 darwinsdog
    August 10, 2010

    Andy, I don’t think we’re in fundamental disagreement here. Your definition – “differential survival rates of certain genes and thus a different population over time” – is as true for artificial as it is for natural selection. The pertinent distinction between artificial & natural selection, for the sake of this discussion, is this: While it’s true that natural selection has no “goal,” adaptation to changing or oscillating environmental circumstances, or what I used to call “selection in AC mode,” maintains diversity as an obligate functional outcome. Agriculturalists, by contrast, have as a goal the elimination of diversity in artificially constant and radically simplified agro-ecosystems. So natural selection maintains diversity while artificial selection seeks to minimize or eliminate it.

    I don’t disagree with your statement that “..diversity that can be a drag in the short term is absolutely a strength in the long term..” but what is the time scale a farmer cares about? His or her ability to fulfill financial obligations at the end of the month or the ability of selection to promote fitness by virtue of its having variation to work with over the long term? This is just another example of the “devil’s bargain” humanity finds itself caught up in, the primary one being “reproduce and contribute to the overpopulation that threatens a multitude of species including our own with extinction / fail to reproduce and have one’s personal Darwinian fitness reduced to zilch.” Likewise, all but subsidized small scale hobby farmers face the dilemma of selecting for the diversity natural selection needs in order to effect adaptation to changing conditions over time versus going broke and losing the farm to creditors. I agree that “heading into global climate instability with a system built around extreme monoculture is pretty much suicidal,” but it’s equally suicidal not to do so since extreme monoculture fueled with fossil fuels is the only way to avoid famine in a population in such extreme excess of K.

    As for goat breeding: select for good mammary conformation and let everything else take care of itself.

  22. #22 dewey
    August 10, 2010

    Andy Brown – I’d agree with much of that, but often the “goals” (not to start a teleological argument) of natural selection and selective breeding are opposed to one another. For example, domesticated animals are bred to be docile and easily managed; Sharon’s talked about sending aggressive roosters to the soup pot to keep her flock easy to handle. For wild birds, being aggressive and clever is (all else being equal!) a selective advantage. If we select for characteristics that benefit ourselves, we almost can’t help selecting for characteristics that would be detrimental to the animal if it ever had to fend for itself. And I doubt you can avoid that, because what farmer is going to deliberately pick the sheep that have lower-quality wool, say, to breed?

  23. #23 Andy Brown
    August 10, 2010

    darwinsdog, You’re right, we pretty much agree. My argument about diversity is at a long-term level that farmers can’t and shouldn’t focus on much (with the exception of meta-farmers like Susan, of course). Still, a couple of things I’d take issue with. I’m not sure I see a mechanism that “maintains diversity as an obligate functional outcome” for natural varieties. On the contrary, I think species, like farmers, respond to a great deal of pressure to optimize and specialize and limit their options — and that is obviously a good and probably necessary short term survival strategy. But that’s one reason why most species go extinct eventually. It’s that wider, more diverse pool of options outside that species that makes the biosphere so durable and robust (in contrast to individual species which flicker through the fossil record like mayflies in comparison). To me, the essential shape of the pros and cons are the same for natural and artificial selection.

    And that’s why I think we need room for inefficiencies and varieties in our food system. Or think of it in other terms, not just constrained to the thermodynamics of food production. Imagine that our food security were treated like national security in this country. One look at the problems of global warming and peak oil and wise leaders would decide that our current system is too fragile, and the shape of the coming future too difficult to predict with certainty. So the incentives for artificial selection would change. Rather than the criterion being only flesh or milk or even profitability, it would be all about generating a wide variety of breeds, any one of which might prove to be robust and productive in the right combination to serve the new systems of production. In the short terms it might detract an iota from our carrying capacity, while preparing us to adapt to coming changes.

  24. #24 Andy Brown
    August 10, 2010

    Dewey, You’re right and that’s what’s so elegant about Berry’s solution here: regional adaptation. Farmers are able to breed their varieties for local needs and preferences. A stringy, drought resistant goat makes sense over in X-ville, where the heavy-wooled lummox that’s favored over in Y-town wouldn’t last a week. No one has to purposely breed aggressive cows or chickens that only lay one egg a week, but the end result is a much more diverse system that is better prepared for whatever changes the world throws at it.

  25. #25 Robn Datta
    August 10, 2010

    Thanks for a perceptive and thoughtful post. This points to the central issue in optimizing relocalization: not just humans, but our preferred species, in a manner similar to the way that the rest of the native biota tends towards local adaptation.

    Indeed this suggests that one can seek local standards not only in farming, but in other human activities as well – including trade & commerce, health & medicine, etc.

  26. #26 Sharon Astyk
    August 11, 2010

    Couple of thoughts – first of all, awesome discussion! Second of all, I’m Sharon, not Susan ;-).

    Sarah, conference organizers have their own priorities – I say yes or no based on two things – how free I am and how badly I want to go to the event. That means I say no to the majority of speaking invitations I get, but this one was important to me. I don’t have a problem with the scheduling.

    Mike, I think that breeding for visual effect is actually mostly a fairly recent invention, and is still much more common for say dogs and cats than goats and sheep. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen – I regularly see ads in one magazine for “miniature panda cattle” at huge cost which I have to imagine are all about the pretties. But most livestock breeding emerged from agricultural and economic necessities – and I think that’s likely to drive future breeding.

    Dewey, it is true that farmers won’t choose sheep with inferior wool – but what’s interesting is that what constitutes inferior varies so widely – Soay, Navaho Churro, Leicester Longwool, Merino, Karakul and Shetland are all old varieties of sheep bred for specific conditions – and specific wools. And what would constitute dreadful wool for Merino is excellent in a Karakul. Carpet weaving wools have totally different constituents than wools used for underwear ;-), and yet there are whole cultures where carpet weaving is more important and more lucrative than making underpants, or where it is way too hot to wear wool undies ;-). With chickens, there are people who are rearing flocks mostly autonomously who might like aggressive roos who can protect their flock, while among my poultry we breed primarily for gentleness.

    That’s not to claim that natural and artificial selection are the same, just that the range of possible selection criteria is so vast and interesting.

    Sharon

  27. #27 dewey
    August 11, 2010

    Andy and Sharon – Totally agree with both of you on the adaptive value of locally developed breeds. The present system, on the animal’s end of things, distributes a “standard variety” to a lot of places where it is not well suited to local conditions, then expensively provides supplemental food, climatized shelter, etc. to keep it alive. On the human’s end, it pressures every farmer to produce the same standardized commodities for the same global consumer market (what do you mean, not everyone wears the same kind of clothes? don’t they all have air conditioning?).

  28. #28 darwinsdog
    August 11, 2010

    I’m not sure I see a mechanism that “maintains diversity as an obligate functional outcome” for natural varieties. On the contrary…

    Before amino acid sequencing of allozymes was available and long before direct nucleotide sequencing of alternative alleles had been developed, population geneticists were divided into two camps regarding the level of genetic diversity they expected to see in natural populations. One school of thought regarded selection as primarily a mechanism for eliminating diversity, for culling from the population all but the alleles coding for the most efficient enzymes & structural proteins. The other school of thought expected diversity to be actively maintained, in order for selection to have available the raw materials needed when environmental conditions changed. This second school turned out to be correct. Genetic diversity is indeed widespread in nature. But by what specific mechanism is this diversity maintained? One hypothesis was that overdominance or heterozygote superiority was that mechanism. In certain cases, such as sickle cell anemia, it is. But overdominance doesn’t appear to be all that common in nature and its rarity forestalls its bid for being the mechanism that maintains widespread genetic diversity in natural populations.

    What does maintain diversity is simply that as selection seeks to decrease the frequency of alleles coding for less than optimum proteins, and move optimum alleles to fixation, environmental parameters change and alleles shift up and down in terms of optimality. In other words, before a deleterious allele can be eliminated, the environment changes and that allele becomes less deleterious. Conversely, before a beneficial allele can go to fixation the environment changes and it becomes less beneficial. This is what I mean when I say that “selection maintains diversity as an obligate functional outcome,” and this statement is demonstrably true.

    Sharon: “Navaho” is an English corruption of the Spanish verb “Navajo” which is the first person conjugate of “navajar”: to stab. These people prefer to be called “Dine'” (Din-aye) which means “The People.” Navajo is the official spelling that the Tribe prefers, even though it is a rather derogatory Spanish appellation. You might see alternative, more “politically correct,” derivations of “Navajo” but the one I described is the historical one. And the churro sheep is all but extinct, having been abandoned in favor of more modern breeds once these became available.

  29. #29 Sharon Astyk
    August 11, 2010

    DD, while I would never refer to the Dine’ as the Navajo, Navajo-Churro is the correct name of the sheep breed, and it is not “all but extinct” but critically endangered but still being maintained with reasonable genetic diversity. http://www.navajo-churrosheep.com/sheep.html. The Dine’ themselves refer to the sheep as Navajo Churro, rather than Dine Churro or Churro alone.
    http://www.recursos.org/sheepislife/dine.html

    Sharon

  30. #30 Andy Brown
    August 11, 2010

    Sharon, oops! I’m notoriously bad with names. My friends try to find it charming . . . . :-P

    darwinsdog, I’m going to let you have the last word on this one. Thanks for a fascinating discussion!

  31. For goats enthusiasts, Greg Judy, MO has a very low stocking ratio of goats, to sheep, cattle and hogs in his high density, short duration grazing operation. This is to avoid parasite infestation in his goats. Under the tutelage of Ian Mitchell Innes, South African Holistic Educator, he was advised to only allow the goats to eat above their knees. In other words if the goats were forced to graze as opposed to browse primarily woody shrubs and weeds the stocking rate was too high, or the land was not suitable for goats, unless you wanted to go the conventional route of worming.

    As for us, we have cattle, who have to thrive on our mountain pastures and the hay we make on our farm. This means though that culling takes place and the females for future cows are selected from the cows that do the best on what grows here. Our family cow is a different story, finding a sire with the old style genetics (smaller stature, longevity, and lower milk production) and the correct A2/A2 status is hard. Most years our family cow is bred to our beef sire, as I don’t want to be raising dairy cows each year, choosing instead to AI only for a replacement.

    Jordin Rubin, of The Maker’s Diet fame, is starting a grass fed dairy herd, and out of the 1700 dairy cows they have purchased, a great number did not do well on grass due to the breeding path chosen by modern day breeders of dairy animals. I can only speak of cattle since I have no knowledge of dairy goats, but finding a diary cow that will keep condition, calve successfully every year, give adequate milk for house and calf, in addition to living a long life is hard to come by. I have been mentoring a neighbor girl for 5 years with her milk cows. First she tried mini-Jerseys which she found did not give enough milk for her and a calf, now she has two Jerseys, one looks terrible due to an un-natural conventional dairy rearing, and the other is a cow that nursed as a calf, grazed at will, and stays in good condition on her pasture. The skinny Jersey has a great disposition, and gives white cream. The good flesh Jersey is gentle but not wild about her kids, and gives very yellow cream like my Guernsey. She is selling the healthiest cow who does the best on her land because the kids cannot milk her. Situations like that are why it takes so long to change a breed. She is well-off and if times were tight, she would be forced to take the holistic view of keeping the cow that costs the least to maintain and gives the healthiest milk. But in modern day society, she puts the kids occasional desire to milk first. I should mention too that she bought the skinny cow from a nice Russian family who lived in a McMansion on 5 acres. They had a wonderful, large productive vegetable garden instead of a lawn, and chickens for eggs and meat. The funny thing was that on the farm that had been subdivided for the McMansions, they were the only ones that made good use of their acreage. I am sure their neighbors with expensive sand arenas and barn for their horses took a dim view of this small and productive mini-farm in the middle of their paved driveway paradise.

  32. #32 Ewan R
    August 11, 2010

    Farming, by its very nature, seeks to create a genetically uniform monoculture where once stood a biodiverse natural ecosystem.

    I think this oversimplifies breeding efforts in agriculture hugely. I’m not at all familiar with how this applies to animal breeding so excuse the somewhat tangential references to plant breeding.

    In breeding for crop plants you have the end product (these days generally a hybrid) and you have the means to achieving the end product (the inbred lines which are parental to the hybrid) – the direct parents and the hybrid will have a drastic lack of genetic variability (within their own populations) which allows for uniform performance in a production environment. The same does not hold for the pool from which you select traits for your inbred – ideally as a breeder, rather than a producer, your pool will be as variable as possible, genetic uniformity in the pool from which you select is a bad thing, genetic uniformity only becomes a good thing when you are reaching a product level – even in terms of crop farming you generally don’t have a genetically uniform monoculture – field A and field B likely have completely different characteristics, yield histories etc – even if planting the same crop in each field it isn’t likely that you’ll plant a genetically uniform crop across both fields – if field A is historically high yielding and awesome you may well go for a hybrid which can take full advantage of this – if field B is prone to low yields and say flooding, then you’ll pick a hybrid that is right for this – the genetics of Field A and field B will be significantly different (if looking at corn as an example there is estimated to be more genetic variation amongst varieties of corn than there is amongst the human population – which in my mind strikes a rather resounding blow against the idea of monocultures on a genetic level)

    This may be where selection on farm suffers somewhat because maintaining the sort of pool of diversity required for a massive breeding program (such as those run by major corporations) with massive genetic variability is something that probably isn’t remotely workable on a single farm (or even a collective of farms) without severely impacting the productivity thereof – specialization between breeders and farmers, rather than having a hybrid farmer/breeder circumvents the problems caused by genetic uniformity at the production level (and allows for tracking traits with environment as per DDs description of how genetically diverse populations maintain their diversity due to environmental fluctuation)

  33. #33 darwinsdog
    August 11, 2010

    The Dine’ don’t care if bilagaanaa’s call them Navajo. They expect it.

    I’d reckon that the distinction between “all but extinct” and “critically endangered” is a fine one. There’s like, what, a few thousand churros on the Rez, out of hundreds of thousands of head of sheep? Dine’ ba’ iina’ is a nonprofit that has solicited grant $$ in order to pay people to breed churros, least they go completely extinct. If not for this subsidy, no one would keep them. They aren’t as productive as modern breeds, plain & simple.

    Don’t fall for the hype that during Livestock Reduction in the 1930s churros were specifically targeted for elimination because they represented some cultural heritage that Whitey wanted to squelch. Sheep of all breeds were shot, along with goats, cattle & horses. John Collier, FDR’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs may be pretty universally hated to this day but he did what he had to do. There would be no Reservation today if he hadn’t resorted to Livestock Reduction. Evidence of the horrendous overgrazing of the early 20th century is apparent to this day. Once lush grassland is eroded to slickrock in many places due to this overgrazing.

    Well, Ewan, I’ve been harvesting wheat variety trials this week. There may be genetic diversity between varieties but precious little within them. We will publish the results so that farmers can choose the variety that yielded the best, to plant this fall. That’s all farmers care about: yield. Protein content, water requirements, etc., are irrelevant. I don’t know a farmer who even cares about, let alone understands, the genetics of cereal grains. Without Pioneer, De Kalb, et al., to do the crop breeding for them, farmers would be out of luck. Even with livestock, most breeders simply select for conformity to the “standards of perfection” published in the breed association handbook. In other words, selecting for aesthetics over any practical considerations. I’m not arguing for the desirability of all this, just saying that it’s how it is.

  34. #34 Ewan R
    August 11, 2010

    DD – pretty much what I was saying – there isn’t much in the way of front end diversity – this isn’t to say the diversity doesn’t exist, just that in a production environment it isn’t useful. As such I think it’s a vast oversimplifiaction to characterize all of agriculutre as non-diverse – the diversity is there, is utilized, but isn’t instantly obvious

    Perhaps wheat is somewhat different – afaik farmers don’t just plant whatever yielded best, and yield is only a component of what the farmer cares about (depending how you define yield – if it’s in terms of Bu/Ac or Kg/Ha then it’s secondary – if it’s profit/Ac then that’s pretty much the primary concern) – For instance farmers will not go for maximum yield in terms of density – to paraphrase figures I’ve seen in the past year (lack of memory rather than due to any corporate secrecy) optimal planting densities for yield for corn may lie in the 35-40k plants/Ac range whereas in terms of profitability the optimal densities are probably in the 28-35k plants/Ac range as at this point the extra cost of seed is not soaked up by the extra cash generated by the increased /Ac yield gain.

    For the same reason you don’t put the absolute best performance hybrid with its requirements for best agronomic conditions into a field which struggles to produce 120 Bu/Ac in a good year – economically it doesn’t make sense, you can stick (pretty much) any old dross in there, saving the price of seed and inputs to maximize production from that seed.

    I’m also not totally sold on water requirements (and protein content etc – but less so) not being something that concerns farmers – the whole drive behind the WUE efficient corn currently in the final stages of development relies heavily on farmers caring about water requirements of their crop – there are a number of different strategic uses for the trait – primarily it’s about yield insurance – you get a moderate drought and don’t get the yield hit that would have occured, however there’s another approach whereby what you’re selling is a product which categorically requires less water for the same yield – primarily targetted at irrigated acreage – places where water is a substantial input and therefore reduction of use equates to a real monetary saving for the farmer (thus shifting the balance between water input and max profitability) which creates what is termed in the business as a value share opportunity (*gag*)

  35. #35 darwinsdog
    August 11, 2010

    Good posts & good discussion Ewan. Around here, all agriculture is irrigated: side-roll, center-pivot, flood, even drip. (I’ve grown Mira Sol chilis, tomatos & sweet corn in commercial quantities with drip irrigation.) Either one owns water rights, in which case one typically over-waters ’til N & P leaches into the San Juan causing eutrophication of Lake Foul (Powell) downstream and the pivot gets stuck in its own muddy wheel tracks, or one doesn’t farm. In my experience, yield, usually expressed as bushels per acre, is all that farmers care about. The degree of sophistication in choosing varieties you speak of, is pretty much unknown around here. There are trade offs regarding yield per acre and protein content, for instance, and I know for a fact that farmers will invariably choose varieties with lower protein content that yield better. This is the case even when they are growing a crop to feed to their own livestock. But… this region is a backwater and, with the exception of the “Last Great Soviet Era Collective Farm” (NAPI), agriculture is largely a thing of the past around here, having been superseded by the energy industry.

  36. #36 Brad K.
    August 11, 2010

    Sharon,

    It seems that what we are looking at here, breeding for characteristics suitable for the current economic and ecologic climate, is a matter of perspective.

    Monsanto and the USDA have a “world view” – profit and span of control are universal, and apply everywhere. Raising food locally, though, is about a much smaller view. While Nebraska and Iowa and Indiana farmers can participate in federal ‘one size fits all’ programs and buy the same GMO seeds, and sell to the same national/global market, they can accept (and insure) risks in order to participate in that trans-locale market.

    The local farmers market raises stuff here. The sellers are interested, and invested in, the produce that works well here. Some heritage varieties work well, some only every year or two. When something doesn’t work – plant or raise less, and add an additional variety that might do well.

    County fairs were initially established to discover the varieties and practices that worked best in each county, and let the county know what worked “best” in that area. This gathering and dissemination of successful practices in each local area was an important step forward in farming. The internet is not going to be able to reproduce that comparison.

    Yes, you can go to the fair and wander the aisles of Durocs and Hampshire hogs an look for which got the blue ribbon. You can also look for the type hog that impresses you, and you can ignore the “standard” judging. Please don’t confuse judging to breed standards with utility of an animal.

    Horse owners are often amazed at how registering a gelding (a male horse rendered physically infertile – can not breed) with the breed registry can improve a sales price.

    Don’t get me wrong – the goat and hog and cow and horse worlds need the breeder that focuses solely and entirely on producing a solid, sound, breed-standard animal. This is critical, to preserving genetic heritages and minimizing defects. Buy very few livestock or horse owners need a purebred animal. Usually you need one suited for your own needs, and your own economic and environmental situation – and that will usually be a cross of some type. But producing those useful crosses needs access to the base type breeds, occasionally.

    I don’t want a German Shepherd purebred and registered dog. I need one that can do a bit of varmint reduction, visitor annunciation, be a bit of a companion, and behave with respect and discipline around livestock and people. If I were to get a dog that was a German Shepherd or a close mix, I would not look for the papers – just the behavior, conformation, and attitude of the dog. I would be interested in whether too many of the ancestors of the dog suffered hip displacia, etc.

    Sharon, don’t disparage the “breed standard” shows – they serve a very different purpose than what most of us need. And if your county fair doesn’t have an open class for non-breed goats, suggest one. Suggest a class for pasture-raised milk and meat goats, find enough people to meet the minimum number of entries, and get an agreement on judging criteria – and look for the ‘best’ successful strategies and practices for your area. Comparing results in area-wide venues like the county fair can be a bit part of re-establishing local food production and awareness.

    Luck!

  37. #37 Sharon Astyk
    August 12, 2010

    Brad, that’s a really good and fair point – I don’t mean to imply that show is in itself a bad thing, because I don’t think it is. At the same time, I see how the costs of showing – the costs of transporting your animals, the every day commute to care for them and the week spent at the fair, the risk of disease exposure can make it hard for anyone not driving straight to standard feel like it isn’t worth it.

    I agree that crosses will be important in the future – our plans involve a number of them, actually, including breeding some mini-nubian stock back into our girls and also crossing them with fiber goats. And I agree that breed standards have their uses – I think the problem is balance – and that you are right that our intervention can create better balance.

    Ewan, I take your point, and I think it is an important one – there is more genetic variation than I’m crediting, but it isn’t accessible to farmers in ways that it once was. In livestock, however, that’s less true – for example the vast majority of the dairy cow herds in the US now have fewer than 500 sires.

    That said, I think there’s obviously a place for simultaneous homescale selection and breeding along the kind of work you do – the reality is that your company isn’t going to subsidize the development of more obscure crops suitable to very small scale farm and garden culture.

    Sharon

  38. #38 Ewan R
    August 12, 2010

    Brad K –

    While Nebraska and Iowa and Indiana farmers can participate in federal ‘one size fits all’ programs and buy the same GMO seeds

    This is an absolute mischaracterization of how conventional farming is done. Farmers do not fit into any sort of ‘one size fits all’ program, even at the very simple level of GM traits never mind the more complex level of plant genetics.

    Sure you’ll hear figures like 95% of all soy planted is roundup ready – which sounds like the definition of a monoculture. But then you have to realize that roundp ready is (now at least, hurrah for progress making my arguement multi-tiered) not a single trait – there’s regular roundup ready, and roundup ready 2 yield. On top of that there are a multitude of different varieties of Monsanto soy which carries these traits (RR2Y is probably in less than RR at the moment, but that will expand year on year) – suited to different conditions, different inputs, different disease pressures, different projected max yields – on top of that Monsanto licenses the trait (DuPont (I think) is the most recent company to sign a license for RR2Y) broadly – to big ag (Pioneer, Syngenta etc) and small(ish) breeders alike – further opening up the diversity of germplasm available – the system just isn’t one size fits all at all, unless you don’t examine it in any detail and assume that RR is RR is RR. The same is true across Soy, corn and I believe canola (I don’t interact much with Canola folk as I think their trials are generally nowhere near ours) – not sure on how sugarbeets do it, I’d assume different varieties also because that’s what makes sense, same with Alfalfa.

    As alluded above, at least around here (although apparently not in DD’s neck of the woods) purchasing big ag seeds isn’t even a one size fits all your own fields model.

    Sharon – as I said, animal Ag isn’t something I’m up on at all (other than arguing about patents on pigs…) I’d assume there is some background breeding that goes on to produce the sires that produce the herd – or I’d hope so – I also agree that there is most definitely a place for homescale breeding and selection (I just think the same levels of success (*fends of Greenpa with a pointy stick*) will be far harder to achieve) – particularly in breeding for traits which are not instantly marketable to a wide market or do not fit the commercial model well (obscure stuff, and to an extent I’d guess varieties that do well under “organic” (not USDA organic, but your kind of farming organic) growing conditions.

  39. #39 dewey
    August 12, 2010

    We always get the general impression that agribusiness means low diversity by definition, what with a handful of companies controlling most of the market, but the situation with genetic diversity isn’t so clear. Google just found for me a list from NCSU of 301 soybean varieties grown just in North Carolina. So clearly soy is not like bananas where everyone is growing the same cultivar. OTOH, I can’t find out how much of the genetic diversity of Glycine max is represented in this list of varieties; do they perhaps all share a close relation and potential susceptibility to some future disease outbreak, like today’s commercial wheats are virtually all vulnerable to Ug99? We may not find out until whatever-it-is happens.

  40. #40 Sharon Astyk
    August 12, 2010

    As I understand it, to be fair, Dewey, I think almost all the older varieties are also vulnerable to Ug-99.

    I think I want to make (and maybe this is because I want to make it, rather than from necessity – I’m still sorting it out) larger claims to the utility of small scale and farm-diversified breeding than you seem to be allowing, here, Ewan. My biggest concern is that genetic diversity that exists outside of the hands of farmers may operate now, in a fairly affluent and functional system, as diverse-just-not-in-farmer-hands, but I worry that it could fairly rapidly shift to inaccessible diversity. You need a fairly large scale, functioning system of economic support for universities, research labs, corporate funding and budgets, distribution centers, etc… in order to have the existing system function well – and as I understand it, almost no breeding of any kind works on suitability to low input situations, where farmesr may not be able to afford or access inputs easily. I guess I can imagine (and maybe that’s from the habit of imagination, not the likelihood, but I think it at least bears consideration) ways in which that genetic material could be largely inaccessible. Now it wouldn’t be totally – farmers could dehybridize the seeds they have, but it strikes me that genetic diversity wholly outside the hands of farmers has its potential drawbacks. If the system largely continues to function, it might continue to work, but I always think it is worth asking “what if it doesn’t.” To my mind, the kind of local variation and breeding I’m talking about may function not only as a specific for small producers in need of breeds that larger seed breeders don’t focus on, but also as a necessary and useful backup system – although likely totally inadequate at least at first, but better than nothing – to the current model.

    Sharon

  41. #41 Ewan R
    August 12, 2010

    Sharon – I’m not arguing against utilizing breeding to some extent, particularly for local, low input requirements (one reason this doesn’t get done is that it’s bloody difficult – low N for instance increases variability to such an extent that it becomes ever more difficult to know if what you’re looking at is a genotypic effect, or field variation in nutrient level, or pure luck(tm) – a concept close to my heart as it’s an area I work on with GMOs rather than breeding, albeit in hybrid lines which probably won’t do a damn thing with super low nutrients, but show some promise in terms of reduced inputs) – more against the apparently ubiquitous pre-conception that crops lack genetic diversity.

    I agree that backups are a good idea for if/when the system stops working, but I also don’t believe that when the system does stop working that even a backup is going to be as good – at present Monsanto for instance can(and I assume competitors also), at will essentially, cross genotypes specialized to conditions in different continents to try to breed for a desired trait – something nobody will be able to do if/when the whole edifice comes crashing down on our unworthy heads (cookies to anyone who knows that quote without a web search)

    I’m all for parallel systems and backup systems and whatnot – just irks me somewhat when the system in use ends up totally mischarachterized in the process – even if the current system was 100% perfect (not that it is) there’d still be utility in having alternate systems either as a backup in case of failure, or just as another way of doing things.

  42. #42 Sharon Astyk
    August 12, 2010

    Well, it sounds like I may well have been wrong to claim internal lack of genetic diversity (although again, I was thinking mostly of animals, not plants, but I apologize if I imputed otherwise), but again, if the price of greater genetic diversity is the removal of access to that diversity from the farmer (and we know it doesn’t have to be that way, because some of the good GMO work is focused on OP varieties that would be available for seed saving, as you’ve pointed out before), I’m not sure that it doesn’t, in the end, amount to the same thing.

    As for the backups not being adequate – we’re agreed. That said, however, there’s much to be said for making them the best you can, and much to be said, I think for the fact that if a company like Monsanto were to begin to turn its ship around, even a little and in smaller divisions, more could be done to make sure that things aren’t that bad. Plus, then I’d have to write laudatory stuff about Monsanto, which would almost certainly be really amusing for you ;-).

    Sharon

  43. #43 Ewan R
    August 12, 2010

    Sharon – as I often do I was more arguing/commenting on comments than the main article (as already stated my knowledge of animal Ag is utterly lacking) – I’m not sure that the price of genetic diversity is necessarily removal from the farmer, at least not in a direct manner – indirectly this may have happened, specialization and all that – however at no point in the process (as I see it) has the farmer had diversity removed from them by force, merely by economics (which some would argue as the same thing).

    I’m intruiged by what you’d consider as Monsanto turning it’s ship around however, as I’m sure alongside my amusement there would be just as much consternation amongst regulars – as I see it Monsanto are in the process of change (not a concept everyone is likely to agree to) and doing things like extending the regulatory support of RR1 well beyond patent expiry show this (albeit that minimum inputters aren’t ever likely to be fans of a system that promotes use of an input regardless of its comparitive environmental benignness compared to other conventional herbicides) – I’m sure I can think of a few more but beyond furthering my rep as a corporate lackey I’m not entirely sure what that’d do… so… to paraphrase another well loved multinational… what do you want us to do today?(or tomorrow even, as it’s going home time now..)

  44. #44 Jerry
    August 14, 2010

    As a dairy farmer breeding registered Holsteins to thrive on rotational pasture I’ve slowly come to the realization that it can’t be done. However since I sell off my milking herd every few years and even in low milk price times the only buyers are industrial type farmers who pen up their cows and bring the feed to them. Right now since I’ve sold forty in June I’m milking twenty on pasture with litle grain and they seem to be doing fine even though we are experiencing drought conditions here in Ct. I have a new herd of heifers calving in the fall. For those of you interested there is a farm tour in Mass. on August 19th at Chasehill farm to discuss Normandie genetics a breed that can survive on just pasture and do extremely well. I plan on going.

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