Back-Breeding to the Future

Back-Breeding to the Future

Reconnecting with Our Genetic Reality. By Robert Schick

What I am about to propose might seem downright heretical in terms of both traditional and high-tech seed breeding, but bear with me for a little while. As climate changes persist and attenuate, the human species is going to require tougher plants that can withstand far greater extremes of weather anomalies and variations. Most corporate, industrial and institutional breeders, however, both of plants and animals, are doing the exact opposite, regardless of their PR claims. What we don’t need are more super-hybrids and genetically altered mono-crops that require heavy-duty outside inputs and chemicals to jumpstart the seed and see the plant safely to harvest.

Diversity is a major aspect of the solution, but to a far greater extent than our usual concept of the term suggests. Even within an open-pollinated cultivar we should be seeking variation, diversity. Looking for a ‘stable’ open-pollinated variety is not so very different from seeking a hybrid or genetically altered one, except that you can save the seed and anticipate something close to what was grown the previous season. Reality is, open pollinates are not truly stable, they just appear to be so. Nothing that exists is stable – it only appears so within the confines and miniscule time frames of our lives. We weren’t around a hundred or more years ago to taste-test, say, a Brandywine tomato. I suspect it tasted different than the current variety. Even today there exist various strains of this tomato, diversity within the cultivar. Open pollinates, too, will evolve over decades or centuries due to many factors, such as who is selecting the seed stock, the evolutionary pressures from the soils in which they were grown, the varying weather shifts that will alter their genetic courses, and other stress factors.

Nor do you achieve diversity simply by tossing in a couple of dozen domesticated species and saying, “We’re now a diversified agrarian site.” Diversity didn’t just happen. It evolved and continues to do so, or at least it’s attempting to continue in spite of all the negative human interventions. Now that we humans have mucked up the ecosystems so thoroughly, it’s time to step back and start observing what really works. Back-breeding is one way to start, an impassioned beginning that might unlock other portals.

What is needed are tough varieties with the ability to adapt rapidly in comparison to hybrids, genetically modified and even many OP varieties that shy away from such pressures, that remain relatively ‘stable’. In this case, stable in an unstable world may not work.


This is where the concept of back-breeding enters the fray. Back-breeding should not be confused with back-crossing, or taking one of the original parents of a variety and adding it to the original cross to potentiate certain desired traits from that parent. You can do this in back-breeding, but it’s an adjunct and option, not the overall strategy. In back-breeding what you are looking for is a return to a more primitive state without necessarily going all the way – allowing the plant the freedom to evolve as its surroundings demand. Do you want to return it to its first self? Probably not, for if you took it back a couple of hundred thousand years, your domesticated self probably wouldn’t be able to swallow it, let alone digest it, depending on your genes (we’re coming to that). But your ancient essence could handle plants of 20.000 years ago, some of which still exist today, or their close relatives.

A good example of this, and one I’ve employed in my personal breeding efforts, is to cross more modern carrots with the ancient Queen Anne’s Lace without going all the way back for two reasons: the most obvious being that Queen Anne’s Lace already exists, and second, no one would care to eat Queen Anne’s Lace for very long, nor would your digestive system feel happy about it.

Thus, crossing a primitive species with a modern variety is one option, but not the only one. Another approach, and one which appeals greatly to me, is the de-hybridizing of the hybrids and even, yes, even the open pollinates – for open pollinates were almost never the original beginning of the species. Ops were once far more primitive. Think of an OP tomato that was originally derived from wild ancestors and over many centuries, perhaps millennia, was domesticated by humans (or less occasionally modified by natural intervention – think bees), eventually becoming through breeding a Brandywine or a Cherokee Purple. A third option would be to back-cross a wild tomato with a Brandywine or other OP and take it back to the edge of recent time.

Ultimately, back-breeding is the quest to close the gap between our overly domesticated, questionably nutritious foods and our genetic reality. Hidden within the seed lies a memory, one that dates back to its original self, which may well be 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 or more years old! I believe this memory, or parts of it, can be coaxed back into existence without resorting to questionable and potentially dangerous high-tech means such as gene splicing. In fact, gene splicing will only exacerbate the problems by adding alien genes with completely unknown consequences in their expression (i.e., pleiotropy) accompanying the traits that the biotechnologists desire, often with disastrous results.

We can coax the ancient memories back by allowing a variety to go feral – in essence, to fend for itself – set them free, release them from their domesticated prisons. We can allow them to grow and perhaps even flourish under less-than-optimum conditions, pushing and coaxing their genes to express themselves naturally for a tougher, reality-driven survival, expressing themselves as what they need to and must become, not what a biotechnologist slices and dices for dreams of future monetary rewards, nor what a hybrid breeder desires in aiming for a specific disease resistance that in no way accounts for the coming earthly weather upheavals and possible ecological collapse.

Here are some of my problems with this accepted scientific notion. First, if Hybrid Plant A has more beta-carotene and calcium, then what doesn’t it have, or what imbalance has resulted from potentiating certain nutrients and certain characteristics for industrial, commercial agriculture, while surely suppressing others? There’s only so much ‘room’ in this food, isn’t there?

Perhaps an even more important consideration is, does Hybrid Plant A mesh with our genetic reality? In other words, have the domesticated foods of today superceded our ancient genetics, which really haven’t changed much for at least 30 thousand years, before the advent of agriculture and rampant domestication? Have ancient genes kept pace with our domestication processes, both our human physiologies and in our domesticated breeding?

Just as the toxic chemicals of the past 100 years have become molecular terrorists attacking our ancient genes, so too might our domesticated, hybridized, genetically modified plants. How many plants (and animals) do we now eat that we ate 30,000 years ago? Right off the top of my head I can think of watercress, lamb’s quarters, dandelions, purslane, urus-bison variants and wild fish. Not many cultured people eat the first four. We eat at best only a smidgen of what our genes were probably designed for or with. Have our bodies adapted to these new domesticates? My thought is that they haven’t, and this fact, along with our toxic chemistries, is playing havoc with our immune systems and overall health. Who would have ever thought that a super-duper hybrid broccoli just might overwhelm our still primitive genetic immune system if not supplemented by balancing wild plants? No one that I’ve read.

We’re eating things that in no way conform to or align with our genetics. Of course, 90 percent of processed supermarket fare first comes to mind, but I’d venture much further, right into the belly of the politically/scientifically correct beast. We’ve bred and continue to breed things too fast for our genetics to contend with. It’s a kind of human species-created quasi-Milankovic oscillation (where climate changes too fast for mutation rates to keep pace). What did our genetically very, very similar ‘primitive’ ancestors, our genetic mirrors, eat? Even such staples as wheat and rice are of relatively recent domesticated breeding. Most of the so-called ancient wheats and rices are really not that ancient. Our bodies were not designed to eat grasses – that’s what cows’ and other ruminants’ digestive systems were designed for (and they, in turn, are now widely forced to eat corn or soy in contradiction to their own genetic makeup).

Our genetics, then, haven’t kept pace with this oddly impassioned, driving desire for newness, innovation, ever-quickening change and fashionable fads, be they fad diets, fad foods, muscled super foods or even many so-called healthy natural foods. We’re paying for it in our health profile. It’s beginning to appear that our genes aren’t able to change as rapidly as the human mind’s creative overdrive mechanisms, or to put it another way, as quickly as the corporate world desires.

The current paradigm must change. Breeding must return to something far more basic, returning our plants to our genetic reality, not trying to genetically alter ourselves to suit our domesticated crops, although I’m sure biotechnologists would love that opportunity (and are surely already attempting to do so). The latter course is bound to fail, as our genes simply cannot comprehend and digest all this pseudo-nutritional overdosing. Our domesticated diseases are staring us in the face, mostly expressed in our own bodies. There’s a reason for this, and I believe reductionist science and its ‘sound science’ cheerleaders in high places are missing, or denying, the proverbial boat here.

As the majority of plant breeders continue ever forward in their quest to develop the Holy Grail of so-called super foods, I remain a sceptical outside observer. Almost daily we hear of all the new and nutritious phytochemicals in our domesticated foods, but aren’t they also in the more primitive ones? Haven’t they always been in a balanced genetic proportion? After all, where do the phytochemicals and other nutrients hail from, anyway?

I’m choosing to go in almost the opposite direction, returning to what food should have remained, connected to our genetic reality, not our toxic enclosures, not a superficial and artificial reality created by human hubris.

Am I about to cease and desist eating all broccoli and tomatoes? No, but I’ll be consuming far more wild foods, developing my own back-to-the-future varieties and going for the heirlooms instead of the hybrids or genetically engineered. I’ll report back in about 20 years!

Robert Schick, a.k.a. “relentless”, besides being a plant breeder, is an avid seed-saver, earth-passionate agrarian, musician, songwriter, peacemonger and writer. Some of his breeding projects are available from Fedco Seeds of Maine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Reprinted with permission from Acres U.S.A., P.O. Box 91299, Austin, Texas 78709 (512) 892-4400, Subscriptions: $27/year.  For sample copy of Acres U.S.A. call 1-800-355-5313.