Crop breeding benefits from the traditional knowledge of farmers

Published online 29 March 2023

A new approach harnesses traditional knowledge and modern breeding for improved results.

Sedeer el-Showk

An international research team has combined traditional farmers’ knowledge with modern genomics in a new wheat breeding approach. Using this approach could produce varieties that are better adapted to local conditions and more appealing to smallholder famers.

The researchers worked with farmers in Ethiopia to demonstrate the viability of the new approach. They crossed local, traditional varieties with an elite international line to create a collection of experimental ‘pre-breeding’ lines. They then grew these lines at different locations in Ethiopia and asked local farmers to inspect and evaluate the plants around their flowering time. 

“We need to increase the conversation around the importance of farmers’ involvement,” says Matteo Dell’Acqua of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, in Italy, who led the study. “Smallholder farmers have knowledge about and experience with local growing conditions. If modern breeding could incorporate this knowledge, it could better direct agronomic innovation to meet local needs.”

That knowledge was reflected in the researchers’ findings. When they made computational models to predict the yield, the farmers’ evaluations proved to be better predictors than the usual agronomic traits. The evaluations by farmers in challenging environments also predicted a line’s stability across different environments, reflecting the breadth of perspective that traditional knowledge can offer.

“The model shows a unique way of combining traditional knowledge with plant breeding, providing an additional layer of information to inform breeding,” says Alison Bentley, the director of the global wheat programme at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico, who wasn’t involved in the research.

The researchers also collected separate evaluations from male and female farmer groups. This makes it possible to investigate how the different tasks done by men and women affect what they want in new varieties, helping empower local women.

The team used these resources to build genetic maps, identifying regions linked with agronomic traits and with farmer evaluations. The sites linked with the farmers’ scores sometimes overlapped with agronomic traits, like yield or thousand grain weight, but in other cases did not. The fact that the evaluations reflect these traits demonstrates their value in complementing existing molecular breeding markers. Combining the two would not only improve the breeding but might help make farmers more willing to accept new varieties – which would also be better adapted to local conditions.

“Breeding decision-making needs to account for a wider range of criteria, including gender and farmer preferences. The methods described here can be further tested in a real breeding context to also feed back data to better inform design of breeding programs,” says Bentley.


Gesesse, C A. et al. Genomics-driven breeding for local adaptation of durum wheat is enhanced by farmers’ traditional knowledge. PNAS 120, e2205774119 (2023).