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Organically bred seed varieties and their contribution to agro-biodiversity

We were fortunate to have Lina Lasithiotaki, Communication Officer at Demeter-International in Brussels, join us at the European Community Exchange in Barcelona, this September. Lina is deeply passionate about campaigning for better legal frameworks around organic farming and organic seed breeding. Her fresh insights inspired me to invite Lina to write an opinion piece for Biodiversity – a Journal of Life on Earth (the scientific journal I edit) around the theme of organically bred seed varieties and their contribution to agro-biodiversity. To my delight, Lina wrote the following article, of which I wanted to share with you all. If you would like to get in touch with Lina, she can be contacted at: – Introduction by Nessie Reid, GEN & GESA Coordinator

The current industrial agricultural system requires uniform seed varieties, most of the time hybrids, bred for high yields, relying heavily on external inputs such as pesticides and mineral fertilizers. Therefore, multinationals put their efforts into conventional plant breeding, which mainly aims to breed varieties for the uniform conditions of high-input agriculture. Those varieties often lack the ability to adapt to different environments due to their limited genetic diversity coming from conventional breeding.

Although genetic diversity is of utmost importance for agro-biodiversity and food security, nowadays there are severe losses. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in the past 100 years approximately 75% of crop diversity has been lost. Previously the global population was fed from 7,000 plant varieties whereas today, 30 crops supply 90-95 % of our food supply worldwide. In parallel to that, there is an increasing domination of few cultivars in farming and 75% of the seed supply is concentrated in the hands of three multinationals.

Diversity is an essential factor for the adaptation of all living organisms for coping with climate change and any kind of unpredictable environmental condition. The more diversity that exists in a group increases the possibilities to survive under adverse conditions. Concerning seeds, the only ecological way to counter the threats (pests, diseases, climate change) is to preserve their genetic diversity and in this way, maintain their ability to adapt.

Seeds are fundamentally the basis of all our food. Seeds, along with being an exchangeable commodity, are also our cultural heritage and the outcome of local diversities containing different plant varieties. Humanity has an obligation towards nature to respect seeds. Reflecting on what can grow from a small seed, we can come to realize the life force and power which is concentrated in it and its genetic treasure. When we neglect these assets in the name of profit, we put these admirable properties at risk. So yes, we most definitely do need diversity in seeds to secure the future of human and plant generations to come, preserve agro-biodiversity and promote food security.

The question is what alternatives exist to the current situation and how can seeds contribute to agro-biodiversity? As an alternative to conventional breeding, there is organic and biodynamic plant breeding. The latter began at the end of the 20thcentury. Both organic and biodynamic breeding are costly and time-consuming processes – the development of a new variety can take 10-15 years – in which the parental plants grow over generations under organic conditions, and cross-breeding and selection has taken place under such conditions, too. The chief focus is upon diversity and the end result seeds are many times open- pollinated varieties, which are rich in genetic diversity, thus also able to adapt and sustain biodiversity. Moreover, in general they possess superior taste and are of high nutritive value: important properties which are often reduced and neglected in conventional breeding when ‘high yield’ is the main goal. The outcome of organic breeding processes is organically bred varieties. An organically bred open-pollinated variety can contribute to agro-biodiversity because it is a new genotype that can cross-breed with other varieties. The term ‘organically bred varieties’ is different than ‘organically produced seeds’; the latter means, that only one generation has been grown under organic conditions, but it does not necessarily derive from organic plant breeding.

Also, organic plant breeding provides farmers with varieties adapted to organic farming and although it is a developing sector mainly in the Northern and Western European countries, it is essential to provide organic farmers with modern varieties suited to organic agriculture. In addition to this, organic plant breeding contributes to organic farming goals such working in accordance with organic systems and to have a positive impact on biodiversity – as organic breeders work with a broader genetic base than conventional breeders. Often, it goes hand in hand with the conservation of traditional and local varieties which is an important activity to keep a broad range of genetic resources alive. Conservation of varieties is a different practice targeted to preserve a specific variety, but not to improve it.

Let’s raise awareness among all actors in the food chain, including consumers and citizens, about the importance of organic plant breeding for maintaining and increasing agro-biodiversity for the benefit of mankind, nature and the environment! 

Working towards that aim, Demeter-International e.V Liaison Office has initiated the three-year project ‘Promoting organic plant breeding in Europe’ (2016- 2018).

Copyright: This article was originally published in Biodiversity – a Journal of Life on Earth.

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