Summary – Agriculture: Land Sharing and Plant Breeding
Workshop: Agriculture: Organic Plant Breeding. What can European citizens do about plant varieties and seeds?
Number of participants: 16
Andreas Biesantz (Demeter International EU Liaison Office Brussels)
René Groenen is a biodynamic farmer and organic plant breeder working in The Netherlands, and he is board member of Kultursaat e.V. in Germany.
René Groenen reported about the development of farming and breeding in the last decades. He pointed out that the seed market is meanwhile dominated by only a few big companies. These companies produce mainly varieties (for instance GMO and F1 hybrids) which are not suitable for organic farming. Therefore the organic sector needs to establish much more organic breeding. It is estimated that at present 90-95 % of vegetable varieties used in organic farming in Europe derive from conventional breeding, i.e. not from organic breeding.
He explained what organic plant breeding means and how it works. Organic plant breeding is developing “open pollinated” vegetable varieties. These varieties are genetically stable over years and are not restricted when it comes to pollination (whereas conventionally bred F1 hybrids are not stable and split up in the F2 generation). They are able to adjust to different environments and locations because they are “polygenetic” (whereas conventional varieties are usually genetically uniform, i.e. “monogenetic”). Organic breeding takes place on the “whole plant level”, not only in the lab or on the cell level. The plants are studied and selected in their natural and social environment from the beginning until the end of the whole growing circle.
In spite of the explanations above a representative of the plant breeding industry asked what organic breeding has to offer which is beyond conventional breeding. René Groenen stated that for instance contrary to conventional breeding the concept of organic breeding results in producing varieties which are “tolerant” to different stress factors, not only “resistant”.
It was concluded that organic food consumers should become more aware of the lack of organically bred varieties and take their responsibility as decisive actors in the food chain to help to improve the situation. One step is not to buy seeds and varieties in supermarkets, but in organic or farmers’ shops and ask there always for open pollinated varieties. Another step is to contact organic plant breeding associations like for instance Kultursaat e.V. in Germany to support their breeding efforts. Organic farming associations and other actors have to organise seminars, workshops and demonstration days to inform consumers.
Retailers and wholesalers could also support organic plant breeding. As an innovative example a project of the Dutch organic food retailer Estafette Odin was mentioned which finances organic breeding and involves consumers.
The “open source” model (breeders give others free access to use their seeds and varieties) was also discussed. Speaking for Kultursaat e.V. René Groenen stated that it is not easy to realise this model for various reasons, but it is definitely an aim of the association as seeds should become a “common good” in the future.
EU institutions are at present in the process of revising the regulation for organic production (Council Regulation EC No. 834/2007). The European Commission demands in its proposal that from 2021 on all seeds used in organic farming should be organic. Up to now organic farmers can still legally use conventionally bred seeds, if organic seeds are not available. This sword of Damocles means another challenge for the organic sector to drastically increase organic breeding efforts.
Dr. Andreas Biesantz
EU Liaison Office Brussels