The Experimental Farm Network is dedicated to facilitating participatory plant breeding and other collaborative agricultural projects, with the explicit aim of developing climate-change-mitigating crops and sustainable farming systems. The EFN is premised on the notion that our agricultural system is broken - industrialized, corporatized, genetically modified - and the only way to fix it is through collaboration on an unprecedented scale. This is a project with the potential to revolutionize agriculture on this planet, but it can only succeed if it starts big, which is why we're enlisting the help of the Yes Lab community as we prepare for launch.
Participants will join EFN's online platform as either researchers or volunteer growers (or both). Researchers will design experiments, recruit volunteer growers through the network, and provide seeds and instructions. Growers will follow instructions, report any required data, and send seeds or fruit back to the researcher at the end of the experiment, as needed. This will allow researchers to direct multiple projects at once, with the actual growing work spread around. It will also enable projects to be scaled up exponentially, which for breeding projects inevitably means speeding up the process of identifying beneficial mutations.
As an example, consider the prospect of perennial wheat. Wheat - our staple food crop - is an annual plant, meaning it needs to be planted as a seed each year, which requires preparing a bed, tilling, fertilizing, and weeding. All of this causes erosion and leads to the release of immense amounts of carbon along the way (from fertilizer in the factory to the tractor in the field). Perennial crops, such as asparagus and rhubarb, come back again and again. Their underground root mass continues to grow year after year, as they actually sequester carbon in the ground. They don't need repeated tillage, chemical fertilizing, or energy-intensive watering (perennials make significantly longer, deeper roots than annual plants). Unfortunately, most of our major food crop plants are annuals.
Now back to wheat: imagine if annual wheat could be bred with a perennial cousins (like perennial wheatgrass) to produce a perennial wheat. Believe it or not, this has actually already been done. Perennial wheat exists, but it is not yet considered "commercially viable." Plant breeders have been working on develping perennial wheat for over a century now, and every few decades they've made new strides. But it has been a very slow process. Most of those working on it have done so in institutional settings, whether universities, corporations, government agencies, or private organizations. As such, they have typically treated their work as something proprietary, to be kept secret and worked on beyond the gaze of the public. We're starting the EFN because we believe we can produce faster, better results by facilitating decentralized, participatory breeding on a wide scale. It has already been shown that farmers working through participatory breeding schemes can develop new, useful varieties over twice as quickly as conventional breeding schemes (based on a study of barley varietal development in Africa). That could mean 5 years, instead of 10 or 15, or it could mean 20 years, instead of 50 or 100. Revolutionizing agriculture will not happen in a day.
We are certain that a horizontal, free, open network like the EFN will lead to research focused on what should actually be the priorities of plant scientists at this pivotal moment in history, as opposed to the priorities of global agri-businesses like Monsanto. While their focus is on selling chemicals, ours is actually on feeding the world. Their aim is profit, ours is preserving the future.
In order for the EFN to succeed, it will need to a proper launch, which means one that leads to rapid growth and a wide spread. The EFN concept only works with participation of lots of people: we'll only recruit strong research leaders if we have a strong core of volunteers from the beginning, and we'll only get a strong core of volunteers if we have some strong research leaders from the beginning. So - in order to be ready as soon as the website is up - we need to develop a strong public campaign explaining the need for the EFN, detailing how simple it is to use, and actively recruiting both researchers and growers. In the process, we'll no doubt want to find ways to target Monsanto, et al, along with regulatory agencies, corporate-funded research universities and other institutions, with creative public actions, memes, videos, etc.
We've been building the EFN for almost two years now, taking the same kind of slow, deliberate approach we apply to plant breeding. We've been collecting rare and useful seeds, growing them out to increase our stocks, and planning some initial research projects for the launch. After almost two years of preparation (and with work in the field almost done for this year), it's time to really get the ball rolling. Thanks in advance for the help.
Co-Founder, Experimental Farm Network