When it comes to choosing seeds, many growers opt for F1 hybrid varieties. These have several very significant advantages, including uniformity of growth, reliability, added disease resistance in many cases and that extra bit of “oompf” called “hybrid vigour” that gives your plants a head start and speedier growth rate. For growers of ornamentals, the uniformity provides a narrower harvest period, thereby reducing harvest labour and often freeing up bench space to start the next crop sooner. With these benefits, F1s have been the mainstay for growers for many years.
I’ve just returned from a short trip to southern China. Among other things, I was invited to talk to a group of researchers about the greenhouse industry in Canada, and to discuss new varieties of greenhouse vegetables. Early in the conversation, it became clear that the group had been hoping for me to turn up with a big bag of seeds that would overnight revolutionize the Chinese greenhouse industry. Since Father Christmas doesn’t turn up in May (especially in China!), my hosts were sadly disappointed.
Further discussion revealed their desire for varieties with resistance to many common diseases. And of course, F1s from Canada would be a near instant cure to all of these – right? After all, “Canadian” (!) varieties promise untold disease resistance and bountiful yields that would lead small-scale farmers in southern China to an easier life and instant profitability. Such was my hosts’ apparent view of horticulture in North America. How intriguing.
The situation of the local farmers is interesting. There are 230,000 farmers in that one province. Fifty per cent of them are women. Only 30 per cent of all Chinese farmers manage to make a living from farming. The remainder are forced to supplement their income with a second job; hence the desire to find ways to increase the income of these small-scale farmers and the thinking behind wanting F1 hybrids. Such seed could then be distributed to 10 to 12 of the very best farms selected to be “Model Farms,” i.e., demonstration sites for introducing new techniques and for being sites of extension work.
LONG-TERM SOLUTION MUCH BETTER THAN BANDAID REMEDIES
Wishing to be helpful, I asked exactly which diseases were problematic. It appeared that some were similar to Canadian diseases. Some were not. So, how would F1s from Canada help the local Chinese farmers overcome their crop pathology problems? In my mind, what was needed was an issue of provenance, not providence. The issue is really that farmers need to breed new varieties from local gene stock that would best suit the local conditions, not rely on seed brought in from thousands of miles away that may not perform to the anticipated level. Re-thinking the approach from being a quick fix “bandaid-over-the-symptoms” approach to one providing a long-term cure was a little deflating.
Another question arose – how would the farmers save seed? F1s do not normally breed true-to-type in subsequent generations. And, of course, would it be right (even in China?) to save seed that probably has breeders’ rights? Not being able to save seed is potentially a problem; as for most small farmers, this is an essential part of farm survival.
One of the characteristics of small-scale farms is that they typically grow a wide range of crops. This spreads risk, enables good crop rotations, and increases the harvest season, thereby providing an income for a longer period of the year. Using F1s on such farms, while giving the benefit mentioned above, also potentially means reduced bio-diversity, with a likely increase in risk to pest and disease exposure.
Finally, the inevitable word came up – cost. How would poor farmers be able to afford expensive F1 seed, especially if it has to be imported? This is a “double-whammy” if the seed cannot be saved from year to year.
While F1s have been of great benefit to many farmers, there are some downsides, and these need to be evaluated against any potential gains in improvements in efficiency. They may be totally appropriate for you and your circumstances, but they may not be for everybody. Consider the providence against the provenance.
Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at
Inside View: July 2010
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