Wageningen plant breeding course sowed seeds for scientist’s grassroots work

Published on
May 12, 2010

Humberto Ríos Labrada is a plant breeder from Cuba. In April he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognises the efforts of unsung grassroots heroes.

Ríos Labrada has worked for over a decade with farmers, coming to understand and then strengthen how they go about plant selection and breeding in a way that maintains and increases crop diversity. As a result, Cuban agriculture is shifting back from chemical-based mono-cropping to low-input farming that is more sustainable and helping the country to feed itself. In 1996 Ríos Labrada attended the Applied Plant Breeding Course at the IAC, forerunner of the Wageningen UR Centre for Development Innovation (CDI). We asked how his time in Wageningen influenced his subsequent career.

When you came to Wageningen in 1996 at what stage were you in your career?  

 I was working on my PhD, attempting to breed pumpkins using conventional breeding methods. At the same time, however, I was also working with farmers. I was interested in how the farmers selected varieties and did their own breeding, but I wasn’t sure whether this was actually a scientific thing to do.

Looking back on the course, how did it influence your subsequent work?

This was the first time I had travelled abroad, so it was a real eye-opener.

During the three-month course, Salvatore Ceccarelli lectured for a week about his ideas on Participatory Plant Breeding. By the end of that week I said to myself: my goodness, now I know what my thesis has to be about!

I also noticed that most of the participants in the course, like me, took a top-down approach to plant breeding. Being in the Netherlands gave us the opportunity to discover the interesting way in which the Dutch have combined the public and private sector. The training programme really inspired me to recognise the value of including farmers in plant breeding.

Do you still have contact with researchers or other people in Wageningen?

I have maintained contact with Wageningen in various ways. I attended an ICRA training programme in 2000 and ICRA is now an important partner in my project in Cuba. Conny Almekinders, a crop physiologist specialising in participatory approaches to plant breeding and seed production at Wageningen University, has been one of my programme coaches since 2001.

What about people from other countries who you met while in Wageningen?

Like me, most of my fellow course participants were looking for ways to strengthen the conventional plant breeding approach they were using, where scientists do most of the decision-making in breeding programmes. We were all so focused on breeding a particular crop – we had no idea about systems.

CDI congratulates Dr Rios Labrada on being awarded the Goldman Prize and wishes him success in his future work.