The objectives of selection for the development of varieties for organic agriculture differ from those for conventional agriculture. It is of crucial importance to utilize the genotype potential for an improved adaptation of varieties to the low-input conditions prevailing in organic agriculture.
Breeding for high performance and selecting for early maturity have led to increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, joint inflammation and mastitis as well as circulatory, metabolic and fertility problems of livestock. Loss of breeds is exacerbated by the narrowing genetic base of modern breeds and hybrid lines. The trend towards inbreeding increases the degree of genetic uniformity in the animals and hence, susceptibility to infection, parasites or epidemics.
The majority of crop varieties available on the commercial market are not suitable for organic cultivation methods as they have been selected for production dependent on large quantities of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Many of these are also hybrids and are not open pollinated. In the last few years, the problem has worsened following the arrival on the market of genetically modified varieties.
Limitations and threats associated with crops has stimulated many organic farmers, especially in the horticulture sector, to produce their own seeds. In order to do this, they have often had to rescue local varieties and develop their own system of selection and distribution. These empirical systems have been based on the selection of individuals better adapted to the local environment and that are more resistant to pests and diseases. In many cases, the systems include the exchange of seeds between farmers as a fundamental instrument (e.g. organic seed fairs). In other cases, the tastes of the consumers have also been taken into consideration, as is the case of La Verde Cooperative, Andalusia, Spain.
Many of these systems have demonstrated interesting results in the selection of varieties suitable for low external-input situations. The selection systems developed by organic farmers have restored and improved local varieties. These varieties often present a high degree of genetic variability and as such, these systems have played an important role in the in situ conservation of agricultural biodiversity through cultivation and production. This has since been studied by research centres specialized in the selection of seeds and plants. For example, in Cuba, these studies are being used as the basis for the refinement of methodologies for the selection of varieties for low-input situations.
Historically, farmers have managed many varieties and breeds according to agronomic and culinary properties. Considering the need for a wide gene pool to improve and multiply genetic resources for food and agriculture, seeds ad breeds from the formal and informal sectors should be included harmoniously in local and national breeding programmes. Benefits derived from new varieties bred by farmers require a legal system of common ownership that allows equitable access and benefits sharing. The biodynamic network of farmers and breeders in Germany provides an example of how such a system could be organized.
The cooperative "La Verde" in Villamartin, Cadiz, Spain, was founded in 1987 when a group of day labourers linked to the farm workers syndicate decided to organize themselves to overcome the precarious labour situation in which they found themselves.
From the outset they followed methods of production that respected the natural environment and which equally integrated women in the cooperative. The main concern was the restoration of traditional cultivation techniques and the transmission of the knowledge generated. Their decision to cultivate following methods of organic agriculture arise on one side from the negative effects of conventional agriculture on health and the natural environment and on the other, from the few market opportunities that conventional agriculture offered them.
In 2000, the cooperative cultivated 13 hectares of horticultural crops and employed seven people. The cooperative sells the majority of it products directly through the local market, complementing this with sales through consumers associations.
One of the problems that the cooperative has been facing since the beginning has been the lack of commercial varieties adapted for organic agriculture. For this reason, one of the practices adopted was the restoration of local varieties of horticultural crops, better adapted to the system of organic agriculture. This has involved the exchange of seeds with other farmers and the selection of seeds on the basis of a number of criteria, principally resistance to distinct adversities and the taste of local consumers.
Other organic cooperative activities highlighted the necessity for a long-term project for the restoration of traditional varieties. With the help of the Institute of Sociology and Farming Studies at the University of Cordoba, the Council of the Assembly of Andalusia and the Syndicate of farm workers of Andalusia, a research project was initiated in 1988. The project entitled "Study of the potential use of local varieties of horticultural crops for organic agriculture" was concentrated on the process of agro-ecological use of biodiversity by local farmers in two zones of Andalusia: Sierra de Grazalema (Cadiz) and Antequera.
The project was carried out in a participatory fashion and following objectives linked to the management of plant genetic resources in line with the necessities of the cooperative and the rest of the organic agriculture sector. The project included 63 of the most common local varieties of horticultural crops in the area (e.g. tomatoes, aubergine, bell peppers, water melon, melon, lettuce, courgette, squash and carrot) and involved:
The strategy followed takes into consideration not only the characteristics of the varieties but also the values of the consumers and the contribution of farmers. Members of the cooperative were responsible for deciding what varieties could be used directly for production and above all, what varieties and characteristics they will continue working with in their selection.
The activities of La Verde cooperative in the restoration and use of suitable local varieties of horticultural crops for organic agriculture has formed the basis of a project for the in situ restoration of the genetic biodiversity of distinct varieties of horticultural crops. The empirical selection criteria adopted by the organic farmers has allowed the maintenance in cultivation of local varieties, but has also permitted researchers to elaborate a valid system of in situ conservation that includes an active role for farmers and consumers.
Since the beginning of the economic crisis in 1989, the Cuban Government has attempted to reduce the negative impact of the lack of inputs for agriculture. National strategies have been implemented to accelerate research and its application in areas including biological control, crop rotations and polycultures. This has resulted in major changes in some of the goals of Cuban plant breeding and a search for more appropriate methods of participatory plant breeding.
Pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) in Cuba is very popular for culinary and medicinal properties, taste, beta-carotene content and use in some religious ceremonies. With the drastic reduction of chemical inputs and artificial irrigation, the abrupt decrease in productivity resulted in pumpkins disappearing from the market.
Research into the pumpkin provides a clear example of how plant breeding systems changed in response to these constraints. Initially the use of conventional seeds was maintained, but substantial yield reductions necessitated a change in response. After exploring new seed varieties from international seed companies to little avail, landraces from diverse sources within Cuba were investigated. Cuba then began a system of participatory plant breeding whereby trials were conducted by farmers themselves on their own land in collaboration with researchers.
This change in approach stimulated discussions into the efficiency, advantages and weakness of chemical as compared to organic inputs and on their application in approaches to plant breeding within the country. In terms of energy consumption, inputs used on farm and farmers' participation, the collaborative effort towards crop improvement under low-input conditions was much more efficient in terms of energy use. Notably, the yield obtained under the low-input system was comparable to yields under the conventional, high-input technology package (i.e. 6-8 tonnes per hectare).
Pumpkin varieties were maintained and their seed multiplied through cross-pollination (rather than isolation) and honey bees were frequently used. Farmers participation allowed on-farm selection of half sib families (rather than contracted seed production), screening germplasm, facilitating availability of new germplasm and evaluation of varieties with farmers.
Working on farm with farmers provided two important insights. First, wide genotype variability of useful traits exists and has been documented among pumpkin landraces grown under low-input conditions. Second, it is possible to increase production by selecting directly for fruit yield under low-input conditions. Under this experience, plant breeders offered a bridge between the plant genetic resources conserved in gene banks and farmers, and the opportunity to screen those resources. Clearly, farmers' agricultural knowledge and skills was an inspiration to develop a new, collaborative approach towards a more efficient use of inputs such as energy, more profitable crop production and maintenance of greater genetic diversity in situ.
A Participatory Plant Breeding for Strengthening Agrobiodiversity is now on-going to investigate how such alternative practices can rebuild, improve and distribute biodiversity in Cuba. Interesting results of farmers experimentation are already apparent on research for maize resistant to fallarmy worm (Spodoptera frugiperda) and beans with good productivity under low-input conditions.
The disappearance of open-pollinated varieties and more recently, the development of gene technology and its multinational structure are the main drives for establishing breeding methods and cultivars suited to organic agriculture and organic markets.
For over 15 years now, the Association for Biodynamic Vegetable Plant Breeding (Kultursaat) in Germany has been working on biodynamic plant breeding and seed production. This is done through a network of farmers, breeders, a seed company and the Kultursaat Association (see attachment 1). The objectives of the Network are the following:
The activity of plant breeding is returned to farmers themselves. Practical care of plants, their propagation, testing of new varieties and maintenance is best applied by farmers. Farmers build up on their experience and knowledge of crops and cultivation methods. Breeders and farmers practice, at the farm level, breeding methods that both achieve quality and respond to the specific needs of organic agriculture (see attachment 2). Since maintenance and breeding are integrated in the vegetable production and that the most applied breeding technique is positive mass selection, the additional work to the farmer is relatively small.
Breeding and selection skills are provided by the Kultursaat Association through regular meetings and, if necessary, through individual training from experienced farmers working on the same crops. Meetings are held once a year at the regional level and three times a year at national level. During these meetings, farmers share knowledge on botanical and breeding issues, develop new ideas and exchange experiences and breeding lines. International exchange is starting within Europe and there are plans to further extend it.
Since the Association receives financial support from donations, some of the farmers are paid for full-time breeding activities. This allows establishing broader breeding programmes and research. The new varieties generated from these programmes can be registered directly or can be given to other breeders/farmers in different areas for adaptation to different growing conditions.
With regards conservation of biodiversity, it is not sufficient to preserve varieties in seed banks, or just on-farm. A constant and proper selection effort is necessary to maintain varieties value as well as adaptation to specific growing conditions. The maintenance of one variety in different places will create new varieties within a few generations. Therefore, more diversity is created, according to different biophysical conditions.
Research experience has so far demonstrated that most varieties (e.g. cereals) do best under the conditions under which they were bred. This is especially true in terms of resilience to adversities which are bound to the place of origin. Cultivation under different natural conditions takes 3 to 5 generations to regain resilience. The general condition of the variety, however, is not to be discounted when evaluating its likely adaptability.
Breeding methods are based on diversification and regional adaptation, including:
The organic seed company was founded and is partly owned by the farmers/breeders. The seed company looks after cleaning, quality testing and distribution. The Kultursaat Association coordinates plant breeding and provides financial support, payment of registration and testing fees. To date, Kultursaat has bred more than 20 new (registered) varieties (e.g. carrots, cabbage, spinach). Most importantly, the Association is the owner of new varieties, which ensures common ownership and benefit sharing among all participants.
Recently, the breeding and selection network is expanding to other European countries (i.e. Austria, Italy, Switzerland and United Kingdom): ideas, experiences, varieties and breeding lines are shared to provide a widely available open-pollinated assortment of vegetable seeds of high quality.
19 Sources: Soriano Niebla Juan José, 2000. In situ/On Farm Conservation of Vegetables Landraces;
Figueroa Zapata M., et al, 2000. Recuperación de variedades locales para la agricultura ecológica;
Soriano Niebla Juan José, 2001. Manejo agroecológico de recursos genéticos.
20 Rios Labrada H., D. Soleri and D.A. Cleveland, 2002. Conceptual Changes in Cuban Plant Breeding in Response to a National Socio-Economic Crisis: the Example of Pumpkins. In: Farmers, Scientists and Plant Breeding, CAB International 2002. pp 213-237.
21 Henatsch C., 2002. Organic Farming Needs Organic Plant Breeding: a Network for Independent Seed Production and Plant Breeding. In: Cultivating Communities. Proceedings of the 14th IFOAM Organic World Congress, Victoria, Canada, August 2002 (p. 300).