Jean-Pierre Berlan, From a Mercenary to an Emancipated Agronomy, 2011


Since the Industrial Revolution, plant breeders have strived to replace farm varieties with “copies” of selected plants that can be fittingly called “clones.” “Pure lines” of wheat, barley, and other autogamous species are homozygous clones, twentieth-century maize “hybrids” (and other allogamous species) are heterozygous clones, while GMOs are patented pesticide clones. This devotion to cloning is founded: a) on logic since there is always a gain to be made from replacing any particular variety with all its diversity with copies of the “best” selected plant extracted from the variety; b) on the industrial principles of uniformity, standardization, and normalization; and c) on the drive for property rights. Pure lines, being homogenous and stable, are legally protected by a “breeder’s certificate.” “Hybrids” carry a built in biological breeder’s protection device since farmers have to buy back their seeds every year and GMOs are legally protected by patents. Since cloning rests on an irrefutable logical principle, it requires no justification. The endless debates about heterosis which, according to geneticists, makes it necessary to “hybridize” maize are, then, a smokescreen to conceal the first success of the historical drive to make reproduction a privilege.



This paper by Jean-Pierre Berlan was the subject of a stimulating debate within the editorial committee of this journal and also when it was submitted for external review. The high level of the exchange of views, some of which were unstinting in the doubts and criticisms expressed, made us think it worthwhile to give readers the opportunity to take advantage of the views set out in this introduction.

Berlan’s paper mines a deep seam of knowledge. He deals with the societal reasons that influence or determine how humans behave without any deliberate intent, even in the scientific domain, which is supposed to be above history as well as political and commercial considerations. The author shows that this presumed objectivity is more likely to induce scientists to become captive to the prejudices of the system than to swim against the flow, since this would mean starting from the wellspring of society in order to understand how scientists build up an objective “reality.” Vigorously summing up his view, the author writes that “to understand genes, you need first to study capital and the development of capital.”

In Berlan’s opinion, nineteenth-century science and its uncovering of time’s linear trajectory as shown in the collection of work of classical British writers, Marx, evolution (Lamarck and Darwin), physical entropy, Durkheim’s division of labor, and Comte’s phases of progress would have been unthinkable in an earlier era, when tradition fixed each person in his or her place. What made this possible was the rise of the bourgeoisie, the dissolving of social boundaries, and the emergence of the individual. The depiction of the cyclical nature of time had to make way for its depiction as a linear progression. Richard Lewontin, professor of genetics at Harvard University and with whom the author worked, observed that humans see the world around them as a reflection of the social relations that are the dominant features of their existence. If biologists today can say that genes function in a network, it is because society itself functions as a network. To illustrate this, Berlan gives the following example:

In 1991, I came across an article in Nature that compared books on botany in capitalist countries with those in socialist states. In the “capitalist” books, plants were competitive and sought to take over new territories and eliminate their rivals. In the “socialist” books, plants worked together and were sharing and social. In truth both versions are right. It is our own social reality that determines those aspects of the natural world we hold on to.

In reply to a question put to him, Berlan emphasized that he did not wish to attribute aims to nineteenth-century agronomists that they could not possibly have envisaged. Modern plant breeders and agronomists and, generally speaking, scientists carried out their work in good faith in the hope that the methodology would ensure that they were protected from any delusions. Le Couteur, who initiated the isolation method the author calls “selection cloning,” was a farmer in the mold of David Ricardo during the Industrial Revolution. For example, he had no intention of claiming proprietary rights over living organisms, something that came about a century later. He only wanted to improve the yield and profitability of his land. The concept of plant heredity as having a market value was probably outside of his frame of reference. Nevertheless, that is precisely what his invention led to. It also explains why it has endured so long. Berlan believes that this did not occur by chance. Le Couteur was a product of the industrial age, and this is irrelevant, whether he was aware of it or not. The gigantic and historic upheaval of industrialization is in keeping with a representation of the world shared by the dominant classes. The author believes that the isolation method could only have come about in the context of the industrial age.

Editorial Committee of Études rurales


In 1907, de Vries was at the apex of his fame. In 1900, at the same time as Correns and von Tschermak, he “rediscovered” the thirty-five-year-old Mendelian laws. In 1903, his saltationist theory of mutations (or non-gradual change) made Darwinism compatible with estimates of the age of the earth, which was still thought to be very short. In his 1907 book on selection methods, de Vries observed that economic considerations could decide theoretical issues.

“This assertion [according to which plants would deteriorate in the farmer’s field—Ed.] has a distinct and deep significance in agricultural practice, and has also gained a great deal of influence in discussions of theoretical questions [our italics]. […] It is easy to see that the gain made by the breeder of the new variety depends in large part on the acceptance of this proposition. In the varieties produced by Le Couteur and Shirreff, all seed is of equal value provided the lines are kept pure and free from admixture. Anyone may multiply them with the same success as the original breeder. However, based on Hallett’s principle, all profits from the production of reliable seed grain accrue to whoever kept the original pedigree.” [de Vries 1907: 43]

There is no secret here: a plant breeder has no market if the harvested grain provides next year’s seeds. The condition for his existence as a businessman is to separate what nature unites. For the sake of his business, production may stay in the hands of farmers, while the breeders must maintain a monopoly on reproduction. Essentially, his goal is to sterilize plants by any means, biologically, legally, or through regulation. This is a lethal goal, if ever there was one.

Until recently, this goal was kept secret because it was politically unacceptable. Farmers made up a major part of the population, life was sacrosanct, and breeding was in the hands of small companies with little to no political and economic clout. Now, agriculture has been replaced by an agro-industrial system that aims to turn pesticides into high-profit branded commodities. The surviving “farmers” enjoy the same freedom as cottage-industry workers of the early industrial revolution. Life has been reduced to mere DNA sequences. City folk, cut-off from the land, are stunned by the extravagant promises made by the genetic and biotech propaganda. Finally, over the last twenty five-odd years, seeds have been monopolized by a powerful cartel made up of a handful of multinational agrochemical corporations that manufacture pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, gametocides, nematicides, acaricides, molluscicides, rodenticides, ovicides, larvicides, etc — in short, the agrochemical cartel. The balance of power has changed.

This is the true meaning of the technology of “control over gene expression,” which the US Department of Agriculture boasted about in March 1998:

“The principal application of the technology will be to control unauthorized planting of seed of proprietary varieties (sometimes called ‘brown-bagging’) by making such practice non-economic since unauthorized saved seed will not germinate, and would be useless for planting.”

According to USDA spokesman, Willard Phelps, the technology is designed:

“to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in Second and Third World countries.” (RAFI, 1998)

Dubbed “Terminator” by its detractors, this technology is the greatest triumph of applied biology in the field of agriculture over the past two hundred years. However, for the agrochemical cartel, Terminator (and its derivatives) was a blunder, at least in Europe: it is costly, not entirely reliable, and it bluntly revealed the ethically unsavory objectives of the cartel at a time when it was achieving the very same goals via the cost-free and reliable legal route of patenting.

For a number of years, the European Commission had been working on the patenting of bio-technological inventions. In 1995, the European Parliament rejected the first draft of the directive. The next round was better prepared. During a debate in Strasbourg in July 1997, a demonstration by disabled persons wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Patents for Life” softened the resistance of the European Parliament. In 1998, the directive was finally approved. In November 2004, after a semblance of resistance by the Ethical Committee [1], the French parliament unanimously voted the directive into law (except the Communist party) in an atmosphere of general indifference.

In 1907, de Vries broke a taboo. Scientists may reluctantly admit that funds from private industry and the State can sway its work in directions it would not have chosen, but, they also consider that the origin of the funds cannot affect “the discussion of theoretical questions,” as long as the proper methodology is carefully followed. This guaranteed objectivity unaffected by humanity, social classes, or history. This is to misconstrue the proverb: “whose bread I eat, his song I sing.” [2]

It also ignores that biology is an applied science, susceptible to market forces, which makes it difficult to avoid market influence. These influences are powerful in the field of genetics because the political and economic stakes are high. Agricultural genetics and breeding are nowadays at the very core of agricultural sciences (Berlan and Lewontin 1986) because success for industrial innovations in agriculture, such as fertilizers, machinery, and pesticides depends on how plants and animals react to them. For example, at the end at of the Second World War, the conversion of explosives factories into fertilizer factories required plants that could withstand large amounts of nitrogen. Thus, understanding the influences that determine the development of agricultural genetics also reveals the driving forces behind the industrialization of agriculture.

In 1907, de Vries could not have known that he had come across an essential aspect of twentieth-century agronomic sciences. According to breeders and geneticists, an unfortunate biological phenomenon, heterosis, imposed a maize breeding technique (hybrid corn) that prevented farmers from sowing their harvested grain. As for twenty-first-century GMOs, they will “feed the world and protect the environment,” provided that the agrochemical cartel gets a monopoly (in the form of a patent) over reproduction.

This article begins by elaborating on this seminal episode and then discusses its recurrence in the twentieth century through hybrid corn and in the twenty-first century with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

From Le Couteur to Hallett: Industrial Breeding and its Temporary Demise

In 1881, Frederick Hallett published two advertisements in the English Agricultural Gazette, one for a variety of wheat, and the other for a variety of barley, which are reproduced below. These advertisements sum up two centuries of plant breeding and a century of genetics dedicated to plant improvement (pp. 136–7).


Figure 1 — Advertising for Hallet’s pedigree wheat, The Agricultural Gazette; October 31, 1881


At the base of the stalk of the ear, there is what looks suspiciously like a signature. Zooming in on the image, it is clear that it is. Is it Hallett’s signature or someone else’s, perhaps that of the person who drew the illustration? Although it is difficult to decipher the writing even when enlarged, two clues lead to the conclusion that it is Hallett’s signature. The first is the almost identical advertisement for the ear of barley, in which the signature is also affixed to a label at the base of the stalk. The second appears in the text box on the right, in which Hallett claims ownership of his wheat variety.

“Progress” in modern biology proceeded exactly along the lines Hallett had illustrated. But was this an accident, or was it deliberate? The corporations of the agrochemical cartel routinely introduce their own molecular signature into their plant material. This is known as “genome control.” If one of them comes across its signature in the genome of a competing company, it takes it to court for “gene piracy.” In May 2000, Cargill Hybrid Seeds (now part of Monsanto) was caught red-handed stealing genetic material. The company chose to pay Pioneer $100 million in damages to avoid a court case.

The text on the right of the illustration is very instructive. Hallett states that his selection method is based on “the scientific discovery of the law of development of cereals.” Hallett published his discovery in the best scientific journals of the day, including Nature and the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, an institution just as prestigious at the time as the Royal Society itself. He also made several presentations at the congress of the British Society for the Advancement of Science. Since this discovery was: not a process or a mechanical invention, a patent could not be issued, and Hallett was forced in 1860 to register as a trademark his “pedigree” as the only means of protection, as applied it to “cereals for seed and all kinds of plants.”

Two texts printed on either side of the ear reveal his selection method. On the left, Hallett deals with wheat. He claims that he started with a single grain and continued selecting every year from the progeny of this single grain. On the right, he states that he used exactly the same method with potatoes, choosing the best potato from the best plant and repeating the selection process through each generation. For his part, Darwin stated that Hallett’s “continuous plant selection,” as presented in 1862 in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, was a refinement of the isolation method implemented by English gentleman farmers since the beginning of the century. On the one hand, Hallett accumulated the imperceptible favorable variations Darwin held dear, and on the other, he cultivated his plants in horticultural conditions so that they would acquire, according to Lamarkian views (shared by Darwin), the vigor that an exceptional environment provides. His “continuous selection” was in full accordance with the prevailing scientific views of the time.

A modern biologist would sneer at Hallett’s continuous selection. Since the rediscovery of Mendelian laws and the beginnings of genetics, we know that such a selection method cannot improve wheat and even less potatoes, a plant that employs vegetative reproduction. Since wheat is a self-fertilizing plant, selecting from a single grain eliminates all hereditary variations. Although there would indeed be some variations in the progeny of this single grain or ear, these would be due to the environment, since each living organism is the product of its genes and of the environment in which it grows, as well as of the vicissitudes of its development.

What is this isolation method practiced since the beginning of the century and refined by Hallett? To answer this question, it is necessary to turn to other sources, such as de Vries’s book published in 1907, Plant Breeding, Comments on the Experiments of Nilsson and Burbank. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, British Ricardian farmers [3] noticed that cereals cultivated in Britain, namely wheat, barley, and oats bred “true to type”; that is, they kept their individual characters from generation to generation. They did not know why. The explanation had to await the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws. Nevertheless, they made good use of this observation. When they came across a naturally isolated exceptional plant displaying overall favorable features such as size, shape, and color of the ear, the number and weight of the grains etc., they cultivated it individually to reproduce and multiply it. If in field trials, the seeds thus obtained proved useful, the new variety could be grown year after year:

“[So] the old Chidham wheat grown in this country from about 1800 to 1880 or later was derived from a single ear found growing in a hedge at Chidham in Sussex.” (Percival 1921:78)

In Scotland, Patrick Shirreff grew his Mungoswell wheat from a plant that had survived a severe winter in 1813 (Evershed 1884).

“When calling upon a friend in the autumn of 1832, I was struck with an ear of wheat which had been culled from one of his fields on the farm of Drew, East Lothian, and resolved to propagate from its seeds. […] The produce from the ear proved a new variety which has been named Hopetoun wheat, and which was sold for the first time in 1839.” (Shirreff 1841)

In 1831, on the advice of Mariano La Gasca, former director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Madrid, John Le Couteur undertook a series of experiments that led him to codify in 1836 the practice of his fellow gentlemen farmers. His reasoning went as follows: since we grow varieties of plants [4] that keep their individual characteristics from generation to generation, we will “isolate” the plants that hold the greatest promise and grow them individually to reproduce and multiply them, or copy them. We will then test the various copies and choose the best to replace the original variety.

Le Couteur displayed a scientific and precise mind and took care to find a term that would fit his proposal. He used the expression “pure sort.” Pure sorts were to be grown “from a single grain or a single ear” (1836). Modern breeders and geneticists have not, however, shown the same concern for precision.

Since December 1961, the Treaty of the Union for the Protection of new Varieties of Plants (UPOV) is based on the requirement that varieties are homogeneous (plants must be identical) and stable (plants must retain the same characters year after year) [5]. The task of the seed producer is to make “copies” of a plant selected for its qualities. A variety that fulfills the criteria of homogeneity and stability can be registered for protection by the relevant authorities. It receives a “breeder’s certificate” that grants the breeders and their licensees a monopoly on the sale of the variety. The treaty then commits breeders and breeding to the isolation method initiated by Le Couteur and La Gasca.

In this author’s view, the term “clone” applies to the “homogeneous and stable” varieties of industrial agriculture. From here on, therefore, we will use this term even though plant breeders and biologists prefer to restrict its use to species that employ vegetative reproduction, as is the case with the potato. However, using the term “variety” with its connotation of variation and diversity to designate the exact opposite of what industrial farmers actually grow is a source of confusion. The same biologists who speak routinely of “homogeneous varieties” would be shocked by a “homogenous diversity.” Moreover, we are not concerned here with the biology of reproduction but with the political economy of breeding and agronomic research. For this we need terms suited to our purpose.

Le Couteur and La Gasca established a modern method of breeding, namely cloning: the replacement of varieties by copies of a plant selected from the variety, i.e. a clone. From our historical point of view, in 1996, Dolly, the world-famous cloned sheep, was the first step to extend to mammals the isolation technique used for two centuries.

Why are breeders and geneticists so devoted to this isolation or cloning technique?

First, there is an irrefutable logic to cloning: there is always a gain to be made by replacing any particular variety of plants with copies of the “best” plant extracted from the variety. However, what is logically irrefutable may be biologically erroneous. Biologists and agronomists have rediscovered the fundamental importance of diversity over the past thirty years.

Second, cloning is a product of the industrial revolution as artisans gave way to big business. Artisans working on demand, with tools, for local and personal markets gave way to industrial manufacturers serving anonymous and remote regional, national, and international markets. The Industrial Revolution reached all aspects of society. The British gentlemen farmers applied its principles to agriculture. Impersonal markets demanded homogeneity, uniformity, standardization, and normalization of the commodities traded. Le Couteur’s “pure sort” clones matched these requirements.

Third, a heterogeneous and unstable variety cannot be the subject of proprietary rights. A clone being homogeneous and stable (and legally required to remain so), is amenable to proprietary rights. Close scrutiny makes it possible to distinguish clone X bred by A from clone Y bred by B. From a biological point of view, a clone is a zombie, a “mort vivant”. In the 1920s, under the pressure of commercial breeders, Distinction, Uniformity, Stability (DHS) became the rule in France. In hindsight, it was the first step towards the separation of production from reproduction. In 1961, this French system was extended to the countries of the Common Market with the UPOV Convention. There is an irony involved here as the negotiators of the convention gave up defining the term “variety,” the very object they sought to protect. The reason for this is obvious: the DHS system defines a clone, the very opposite of a variety, something the negotiators were unable or unwilling to admit.

This UPOV system was initially designed to police an unruly seed market in which anyone could sell any seed under any name. It also aimed to protect breeders from the “piracy” of their varieties by competitors. The farmer remained free to sow the harvested grain. It was not a bad trade-off between the public interest requirement of clarity and honesty in the seed trade on the one hand, and cereal breeders’ interests, on the other. For the French agronomists and technocrats of the 1920’s, the decimation of the peasantry during the First World War made it necessary to modernize agriculture, and an organized seed market granting protection to cereal breeders was a step in this direction. Today, however, the agrochemical cartel demands a monopoly over reproduction. Its goal is to make it illegal for a farmer to sow his harvested grain. This monopoly is already in effect in North America for GMOs.

Fourth, cloning is based, as already stated, on an irrefutable, logical argument. It only requires variations (i.e. a variety, a diversity of plants) and a method to clone them. Any kind of justification leads to suspicion.

Fifth, the benefit that accrues to a breeder through the use of this method depends first and foremost on his ability to identify in the field the rare or very rare plants displaying favorable overall characteristics; and secondly, on the inter-clonal variations in the final phase of selection of the best clone to replace the original variety.

Hybrids or Heterozygous Clones?

Hybrid maize is “the paradigm for plant selection in the twentieth century” (Pickett and Galvey 1997). In 1908, George Harrison Shull, an American biologist working on the heredity of maize in the new Mendelian framework, wrote that he “unexpectedly” (Shull, 1909a:52) found a revolutionary technique based on the mysterious biological phenomenon of “hybrid vigor,” which he termed “heterosis” in 1914. This esoteric term has kept breeders and geneticists captivated. Henry A. Wallace compared the power of heterosis to that of the atomic bomb. The discovery came at the right time, as maize yields in the United States were at standstill.

In what follows, we will elucidate a scientific mystification that has escaped notice for a century. Shull’s 1908 paper, The Composition of a Field of Maize, adopts the usual form of scientific articles: it begins with extended scientific considerations on inbreeding and vigor based on the author’s own scientific work, in general and in the specific case of maize (inbreeding “deteriorates” corn) [6]. Shull then draws conclusions about what the maize breeders should do. However, it only alludes to his breeding method. One year later, Shull fully described it.

This canonical scientific procedure has sent breeders and geneticists on the wrong track. I will turn Shull’s article upside down and begin with his hybrid breeding technique, with what breeders do, rather than with the theory why they have do it. This may appear mundane, but after all, science is materialistic and deeds are more important than words. Some technical knowledge is necessary, though not extending beyond the consequences of Mendelian laws for breeders.

I will show that Shull’s hybridization technique simply extends the old isolation/cloning technique of autogamous plants to a cross-bred species, maize. It follows that his biological theoretical developments about hybrid vigor and heterosis are irrelevant [7]. They pursue the same goal as Hallett’s “scientific discovery of the law of development of cereals”, concealing the creation of a breeders’ monopoly over reproduction. I will then show that his mystification was difficult to uncover because it is not in what Shull wrote, but in what he successfully hid. I will then search his seminal article for what he pulled under the rug or feign to misunderstand. Finally, I offer a clue to understanding how an irrelevant theory leading to a practically unfeasible breeding technique finally appeared to succeed.

Shull’s Revolutionary Breeding Technique

Mendelism and Shull’s “Pure lines method in corn Breeding” (1909a)

Unlike wheat and other autogamous plants, maize is cross-fertilized or allogamous. The male flower (the tassel) is situated at the top of the plant and the female flower on the stem. Pollen borne on the wind or carried by insects pollinates neighboring plants, sometimes quite a distance away. Just like a mammal, a maize plant has a “mother” and a “father,” so the progeny of a maize plant differs from the parents. The “father” is unknown. However, by bagging male and female flowers and collecting the pollen from a plant to spread it on the silks of the female flower of another plant, the breeder can control the pollination and keep track of both parents. If he performs the operation on the same plant, the plant will be self-pollinated.

A maize plant receives from its parents two different versions, or alleles, of the same gene. If A1, A2, A3, … refers to different versions, or alleles of gene A; B1, B2, B3, to the alleles of gene B, and C1, C2, C3, to those of gene C, a maize plant combines alleles of genes A, B, C, for example: A1A2 B3B1 C2C3 A maize plant is naturally heterozygous. If plant A1A2 B3B1 C2C3 appears to be exceptionally productive, how can one go about reproducing and multiplying it, or cloning it, to replace the variety?

Based on Mendelian thought, Shull proposed a solution. He imagined that the heterozygous plant A1A2 B3B1 C2C3 could result from crossing the two pure (homozygous) lines A1A1 B3B3 C2C2 and A2A2 B1B1 C3C3 Each would produce identical male and female gametes: A1 B3 C2 in the first case, and A2 B1 C3 in the second. The fusion of these two gametes would result in the superior heterozygous maize plant A1A2 B3B1 C2C3.

Let us suppose the breeder has found the two pure lines or strains of this very productive plant. The parent plants, or pure homozygous lines, can be reproduced and multiplied, or cloned, at will, by growing them in isolated plots to prevent contamination by foreign pollen. In order to produce seeds of this selected superior plant, the breeder will grow alternate rows of the homozygous lines A1A1 B3B3 C2C2 and A2A2 B1B1 C3C3 He picks one of them (for example A1A1 B3B3 C2C2) as the seed bearer, or the “female” line. This means tearing off the male flower (the tassel) from the top of the plant, or “castrating” it. The rows of A1A1 B3B3 C2C2 will be pollinated by the “male” rows of A2A2 B1B1 C3C3 All the seed harvested from the “female” plant will be heterozygous A1A2 B3B1 C2C3 The breeder thus replicates and multiplies exactly the superior plant. He clones it [8].

This is exactly what Shull proposed to do:

“After having found the right pair of pure strains (which Shull calls C and H), for the attainment of any desired result (…), the method of producing seed corn for the general crop is very simple though somewhat costly process. Two isolated plots will be necessary. In plot I will be grown year after year (…) the best mother-strain C. (…) In plot II, strain C and H are to be planted in alternate rows and all of strain C is to be de-tasseled. All the grain gathered from the de-tasseled rows will be seed corn for the general field-crop, and that gathered from the tasseled rows will be pure-bred Strain H to be used again the following year in the same way.” (Shull, 1909:58)

Shull’s proposal is to replace a maize variety by copies or a clone of a superior plant, but how can one find “the right pair of pure strains”?

Finding “The Right Pair of Pure Strains”

Pure strains of A1A1 B3B3 C2C2 and A2A2 B1B1 C3C3 do not occur naturally. They have to be created. How? Shull thought he had found the solution. According to Mendel’s theory, self-fertilization halves the percentage of genes in the heterozygous state. After six generations, there are only 0.56 (or 1.5%) heterozygous genes still in their original form. Shull therefore suggested randomly breeding six successive self-fertilized generations so to obtain pure (or almost pure) homozygous strains or lines. Crossing these pure strains two by two yields normal heterozygous plants that the breeder can reproduce and multiply or clone at will. What must be clear at this point is that such plants are no more “hybrid” or heterozygous than any plant from the original variety. This is irrelevant. Their differentia specifica is that they are able to be cloned since the breeder (and only the breeder as we shall see) can now reproduce and multiply them.

Briefly stated, Shull proposed to transform a natural maize variety made up of plants that do not “breed true to type” into a variety of true breeding plants that can be cloned to implement the La Gasca/Le Couteur isolation/cloning breeding method.

This smart proposal showed Shull’s command of the emerging field of Mendelian genetics. He could have received a lot of scientific credit for it. However, rather than telling the truth (“here is a method to extend the isolation method to maize”), he chose to distance his breeding technique from the isolation method. Why did he act this way? How and why was he so successful for so long? His seminal article provides the answers if we scrutinize it and investigate the issues that Shull left unresolved.

Can Shull’s Method Actually Improve Maize?

It is best to do the experiment. We begin by self-fertilizing corn for 6 generations to obtain pure strains. Starting with an ear of only 100 grains, with each grain yielding an ear of only 100 grains, the first generation of inbreeding yields 100 x 100 = 10,000 (104) seed grain, which we sow. Each seed grain gives an ear of only 100 grain. The second generation of inbreeding yields 1,000,000 (106) seed grains, which yields… and so on. At the end of six generations, we have 1014 carefully numbered and bagged self-fertilized lines (1001+6). Our next task is to cross two by two to make the precious clones, 1028 of them. The last step is to test them over several years, in various environments, to select the best ones. The sun will have finished burning before we have completed our hybrid corn breeding program.

To his credit, Shull saw the problem:

“In the present state of knowledge, it is impossible to predict from a study of two pure strains what will be the relative vigor of their hybrid offspring. This is an important relation which future investigations must unlock for us.” (1908a:309)

The problem was never solved. The theory of hybrid vigor is such that two very depressed pure lines can give a very productive hybrid, but the only way to know is to make the cross.

In his second seminal paper, Shull stated vaguely that it was necessary to perform “as many self-fertilizations as possible” (Shull 1909:57), which is to say a very small number, because with 100 lines—an absurdly small number—there are already 4,550 clones to be tested. The inescapable conclusion is that his proposal was impracticable.

We can compare Le Couteur/La Gasca’s method with Shull’s to understand why the first one works while the second does not. In the first method, the breeder scouts his wheat field and visually selects the rare plants exhibiting a set of favorable characteristics, grows them individually to clone them, and selects the best clone to replace the variety. In the second method, visual selection is delayed until the breeder has achieved the difficult task of creating his variety of maize plants that can be cloned. Since, for cost reasons, this artificial variety can only be only a scaled down model of the original variety, inter-clonal variations will be small and yield gains correspondingly small.

In 1997, at the International Symposium on Heterosis in Crops held by the CIMMYT (Centro International Mejoramiento Maize y Trigo), this well-known problem was once again referred to:

“In the preliminary phases of hybrid maize development, inbred lines were tested for productivity and combining ability by crossing all inbreds in all possible combinations. It was soon realized that for a few hundred inbred lines, the single-cross diallel was virtually impossible because of the large number of crosses required.” (McLean et al. 1997:26)

Very smartly, Shull left these “practical” matters to experiment station breeders and proceeded to build an irresistible scientific argument to impose it.

The Mystification

Shull’s Seminal Mystification

The mystification begins with the opening phrase of his seminal paper “The Composition of a Field of Maize” presented in 1908 to the American Breeding Association, a group of businessmen “interested in the business of heredity”:

“While most of the newer scientific results show the theoretical importance of isolation methods, and practical breeders have demonstrated the value of the same in the improvement of many varieties, the attempt to employ them in the breeding of Indian corn has met with peculiar difficulties owing to the fact that self-fertilization, or even inbreeding between much wider than individual limits, results in deterioration.” (Shull 1908, 296. Author’s italics)

Shull speaks of “methods of isolation” in the plural. At the end of his article, he cites de Vries’s “little book,” Plant Breeding, which describes the Le Couteur/La Gasca isolation method. His mastery of Mendelism excludes his misunderstanding of the isolation method. Shull knew as well as we do that there is only one isolation method, that no justification for it is necessary, and that corn breeders’ attempts were not the isolation method. He deliberately led his readers astray by diverting attention to the mysteries of this deterioration associated with self-fertilization and examining it in the light of his Mendelian theoretical studies of maize inheritance.

“The obvious conclusion (…) is that an ordinary corn field is a series of very complex hybrids produced by combination of numerous elementary species. Self-fertilization soon eliminates the hybrid elements and reduces the strain to its elementary components.” [9] (Shull 1908, 299)

The “almost universal” observations that hybrids of closely related forms are more vigorous than either parents led Shull to conclude:

“As most of the important characteristics for which the corn breeders strive are closely related to the question of physiological vigor, the fundamental problem in breeding this plant is the development and maintenance of that hybrid combination (Shull’s italics) which possesses the greatest vigor.” (Shull 1908, 300)

He adds:

“The fundamental defect in every empirical scheme of corn-breeding which simulates the isolation methods of the breeders of small grain, lies in the fact that there is no intelligent attempt in these methods to determine the relative value of the several biotypes in hybrid combination, but only in the pure state.” (Ibid.: 300)

Shull’s “pure line method in corn breeding” was the “intelligent attempt.”

It is very difficult to detect any fault in Shull’s presentation. Mendelism showed that indeed inbreeding decreases heterozygosity while crossing restores it. Since the dawn of time, the deleterious effects of inbreeding had been observed in cross-bred organisms. Animal breeders had noted them time and time again. Darwin had studied the deterioration of maize when self-fertilized [10]. Self-fertilization goes with a decrease of vigor while crossing restores vigor. Therefore, a correlation exists between vigor and heterozygozity.

In 1909, Shull’s rival, Edward East, turned it into causality: heterozygosity caused a “stimulation to development.” This is known as overdominance, the absolute superiority, for a still unknown reason, of the heterozygous over the homozygous. Shull had no choice but to accept this theory [11]. Be that as it may, hybrid vigor in maize is an undeniable fact. Shull’s previous conclusion that the “fundamental problem… is the development and maintenance of that hybrid combination which possesses the greatest vigor” becomes inescapable if Shull’s correlation is turned into a causality [12]. Improving maize requires implementing his revolutionary “pure line method in corn breeding” (1909b).

Several facts confirm this revisiting of the most celebrated innovation in agricultural research. In 1906, Shull had met de Vries, who was lecturing in California. Plant Breeding was published in early 1907. From his previous Mendelian studies, Shull had two “nearly purebred” (1909b:67) strains at his disposal. It was Plant Breeding (and/or his meeting with de Vries) that gave him the “unexpected” idea of extending the isolation method to corn. In the summer of 1907, he rushed to cross his two pure lines. In January 1908, at the time of his first article, the seeds of his first “hybrids” were carefully bagged for spring sowing. Would they recover their vigor as he assumed from Mendel’s laws? This was the crucial experiment. It succeeded and Shull could reveal the revolutionary breeding technique he had in mind and about which he said “I could have raised a monument to myself which would be worthy to stand with the best biological work of recent times” (Shull’s letter to East, March 3, 1908).

Last, we know that Shull had a good reason to deter his readers from reading de Vries’s book, Plant Breeding. Yet, he could not avoid referring to the book of the most famous biologist of the time whom he had met in California. So, he mentioned the famous de Vries together with the unknown East, for a theoretical point that was becoming common wisdom and not for de Vries’s description of the isolation method.

Has Hybrid Corn Increased Corn Yields?

Readers of this article might be bewildered but not entirely convinced. After all, farmers have shifted to “hybrid” corn and common sense tells us they were not fools. Since the end of the war, maize yields have been multiplied almost five times in the US as well as in France and this maize is “hybrid.” Is there scientific evidence that “hybrid corn has, as everyone knows, increased yields” (Griliches, 1958)?

Robert W. Jugenheimer, professor of genetics at the University of Illinois, claimed in his 1985 survey dedicated to maize (which included no less than a 137-page bibliography in fine print) that “hybrids have improved yields by 25% to 50%”—a “conservative estimate.” He supported his claim with three references. The first was his own less detailed early report for FAO (Jugenheimer 1958) where he made the same claim without references. The second was a 1961 article by Frank Welch, then Assistant Secretary of State for Agriculture. This panegyric to the glories of maize hybrids makes the same claim, with no references. The third is an obscure book edited by G. E. Inglett and published in 1970. This time, the authors cite Welch (Inglett 1970) to support the same claim.

Herbert K. Hayes, professor of the University of Minnesota and a towering figure of agricultural genetics and breeding, compared hybrid maize yields with those of oats, a cereal for which “it has been impossible until now to make use of hybrid vigor” (Hayes, 1963:4-6). Hybrid maize yields grow more rapidly than those of non-hybrid oats. He concluded that hybrid vigor improved yields. Hayes does not mention that breeders were no longer interested in oats, a horse feed, since the First World War had opened the era of tractors and more generally of “power farming.” He compared a species the breeding of which was extremely profitable, and to which enormous public research funds had been dedicated, with a neglected species. He compared breeding with non-breeding, not hybrid breeding with non-hybrid breeding.

John Gowen exhibits the same confusion in his preface to the book Heterosis (1952), a compilation of contributions from the best American geneticists presented at a symposium organized by the University of Illinois. Gowen compared the increase of hybrid maize yields with those of Timothy hay that were at standstill. The first used heterosis and the second did not. The conclusion left to the reader is obvious but false. Timothy being a horse feed, public breeders had almost given up on its improvement.

In other words, scientific evidence shows that breeding, among other factors — and more specifically the adaptation of maize to industrial inputs — increased yield. It does not show that “hybrid corn has higher yields.”

Overcoming the Insuperable Difficulties of “Hybrid” Corn Breeding

In this regard, a decisive event occurred in 1922. Henry Cantwell Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture in Harding’s administration. On the advice of his son, Henry Agard Wallace, a maize seed producer in the early 1910’s and later Secretary of Agriculture under Roosevelt in 1933, he fired Hartley, who was in charge of maize improvement and did not believe in the virtue of hybrids. Hartley was replaced with Frederick Richey, a “hybrid believer,” who was given full responsibility. All breeding research funds were channeled into the maize hybridization program and were enormously increased. Richey implemented a centralized hybridization program and recruited scores of “hybrid breeders,” trained by Edward East (Shull’s great rival) and his students, who were familiar with the mysteries of heterosis and other “physiological stimulations” caused by hybridity. In 1936, one hundred public hybrid breeders were at work on the hybrid program in the Corn Belt (Jenkins 1936).

Hybrids had to improve in order to lead farmers to abandon their free corn varieties for the new costly revolutionary clones. Increasing hybrid corn yield was not an end, but a means of yoking them in. After about fifteen years, the Wallace’s hybrid breeders succeeded in extracting superior clones from the varieties grown by farmers. Farmers were not fools, and they dubbed this revolutionary maize “mule corn” (mules being sterile). However, they had no choice but to adopt hybrids since the increased yield more than made up for the higher cost of the seed.

Hybrid corn became a success not because it was based on the scientific discovery of a mysterious biological phenomenon and its implementation into an efficient breeding technique, but because the Wallaces’ coup eliminated socially effective but profitless research alternatives, such as mass selection. For the public hybrid breeders, the illusion was complete: they believed that they were working on the improvement of maize for the farmers’ benefit, whereas in fact, they worked for the breeders’ profit.

It is not possible within the scope of this paper to expand on the formidable breeding work of the hybrid breeders who, in spite of Shull and not because of him, managed to extract superior clones, first in the Midwest and later in Southern states. Shull’s theory of heterosis was not a guide but an obstacle, but they owed it their jobs. They had to carve an uneasy path to success within the irrelevant and foggy heterosis/overdominance paradigm. The reason for their success is not too difficult to explain. Improved varieties obviously yield improved clones. From the very beginning to the present time, hybrid breeders have improved maize varieties by various means, thus extracting better clones or hybrids. However, they could not recognize it because they worked within the paradigm that, because of heterosis, only hybridization could improve maize [13]. In short, corn yield increased because of selection and not because of heterosis. In fact, heterosis has been counterproductive [14].

What Did Hybrid Corn Increase?

Hybrid corn created a new source of profit. In Shull’s words:

“When the farmer wants to duplicate the splendid results he has had one year with hybrid corn, his only recourse is to return to the same hybridizer from whom he secured his seed the previous year and obtain again the same hybrid.” (Shull, 1946: 549)

This is because a corn plant, unlike wheat for instance, does not breed “true to type.” The carefully selected heterozygous genetic structure of a clone is destroyed in the farmer’s field. Invoking the inbreeding depression due to self-fertilization is unnecessary and would throw us back into Shull’s trap.

From 1918 on, Henry Agard Wallace proclaimed the “hybrid revolution” in the great weekly magazine of the Midwest Wallaces Farmer. In 1926, with a few friends and capital of $7,600, he founded Pioneer Hi-Breed, which has become the largest producer of maize hybrid seeds. In 2000, the Wallaces sold Pioneer to DuPont for $10 billion. Each dollar invested in 1926 had multiplied itself by 1,500,000. No one will deny that capital reproduces and multiplies on the breeder’s bottom line as long as maize does not in the farmer’s field. The miracle of heterosis was for investors.

Established in 1946 to modernize agriculture, i.e. to eradicate peasants, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) became infatuated with the miracle maize brought in by U.S. army trucks. French public breeders were quick to succeed: they combined Wallace’s hybrid breeders’ lines with excellent agronomic value with lines they had selected for their quality ears from French local varieties to create clones adapted to French conditions. At the end of the 1950s, the case had been won, and heterozygous clones were replacing natural varieties. Hybrid corn became the INRA’s triumph. Maize extended beyond the areas where peasant farmers had wisely confined it (Southwest, Alsace, and the Dombes region) from around 350,000 hectares to ten times as much.

Seeds of varieties (farmer’s seed) would cost the equivalent of 15 kilograms of maize grain per hectare. Clone seeds cost the equivalent of 1,500 to 1,800 kilograms per hectare, or about a hundred times more. Calculated over the 3.5 million hectares of cultivated maize in France, the additional cost would be equivalent to the total budget of the INRA. A powerful maize lobby, run in fact by the agrochemical cartel, is behind this expansion in areas where it is ecologically unfit.

In 1951, Paul Mangelsdorf concluded his celebration of hybrid maize in Scientific American with the following words:

“The time is rapidly approaching when the majority of our cultivated plants and domestic animals will be hybrid forms. Hybrid corn has shown the way. Man has only begun to exploit the rich ‘gift of hybridity’.” (1951, 44)

It would be an accurate prediction if it specified that the “rich gift of hybridity” is for investors. “Hybrid varieties” have become the royal road to breeding in the twentieth century, both for plants, whether autogamous or allogamous, and animals.

However, autogamous plants, such as wheat, have been resisted hybridization, despite some sixty years of efforts. In 1986, an INRA scientist announced in La Recherche “Les hybrides sortent du laboratoire” (“Hybrid Wheat Comes Out of the Laboratory”) (Rousset 1986). The Ministry of Agriculture was financing an important program to support this difficult birth. Fortunately, hybrid wheat has not yet made its way out of the laboratory. There are two reasons for this.

The first one is technical: wheat’s low rate of multiplication doomed this program to failure [15]. The second one relates to the political economy of agricultural research. South African hybrid wheat breeders expressed it candidly:

“The possibility to produce hybrids in wheat has, as in all other crops, met with enthusiasm. Notwithstanding the successes, which were dramatic in other crops, wheat hybrids over a period of 30 years have not been successfully commercialized. This unfortunate situation was mostly caused by highly competitive and successful research in the public sector achieving genetic improvement of wheat at a constant rate by using conventional techniques and procedures; apathy on the part of wheat breeders to adapting to procedures fundamental to success in hybrid development.” (Jordaan et al.: 276)

All public research should be committed to hybridization if it is to succeed. The Wallaces’ scientific coup suppressed the competition of more socially efficient breeding alternatives and hybrid corn succeeded. Hybridization’s success requires public research to sacrifice use value for exchange value and public interest for private interest. Sciences submitted to such goals deserve to be called “mercenary.”

The Twenty-First Century: “Genetically Modified Organisms” or “Pesticide Patented Clones?”

In our present agro-industrial system, varieties (i.e., diversity, contrary of uniformity) are clones. A variety of wheat is a homozygous clone, a maize variety a heterozygous clone. The essential character of “hybrid corn” is not being “hybrid” but being reproducible by the breeder and only the breeder. The agro-industrial vocabulary does not make it possible to understand what goes on.

This is the case with the expression Genetically Modified Organisms or “GMOs.” It was apparently invented by Monsanto’s spin doctors to avoid the expression “genetic chimera” used by biologists when the first manipulation in 1973 launched the biotech era. All living organisms are in a constant state of “genetic modification” and humanity has continuously genetically modified plants and animals ever since their domestication began. It continues to do it now (in fact, the agrochemical cartel does it!) so the biotech argument goes, using faster, more accurate, more scientific methods. Regulations will only delay and hinder the solutions to ecological degradation and hunger.

This sham covers up a mystification. The expression GMOs implies that problems, if they exist, would stem from the genetic modification, which is “unnatural because of the addition, suppression, replacement, or modification of at least one gene.” Do genetic modifications present health risks? What about the environment? Can transgenic pollen contaminate neighboring fields? What is an acceptable level of contamination? Will modified genes spread to other species? What would be the consequences and so on? The decision to go ahead, then, should be taken on the basis of “sound” scientific evidence that only experts — obviously the ones that make GMOs — can provide. This is the position of the agrochemical cartel, and therefore the position of the United States, the European Union, governments, and international organizations. Governments, then, turn to commissions of experts to answer such questions.

This is, at best, disingenuous. The GMO suppliers get the authorization to market their GMOs from governments; governments make their decision on the advice of scientific experts (and there can be no better experts than scientists working with GMOs); and finally, experts are covered by the implicit clause that their expertise is always based on “current knowledge.” Should any problem arise, no one is responsible and no one is to blame.

This leads to another set of questions: are the tests adequate or are they designed to minimize problems? Are they properly done? Are they long enough? Can reliable expertise be based only on data provided by the GMO suppliers? How trustworthy are such data? How independent from business interests are experts? It is on these issues that opposition to GMOs has been organized in Europe, with some success. This is also the cartels’ chosen playing field since, contrary to what is commonly thought, even the “soundest” science cannot answer such questions.

According to Le Robert Dictionnaire Historique, the word “science” derives from the Latin scire, which means “to know.” This term is defined as “a precise understanding, universal, verifiable, and proven by laws.” However, this definition takes into account one dimension of science, which the vast majority of us has experienced and often been bored by, namely knowledge acquired through science classes. We have all rolled metal balls down a slope and observed that they rolled as they did in Galileo’s time. However, alongside textbook knowledge, there is living science, that is, laboratory science. Living science is to textbook science what a live animal is to a stuffed animal. It is full of surprises. In reality, if scientists are in their laboratories, it is because they seek knowledge, not because they already possess it.

However, this scientific ignorance should be nuanced. When it was discovered that AIDS was caused by a virus, researchers had a century of scientific work at their disposal to study the newcomer. But sometimes, scientists encounter a genuine terra incognita that confounds all their knowledge. This might be a phenomenon that does not fit into known patterns (such as the prion, which remains an enigma), or problems arising from radically new techniques.

GMOs are driving us into an era that has little to do with conventional breeding, which consists of using the genetic variations within the same species and, more rarely, from close species. This has been done “scientifically” since Mendel.

These genetic chimeras make the knowledge accumulated over the past hundred years largely irrelevant. There is no scientific evidence to make an informed decision, and there never will be because our planet is now the laboratory. The only way of knowing what a transgenic planet run by the agrochemical cartel will look like is to make it. We are the guinea pigs.

Our biological knowledge is poor. We have identified only about 5% of the bacteria living in our digestive tract. Our knowledge of soil microorganisms is pitiful. We know almost nothing about genetic development, in other words the process of going from a strand of DNA to a living organism in four dimensions, three spatial and one temporal. Furthermore, this DNA is folded in space, and this affects gene expression. Thus, insulin produced by transgenic bacteria was initially found to be ineffective because the protein was not properly folded. For reasons we do not understand, the protein became effective when the manufacturing process was changed [16].

The expression “genetically modified organism” sends us into a black hole of endless scientific debates while the agrochemical cartel advances toward its goal of controlling life. The expressions “hybrid corn” and “heterosis” have done the same for a century. To escape from the black hole, we must stick to our mundane method and focus on reality: what are GMOs — not in theory or dreams, but as they are actually sold and grown?

Although one may dream of benevolent and eco-friendly GMOs, in the real world, there are only “patented pesticide clones.” Obviously, GMOs are clones. The legal requirements of homogenenity and stability apply.

GMOs are pesticide clones. All commercialized GMOs either produce an insecticide (as in the case of the Bt plants), and/or are tolerant to herbicides. A transgenic construction introduced into the plant neutralizes the herbicide. Currently, the agrochemical cartel combines these two traits in its GMOs which are a cheap new method of discovering, manufacturing, and applying pesticides [17]. It has subtly changed their status from dangerous products to be kept out of our food to being components of it. As for farmers, their addiction to pesticides deepens. At the start, a pesticide works, then weeds and pests adapt and application rates must be increased as targets become resistant. Finally, the drug has to be changed and the cycle begins all over again. Thus farmers moved from organochlorides, to organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, and now to nicotinoids. David Pimentel of Cornell University showed that the quantity of pesticides used in the United States multiplied by a factor of forty over a period of forty years while crop losses due to pests remained the same. Independent agricultural scientists and independent agricultural research organisms would have given up such inefficient and absurd technology long ago. In 2007, at the final session of the Grenelle de l’Environnement, the French President condemned the use of “GMO pesticides,” which is to say all agricultural GMOs.

Last, pesticide clones are patented. Patents legally separate production, which remains in the farmers’ hands, from reproduction, which is controlled by the agrochemical cartel. Life must stop its unfair competition with the cartel. Thus, in the name of liberalism, European Union directive 98/44 on the “patentability of biotechnological innovations” takes us back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when kings granted privileges to merchants. Kings would have never granted a privilege over reproduction, and yet, the European Union did it, following the example set by the United States. It did not, however, take it to its logical conclusion, namely setting up a European Genetic Police (EGP) to enforce the cartel’s privilege.

No reasonable mind would entrust our biological future to the agrochemical cartel, even when it presents itself under the guise of “life science industries.”

The expression “patented pesticide clones” not only accurately accounts for what GMOs are, but answers the question that science cannot answer: are GMOs dangerous?

Patented pesticide clones promise a disaster for three reasons, each being sufficient to ban them:

  • Because they are clones, they contribute to the collapse of biological diversity;
  • Because they are pesticide clones, they pursue and aggravate farmers’ addiction to pesticides;
  • Because they are patented, they put our biological future in the hands of the agrochemical cartel.

The expression PPCs also indicates what should be done:

Seeds must be released from the regulatory homogeneity and stability straitjacket to recreate diversity. Breeders, farmers, and gardeners should be free to grow, sell, exchange, and plant varieties if they wish. Plants must be allowed to evolve, adapt, and change.

The agrochemical cartel should be ousted from the seed industry as a first step on the path to pesticide-free agriculture and food production. Agro-ecological alternatives that will not jeopardize the health of farmers and the general public are already available and will spread if European subsidies go to ecological agricultural practices and not poisonous ones.

Patents on life are a disgrace. Life is not a privilege, and certainly not for the agrochemical cartel—or the “economic poison” industry as it called itself in the aftermath of the war [18].

The expression “patented pesticide clones” brings GMOs down from the heights of scientific esotericism where it escapes public scrutiny and into the real world where democratic control is possible.


If our present industrial petro-agriculture and food had been the norm across the entire planet, all petroleum resources would have been exhausted by 1996 without a single drop left over for transportation or heating (Pimentel and Dazhong 1990). This age of cheap fuel is coming to a close. 80% of biomass lies in the top 30 centimeters of soil. In many areas of the world, soils are dead or dying. The future of humanity depends on how we take care of this fragile molecular film of life. As a United Nations report notes:

“The degradation of soils over large areas is the most pressing ecological problem facing all States today, both developed and developing.”

In fact, about 2 billion hectares of land, or about 15% of the earth’s surface, have been degraded by intensive farming and human activity.

In France, some 80% of tomatoes are grown on a sterile substrate and fed liquid chemical nutriments. We do not realize that the entire agro-industrial system, plants and animals, is now largely soil free. Each new degradation creates new markets. Soils, and surface and ground water are poisoned. The fertility built up by generations of peasant farmers has been largely exhausted, and the miraculous diversity of French landscapes has been wiped out in areas dominated by industrial agriculture. Lifestyle diseases are growing at an alarming rate and health costs are skyrocketing.

In Kenya, maize is being attacked by an Asian moth (a boring insect) and parasitized by a plant: Striga, or witchweed. These pests can destroy an entire crop, and herbicides and insecticides have been ineffective in resolving the problem. The International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology has pioneered a smart, costless “push-pull” method. After a systematic study of plant combinations used by the farmers, one stood out, namely the planting of a leguminous crop (Desmodium) with maize. Desmodium repels the moth and prevents Striga from germinating. Driven out by the Desmodium, moths are attracted to a belt of elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum), a forage grass, which surrounds the maize field and where they lay their eggs. Most young caterpillars are destroyed by the mucus when they bore into the stalk. We also know that legumes fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to the maize as a directly absorbable fertilizer.

This superb scientific work, which involved the participation of farmers, allows abundant and regular maize harvests without insecticides, herbicides, or commercial fertilizers. More livestock is kept, adding to the food supply and to soil fertility. Resources flowing from this additional production make it possible to send children to school. Briefly stated, the welfare of the rural population increased but GDP and profits fell. Use value overpowered exchange value.

The emancipated agronomy of tomorrow will rest on principles exactly opposite to those that found the current agro-industrial system and its latest biological breakthrough, patented pesticide clones [19]. It will be rooted in the free use of nature, not in its commodification; ecological acumen, not brute force; healthy living soils, not poisoned and dying ones; communal work, not individualism; collaboration between scientific and farmers’ knowledge, not the contempt of the latter; comprehensive approach, not scientific reductionism; ecological use of the environment and biological diversity, not subsidized economies of scale of industrial monocultures; cooperation, not competition; sequestrating carbon into living soils, not releasing it into the atmosphere; respect for animals, not their torture; autonomy and creativity of farmers, not their enslavement.

The age of our agro-industrial system is drawing to a close. These philosophical, epistemological, scientific, and ethical principles are the basis of an emancipated agronomy, namely agro-ecology. Hopefully, a new civilization reconciling humans and nature will emerge.

Jean-Pierre Berlan


Jean-Pierre Berlan, “De l’agronomie mercenaire à l’agronomie libératrice”, Études rurales n°187 | 2011.


Jean-Pierre Berlan,
La Planète des clones,
les agronomes contre l’agriculture paysanne
éd. La Lenteur, 2019

(236 pages, 16 euros)





Berlan, J.-P., and R. C. Lewontin. 1986. “Breeder’s Rights and Patenting of Life Forms.” Nature 322:785–88.

Berlan, J.-P., and R. C. Lewontin. 2002. “Une cerise sur le gâteau OGM.” Le Monde (Nov. 5, 2002):1–17.

Darwin, C. 1868/1905. The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Vol. I and II. London: John Murray.

Evershed, H. 1884. “Improvement of the Plants of the Farm.” Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society 45:77–113.

Gowen, J. ed. 1952. Heterosis. Ames, IA: Iowa State College Press.

Hayes, M. K. 1963. A Professor’s Story of Hybrid Corn. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.

Inglett, G.E. (ed.) 1970. Corn: Culture, Processing, Products. Westport, CT: AVI Publishing.

Jenkins, M. T. 1936. “Corn Improvement: Corn, the Most Typical American Plant, Yields Rich Results in Breeding and Genetics.” U.S. Department of Agriculture Yearbook of Agriculture: 455–522.

Joordan, J. P., S. A. Engelbrecht, J. H. Malan, and H. A. Knobel. 1997 “Wheat and Heterosis: CIMMYT.” Book of Abstracts: The Genetics and Exploitation of Heterosis in Crops – An International Symposium, Mexico: D.F.

Jugenheimer, R. W. 1958. “Hybrid Maize Breeding and Seed Production.” Report for the FAO, 1976–1985, Corn: Improvement, Seed Production, and Uses. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Lamer, M. 1957. The World Fertilizer Economy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Le Couteur, J. 1836. On the Varieties, Properties, and Classification of Wheat. London: W. J. Johnson.

Levins, R. 1986. “Science and Progress: Seven Developmental Myths in Agriculture,” Monthly Review 38 (July–August)

McLean S.D., S.K. Vasal, S. Pandey, and G. Srinivasan. 1997. The Use of Testers to Exploit Heterosis in Tropical Maize at CIMMYT. CIMMYT. 1997. Book of Abstracts. The Genetics and Exploitation of Heterosis in Crops; An International Symposium. Mexico, D.F., Mexico.

Mangelsdorf, P. C. 1951. “Hybrid Corn.” Scientific American: 39–47.

Percival, J. 1921. The Wheat Plant. London: Duckworth.

Pickett, A. A., and N. V. Galvey. 1997. “A Further Evaluation of Hybrid Wheat.” Plant Varieties and Seeds 10: 15–32.

Pimentel, D., and W. Dazhong. 1990. “Technological Change in Energy Use in U.S. Agricultural Production.” In Agroecology: Biological Resource Management Series, edited by R. C. Carroll, J. H. Vandermeer, and P. M. Rosset, 147–64. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Richey, F. 1948. “The Lay of the Corn-Huckster: Whose Bread I Eat, His Song I Sing.” Journal of Heredity 39:11–7.

Rousset, M. 1986. “Les blés hybrides sortent du laboratoire.” La Recherche 17: 86–89.

Shirreff, P. 1841. “On the Hopetoun Wheat and of Comparative Trials of Wheat.” Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society 2: 344–6.

Shull, G. H. 1908. “The Composition of a Field of Maize.” American Breeder’s Association, Report IV: 296–301.

Shull, G. H. 1908. Letter to East in Jones Donald F. 1945. Biographical Memoir of Edward Murray East, National Academy of Science, Bibliographical Memoirs, vol. XXIII, ninth memoir, p. 224.

Shull, G. H. 1909a. “A Pure Line Method in Corn Breeding.” American Breeder’s Association, Report V:51–9.

Shull, G. H. 1946. “Hybrid Seed Corn.” Science 103:547–50.

de Vries, H. 1907. Plant-Breeding. Comments on the experiments of Nilsson and Burbank. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court Publishing.

United Nations Program for the Environment. 2002. “The Future of the Global Environment.” Paris: De Boeck.

Welch, F. J. 1961. “Hybrid Corn: A Symbol of American Agriculture.” Paper presented at the annual congress of the American Seed Trade Association, 16th Hybrid Corn Industry Research Conference.

[1] Refusing the patentability of human genes, presumably those of ethics, art, spirituality, etc., means that all genes are patentable.

[2] This is also the title of the article by Frederick Richey, head of the corn hybridization program launched by the Wallaces in 1922, criticizing Richard Crabb’s book Hybrid Corn Makers, Prophets of Plenty, which gave the credit of the success of hybrid corn to private companies. Crabb had worked as an advertising agent for hybrid corn companies.

[3] David Ricardo (1772-1823) divided the British society into three classes: the landowners living off of their rents, the capitalists off of their profit, and workers off of the sale of their labor. The latter are no different from draft animals fed enough to work. Gentlemen farmers belong to the capitalist class: they invest their capital into farming in order to get profit. This fairly accurate description of British society is in sharp contrast with the French dominated by independent peasants.

[4] A variety of plants is the equivalent of a race or a breed: animals which have in common a set of particularly visible traits but which differ from one another.

[5] The third requirement is distinction, meaning that the new registered variety must differ from other registered varieties. Distinction is merely a consequence of homogeneity.

[6] Shull’s second article (January 1909a) is almost entirely contained in his first one. It adds the revolutionary breeding technique he had in mind from the very beginning. In January 1908, he could not reveal it because he had not yet performed a crucial experiment. This postponement will be explained later.

[7] The isolation technique requires variations (plentiful in the case of maize varieties) and a method to clone them. The origin of variations is irrelevant.

[8] The choice of the “female” plant has no bearing on the hybrid resulting from the cross of the pure lines.

[9] “Elementary species” is a pre-Mendelian expression designating homozygous plants. Shull uses the modern expression pure lines or pure strains.

[10] Self-fertilization is the most extreme form of inbreeding.

[11] In March 1909, Edward East challenged Shull’s priority of the revolutionary hybrid technique by adding a causal explanation to Shull’s observed correlations between heterozygosity and vigor. Hybrid vigor was due to a “stimulation to development” “when two strains differing in gametic structure are combined” (East, 1909:177). He formulated some explanatory hypotheses, “chemical compounds found in different strains that react when brought together,” “a biological action analogous to ionization.” (Ibid.:178). These were assumptions “out of the blue,” but Shull could not dispose of them without undermining his revolutionary breeding technique.

[12] Overdominance (for which there is no physiological explanation) is reminiscent of the fabled yeti, with the difference that the search goes on because it is the ideological pillar of hybridization.

[13] Hybrid breeders were in the situation of Jerome Bruner’s famous experiment where subjects are asked to identify playing cards, some of them with the color changed—a red spade for instance. It takes several presentations before subjects manage to see the trick cards. Since a red spade cannot exist, it cannot be seen.

[14] In 1997, CIMMYT (International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) organized a massive international symposium on heterosis in crops. Participants unanimously agreed that heterosis was ill-defined and that its genetics remained impenetrable. One of the authors, Coors went as far as it was possible: “In a practical sense, though, knowledge of the genetics of heterosis has not been essential for maize improvement.” Coors J. G. Selection methodologies and heterosis. CIMMYT. 1997. Book of Abstracts. The Genetics and Exploitation of Heterosis in Crops; An International Symposium. Mexico, D.F., Mexico.

[15] In the 1930’s, US farmers sowed 8 kg of seed corn per hectare. 12.5 ha are sown with a quintal of hybrid seed. Maize yields were about 25 quintals/ha. If the hybridization program increases yields by 10%, a quintal of hybrid seed is worth to the farmer the increase of production per ha multiplied by the number of hectares sown with a quintal of hybrid seed (2.5 x 12.5), which is 31 quintals of grain. Obviously, the farmer has to share this potential gain of 31 quintals of grain per quintal of hybrid seed with the hybrid seed company. Wheat was sown at the rate of 1 quintal per hectare and yielded 10 q/ha. Suppose that the hybrid wheat program increased yield by 10%. A quintal of hybrid seed wheat is worth one quintal of grain. There is nothing to be shared between the hybrid seed company and the farmer. The multiplication rate (the reverse of the seeding rate) is the key to the success of a hybridization program. All hybridized species (corn, sorghum, sugar beet, rapeseed, sunflower) have a high multiplication rate. The heterosis paradigm did not make it possible to recognize the key role of the multiplication rate.

[16] These last 6 paragraphs draw from Berlan (2002).

[17] The costs of finding, developing, and marketing new pesticides had skyrocketed in the early 1970’s, in part because health and environment toxicity tests had become more severe. Monsanto was the first to realize that the introduction of a transgenic construction neutralizing the action of a total herbicide (such as its patented Roundup®) into a crop would change it into a specific herbicide. Creating specific herbicides (or new insecticides) became very cheap.

[18] The nascent pesticide industry called itself the “economic poisons” industry as late as 1949 when it launched a referendum among its members for a more palatable name.

[19] This paragraph draws heavily on Richard Levins (1986).

Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s