The Scientific Seed: Collaborative Plant Breeding and the Enhancement of Biodiversity

Open Access
Mendum, Ruth Marie
Graduate Program:
Rural Sociology
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 27, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Carolyn Elizabeth Sachs, Dissertation Advisor
  • Carolyn Elizabeth Sachs, Committee Chair
  • Leland Luther Glenna, Committee Member
  • Richard Stedman, Committee Member
  • Kathryn Jo Brasier, Committee Member
  • Nancy A Tuana, Committee Member
  • biodiversity
  • plant breeding
  • social studies of science
  • feminist science theory
  • sociology of agriculture
This dissertation is a qualitative case study of a participatory plant breeding project (The Seed Project) in the Northeastern United States. The study focused on the circulation of scientific knowledge between university-based plant breeders, organic farmers, an organic farmers' association and a group of seed companies which serve the region. Data was collected primarily from the Northeast, although the study did expand nationally. Four research questions were posed: How can organic farmers and plant breeders work together? How does participatory plant breeding function in the United States? What are the social and organizational mechanisms needed to overcome the existing barriers that prevent the circulation of knowledge and germplasm between farmers, breeders and small seed companies? Does participatory plant breeding enhance the agrobiodiversity of vegetable crops? Methods used to collect data included in-depth interviews, participant observation, and document analysis. Using a feminist science studies framework, it emerged that farmers and breeders were isolated from one another on either side of a philosophical divide about the nature and purpose of scientific agricultural research and farming technology. For reasons having to do with the existing funding structures and the history of plant breeding, breeders had failed to understand and connect with a constituency that had become increasingly important in the marketplace over the last thirty years. Farmers, for their part, sometimes engaged in a discourse of naturalism that kept them from advocating effectively for access to research resources. The Seed Project showed that these barriers can be overcome using flexible program design and judicious use of technical staff. While the project enhanced the vegetable varieties available to farmers, interviews with participants revealed that enhancing agrobiodiversity is an issue related to, but different from, the needs of commercial farmers. What is required for optimal agrobiodiversity is the resuscitation of a diverse and vibrant seed system that reaches far beyond the farming sector alone.