Wheat breeding - a contested practice

Growing grain and breeding grain were for a long time inseparable activities. Until the end of the 19th century, grain producers were always grain breeders as well. The seed they sowed came from the yield of their own crops in the previous year. It was, therefore, adapted to the local conditions in which it was sown. At the same time, the farming population tried to improve their seed through a continuously practiced selection procedure.


This universally applied practice was challenged at the end of the 19th century, when scientists for the first time became interested in wheat breeding. Since they only bred the wheat and not grew it themselves, they were able to rapidly increase the yields of individual plants which they grew in laboratories and greenhouses. The sometimes spectacular results provided them with prestige – and simultaneously devalued the breeding methods of the peasant breeders who were exposed to wind and weather in their cultivation of the plants and, moreover, had to farm on very different soils and topographies.


When the industrial societies began to promote wheat breeding in the early 20th century in order to improve the food security of their rapidly increasing urban populations, the question arose: What is breeding? Who is to be recognized and supported by the authorities as a breeder? The scientists argued, that only their activities were proper breeding methods. They declared the cultivation work of the peasant population as a mere multiplication of seed. But the cereal farmers opposed these attempts to reduce their work to an activity of seed multiplication alone: they insisted, that breeding was an integral part of their cultivation activities.


In the early 20th century, students in agricultural schools learned that breeding had become a controversial issue and that different breeding methods existed

The conflicts which arose from these different perceptions of breeding gave rise to two very distinctive breeding regimes. On the one hand, a property-based order emerged in which breeding became regarded as an activity of “invention”, performed by highly specialized companies. In southern Germany and Switzerland, however, the conflict between scientists and peasant seed growers was successfully transformed into a (sometimes conflictual) cooperation – a development we can observe in many areas of the agrarian industrial knowledge society which emerged in the second half of the 19th century. In Switzerland, farmers and scientists worked together in seed-breeding societies on a local, regional and national level. Simultaneously, agricultural research institutions and peasant seed breeders also began to cooperate in their wheat breeding activities. With the help of the federal authorities, a collective, peasant friendly regime was thus created in which farmers and scientists could use the seed they created again and again in their joint breeding work for the cultivation and further breeding of wheat.



Gustave Martinet, director of the Mont-Calme Agricultural Research Station in Lausanne and internationally acclaimed wheat breeder, was a pioneer and promoter of the active collaboration between farmers and scientists. (For more information on Martinet cf.: Peter Moser, Martinet, Gustave (1861-1928)--DB2277, AfA-Portal Personen und Institutionen, Version März 2022, https://www.histoirerurale.ch/pers/personnes/Martinet,_Gustave_(1861_1928)__DB2277.html konsultiert am 19. März 2022.)

The establishment of seed breeding cooperatives promoted the exchange of knowledge between scientists and peasant seed growers. Thus, scientists began to observe the cereal plants in the fields.....


...and the farming population informed itself in the greenhouses and laboratories of the research institutions about the breeding methods of the scientists.


Sometimes farmers formulated their own, on empirical knowledge based ideas about how exactly the breeding process should best be carried out.

This form of organising wheat breeding came under pressure after World War II. From the 1950/60s onwards it was gradually transformed into a property based private breeding regime where the old practice of farmers to use their own seed now became a „farmers privilege“. The causes for and the consequences of this transformation of the breeding regime will be dealt with in the second part of this article (to be published soon).

Illustration of the mechanical and manual selection of grains with a high germination capacity in the federal research institution Zürich-Oerlikon, 1958.



Illustration of the cross-breeding procedures of local, resistant wheat races with artificially created, high yield races.


Further reading:

Film clips

“Nur ein Stück Brot” (“Only a slice of bread”) (https://ruralfilms.eu/filmdatabaseOnline/index.php?tablename=films&function=details&where_field=ID_films&where_value=93)


Illustrations: Archives of Rural History, Bern, www.agrararchiv.ch


Author: Peter Moser et al. Archives of Rural History, Bern, www.agrararchiv.ch