The History of Plant Breeding

Well into the middle of the 19th century farmers retained a portion of the harvest each year as seed for the following year’s cultivation. They selected those seeds that appeared to the eye to be the most suitable. Over the centuries this so-called mass selection has gradually resulted in increased yields and improvements in quality and plant health. This is how local varieties have evolved.

At the beginning of the 19th century scientific pronouncements on the origin of species caused a public sensation.

The first edition of Charles Darwin’s "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859. In 1866 Gregor Mendel, the Benedictine monk, published the scientific foundation for the post-crossing segregation of offspring that results in a greater variety enabling breeders to discover new, improved combinations. Both discoveries have contributed greatly to the development of scientifically supported plant breeding.

In 1859 at KWS’s headquarters in Kleinwanzleben near Magdeburg, Matthias Rabbethge jun. became the first person in Germany to select beets for seed extraction by ascertaining the specific weight according to sugar content.

The first private breeding enterprises emerged in the second half of the 19th century. Many originated at farms and have specialised in specific plant species

Currently there are about 50 companies in Germany with their own breeding programs. The predominantly medium-sized companies have amalgamated to form the Federal Association of German Plant Breeders (Bundesverband der Deutschen PflanzenzŁchter e.v. (BDP)).

Since the middle of the 50s KWS has been breeding maize and sugar beet varieties using breeding methods developed in the USA in 1918. The heterosis technique is employed: the combination of unrelated pure-bred lines leads to increased performance in the offspring.

By producing pure-bred lines and then crossing them breeders seek to breed varieties that possess as many of the desired traits as possible required for sowing in the prevailing conditions.

Since the 60s sugar beet has been the focus for intense hybrid breeding.