The necessity for organic farmers to find methods for obtaining quality products with good yields and limited production costs is greater than for other farmers. Besides the fact that organic farmers cannot apply synthetic inputs, their use of organic fertilizers, natural pesticides and other permitted substances is uneconomical in the long-term. External inputs as such are relied upon mainly during the conversion period to organic agriculture or under exceptional circumstances. The comparative advantage of certain breeds to withstand local natural stress, especially in marginal areas, leads organic farmers to adopt biodiversity management as their main productive strategy.
This has stimulated organic farmers to use species, varieties and breeds better adapted to local climatic conditions and more resistant to pests and diseases. This has led to the restoration of many traditional varieties and breeds that are better adapted to local environments and has indirectly generated a significant contribution to agricultural biodiversity. A few centres of public and private research are now collaborating with farmers in the search for such species, varieties and breeds.
The first case illustrates the rescue, in Germany, of an old variety of wheat with a vegetative cycle that allows the absorbency of nitrogen available in the soil, improving the quality of the grain. The second example describes the rescue of the Maremmana cattle, on the verge of extinction, due to its suitability to grow in marshy environments of Italy. The thirs case describes the re-establishment of native chicken in South Africa, due to their resistance to disease. The fourth case describes the techniques adopted and the complexity of the permaculture system that provided a solution to desertification in Brazil.
Sandy soils are quite common in Lower Saxonia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg (around Darzau), Germany. Combined with spring rains, soil nitrogen is easily washed away. As this cannot be compensated for in organic systems by the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farmers find it difficult to produce the quality standards for wheat (especially gluten content) demanded by mills and bakers for the production of organic foods.
In order to find a solution to the problem and improve the quality of organic wheat produced in the area, the Cereal Breeding Research Station Darzau is carrying out a project entitled Quality Wheat Project for Organic Agriculture on Sandy Soils. Under the umbrella of the Association for Goetheanistic Research, the criteria for cereal breeding at the research station have been developed following biodynamic farming techniques. Specific attention is paid to soil fertility, natural manures, weed competitiveness and seed-corn diseases, together with nutritional quality. Once important old or new characteristics of cereals have been identified, these varieties or species are entered into breeding programmes, aiming to enhance production under modern farming practices.
The research station is undertaking field experiments involving many varieties, several selected from the gene bank at Braunschweig-Voelkenrode. Field trials have shown that the loss of nitrogen during the winter months can be minimized by early sowing in autumn. For this purpose it is necessary to have wheat varieties that do not develop too quickly before winter (as this would lead to losses during winter), but would on the other hand, develop sufficiently to suppress competing weeds (such as Apera spica-venti L.). Fast development in spring, as observed with the old Austrian variety "Staatzer", resulted in successful suppression of competing weeds as wheat shadowed the soil already early in the year. Field experiments showed that with this variety, even under poor conditions, it was possible to reach the qualities that the bakers and millers are requesting.
Breeding activities also aim to find a more favourable relationship between gluten content, yield and sedimentation value (the sedimentation value quantifies the swelling ability and the ability of the proteins to aggregate). Selection of varieties with high sedimentation values could improve the gluten contents of wheat by approximately 22 percent.
The station researchers have also networked with other breeders in order to develop, exchange and test locally adapted wheat varieties for organic conditions in different locations of Central Europe. For five years, five initiatives tested old and new varieties and developed new breeding lines, through an interchange at each location. These activities led to the development of new criteria for wheat varieties suitable for organic agriculture and to exchange of information on breeding problems. It became soon apparent that it was impossible to obtain a single variety that was suitable for the diversity of organic growing conditions in the entire region. For example, the availability of manure depends on the number of cows per hectare, which is in turn is dependent upon the fodder harvest that does vary according to a specific location rainfall, temperature and soils conditions. All theses factors affect wheat quality, directly or directly. The results of this collaborative effort suggest that more biodiversity is required for organic agriculture and that organic agriculture requires more varieties of locally adapted wheat.
The research station also aims to work on resistance or tolerance in relation to seed-corn fungal stinking smut or common bunt disease Tilletia caries. Other research in this matter suggests that conventional breeding programmes often pay little attention to the characteristics which can be of special importance to organic farmers. For example in the conventional "value for cultivation and use trials", breeders often choose wheat varieties that yield a few kilograms more, and not varieties which are less susceptible to for instance Septoria, that can be controlled by fungicides.
Contrary to the conventional approach, a healthy crop is of more importance when breeding for organic agriculture. Other characteristics of interest to organic crops and ignored by the conventional breeding programmes include cereal varieties with a reasonable length of straw; this is because soil born fungi (such as Fusarium and Septoria) are less likely to harm crop varieties with longer stems.
A further question that needs consideration refers to the protein quality of wheat regarding human nutrition. Which relationships between the different protein components should be aimed for? How can the quality demands of millers and bakers be combined with high value for human nutrition? These questions are currently under investigation.
The Maremmana race is a robust breed of cattle, directly descended from Bos taurus macreceros, originating from the Asiatic steppes. Through the course of the centuries the Maremmana cattle have adapted to the marshy and malarial environment of Maremma (part of Tuscany and Lazio, central Italy). Thanks to its extraordinarily robust characteristics it has been used above all for working in the fields and for the transport of marble from the mines of the area.
This animal has the capacity to feed and develop in areas where other races have difficulty in surviving. It is little troubled by diseases, is long lived and is characterized by cows with good maternal instincts. It is not uncommon to find cows over 20 years old that have produced between 13 and 15 calves during their productive life. The animal lives outdoors all year round and is sufficiently nourished by grazing herbaceous plants and bushes.
With additional payments available for areas subject to flooding, the mechanization of agriculture and the appearance of races more specialized in meat production, the Maremmana cattle began to face a crisis and was on the verge of extinction.
Thanks to the suitability of the Maremmana race to marshy environments, the situation is now changing. Following the entry of agri-environmental measures in 1992 (EU Regulation 2078/92), incentives are provided to protect animals threatened of extinction and to ecological agriculture. Livestock owners and regional governments have therefore began to revive interest in the development of Maremmana cattle. The race has now been included in the rural development plans of the regions of Tuscany and Lazio. Livestock keepers raising this cattle are now receive financial compensation to the reduction in meat yield of this animal, which is bonier as compared to other types of cattle.
Farmers can also benefit from the European Union Community Regulation 1804/1999 that regulates the production of organic livestock. The raising of Maremmana cattle easily falls within this regulation. The exponential demand for organic meat after the "mad cow" crisis has also further stimulated livestock owners to raise cattle in an organic manner.
One of these organic farms is "Alberese Natura", in the Uccellina Park, extending over 3 000 ha (of which 1 000 ha of forest) and raising with complete freedom 500 Maremmana cows. This farm offers an ideal performance test centre for the production of Maremmana cattle. Together with cattle, the farm produces organically: forage barley, maize and beans for feeding the cattle, durum what for the production of pasta, sunflowers, flax, millet and horticultural crops.
Following the adoption of the EU Regulation for organic livestock (1999), the number of heads of Maremmana cattle has been increasing: in 2000, 5 840 cattle heads were registered in the "genealogical book" of Lazio, Marche and Tuscany. Despite the fact that the yield of meat of this animal in the abattoir is less than for other races, rearing of Maremmana cattle is highly profitable. It achieves higher market prices than conventional breeds as its meat is sold as organic meat while at the same time the cost of production is much less.
In South Africa, an estimated 70 percent of the rural population are classified as poor and many are locked into poverty and subsistence farming. Poultry production is a very important source of animal protein in subsistence agriculture.
In the past few years, programmes aimed at increasing animal protein production have proposed intensive poultry breeding as the solution. Besides causing a reduction in native and locally adapted breeds, they have generally failed at household level due to the high level of losses (often reaching 80 percent) of chicks before they reach maturity. Newcastle disease is prevalent in the area and cyclic outbreaks have had devastating effects. Although vaccines are available, no organized or systematic vaccination campaign has been undertaken. Poor nutrition, a lack of protection and predation are also contributing factors to high losses. In South Africa, Newcastle disease, which had caused serious problems in 1994, regressed in 1995 and again in 1996. However, it has still not been eradicated because isolated outbreaks have been observed in chicken and ostrich production units in several regions of the country17.
Although many native birds grow more slowly, they are good layers, have genes adapted to survival in extreme conditions, are less choosy about what they eat and are more resistant to disease; these characteristics make them more suitable for poor farmers. Their meat has a good flavour and texture. Following the devastation caused by Newcastle disease, these indigenous birds were used to re-establish the poultry population.
These bird native properties, acquired over hundreds of years, are important for future breeding and should be conserved. In 1994, the Animal Improvement Institute of the Agriculture Research Council founded the Fowls for Africa project, which neatly links the task of saving old breeds with the fight against hunger in southern Africa. The project is based on the idea of "conservation through utilization", combining the production of poultry birds with know-how and research. With the help of regional Poultry Supply Centres the Fowls for Africa project focused on supporting farmers. The primary aim was to produce protein at low cost through the utilization of suitable breeds and appropriate technology.
The breeding programme follows organic approaches and birds are free-range. The system also includes the use of movable chicken coops, allowing them to be moved frequently. Where the chickens leave their manure, the soil is well fertilized and vegetables are planted. Four poultry breeds (i.e. Potchefstroom Koeloek, Ovambo, Venda and Naked Neck) and two other poultry breeds (i.e. Black Australorp and New Hampshire) were identified as suitable for small farmers. Theses breeds are in fact well adapted to survival under harsh, low-input conditions with only basic requirements of shelter, feed, water and hygiene.
Anyone interested in taking part in the programme can follow a training course and obtain credit from a recognized financial institution. The Fowls for Africa network supplies the software, the necessary background information, training and veterinary care, and also the hardware (i.e. the poultry and additional materials such as chicken coops).
Initially, the project had the objective of saving the biodiversity of autochthonous races of chicken and combating hunger in the rural population by giving support to development projects. However, it was also demonstrated to be equally useful for the provision of breeding animals for organic farms, for ecotourism and in educational and research institutions.
In the North East of Brazil there is a large semi-arid region of 900 000 square kilometres. Much of this region is severely degraded due to large-scale deforestation, ploughing, and goat herding beyond the carrying capacity of the land.
Rain in this region is erratic, often coming in downpours followed by long dry periods even in the rainy season. In spite of this, farmers plant corn and beans which are dependent on rain, practically programming themselves for agricultural failure. Agriculture in this region is collapsing and many men and women have migrated to the slums of Sao Paulo in search of employment. This physical and economic collapse has been accompanied by a general depression and disbelief in the potential of the region; unless one has sophisticated irrigation equipment, however, this is also unsustainable due to high costs and dwindling water reserves.
Marsha Hanzi is a professional permaculture teacher and consultant, with long experience in agroforestry. On travelling out to the drylands of Bahia, she pointed out that the problem of crop failure was not the lack of rain but rather the lack of strategies to maintain the water on the land. Castor (Ricinus communis), a major crop of the area, was planted with very large spacing. The constant dry wind blew unimpeded down these corridors. At the same time, she noticed that other fields, where pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan), cassava, elephant grass (for fodder) and local fruit trees had been planted, were surviving under extreme conditions.
The idea emerged to plant all of these crops together in one field, maximising the use of space. This improved the performance of the caster crop thanks to greater soil moisture conservation and fertility, due to intercropping with leguminous plants. The soil was covered at all times, combining high and low growing plants, short and long-season crops as well as trees to protect the land over the long dry season.
From these ideas, the Polyculture Project was born in 1999, run by the Bahian Permaculture Institute and VITA, an agency involved in sustainable agricultural development. In 2001 the project boasted 47 demonstration fields on farmers' plots and worked directly with 1 000 farmers.
The polyculture model adopted is based on castor bean and sisal (Agave sisalana) associated with maize, beans, sesame, sunflower and pigeon peas. To these are added short, medium and tall legumes for nitrogen fixation and production of organic mass, such as jackbeans (Canavalia sp.), leucena and gliricidia trees. Finally, native and adapted fruits and lumber trees are planted together with native legumes and fodder plants, guaranteeing that even in the worst years the farmer will harvest something from the fields.
The results were far beyond expectations, doubling castor production in the first year, as compared to neighbouring fields, and offering a number of food products for the farmers from space that otherwise would have been empty. Farmers are now organizing the sale of surplus food products. These have the advantage of being organic and as such, are more appreciated by the consumer in the markets of the cities of Santana and Salvador.
14 Source: Cereal Breeding Research Darzau, 2000. The Quality Winter Wheat Project for Organic Farming on Sandy Soils;
Mueller Karl-Josef, 2002. Developing Criteria for Breeding and Breeding Itself of Cereals for Organic Farming in Northern Germany. Cereal Breeding Research Darzau (www.darzau.de/en/projects/quality_wheat.htm).
15 Sources: Slow Food, 2001. La vacca Maremmana. In: L'Arca, Quaderni dei Presidi;
Giannone Mario, 2002. La ferrea dieta della Maremmana. In: A-Z Bio.
16 Sources: FAO, 1999. Programme Framework for the Republic of South Africa for Food Security. Special Programme for Food Security;
Frei Berthould Annette, 2002. Noel Honeyborne. In: Slow Ark , Magazine of the International Slow Food Movement.
17 United States Animal Health Association, 1997. Animal Disease Status Worldwide Reports.
18 Encyclopaedia of Sustainability, 2001. Polyculture in the Brazilian Drylands.