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Research, Extension and Training Division

Environment and Natural Resources Service

Nadia El-Hage Scialabba


Nadia El-Hage Scialabba

FAO Environment and Natural Resources Service

[email protected]

Cristina Grandi

Associazione Italiana per l’Agricoltura Biologica (AIAB),

Rome, Italy

[email protected]

Christina Henatsch

Association for Biodynamic Vegetable Plant Breeding (Kultursaat), Germany

[email protected]


The authors are very grateful to Caroline Hattam for translation of the Spanish text.


Scope of this paper

Farm specialization and the general abandonment of mixed farming is a significant factor in the decline of biodiversity, including genetic resources for food and agriculture and wildlife, and of the disintegration of traditional and community-based management. The adoption of high-yielding, uniform cultivars has led to a considerable reduction in the number of genetically viable species used in agriculture. Many food crop varieties have virtually disappeared from their centres of diversity.

There is now an increasing body of evidence that organic agriculture supports a much higher level of biodiversity than conventional farming systems, including species that have significantly declined. This paper addresses the contribution of organic agriculture to agricultural biodiversity, including genetic resources for food and agriculture. The positive impact of organic agriculture on wildlife (e.g. soil organisms, arable flora, predatory invertebrates, pollinators, birds) and in creating and connecting habitats that enhance nature conservation is outside the scope of this paper. The adverse impact of genetically modified organisms on organic agriculture is also outside the scope of this paper.

The cases presented in this document illustrate how organic agriculture, to be viable, is reversing the decline in species diversity as well as abundance of each species. If biodiversity is to be maintained, it should be an integral part of a healthy landscape where not only diversity but also abundance is a fundamental factor.

What is organic agriculture?

The close relationship between organic agriculture and agricultural biodiversity is expressed at the philosophical and theoretical levels in the basic principles, standards and regulations that govern organic agriculture and by the practical experiences of organic farmers around the world.

According to the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Guidelines for Organic Food “Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances ecosystem health, including biological cycles and soil biological activity ... The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimise the health and productivity of inter-dependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people”.

The adoption of organic agriculture methods requires farmers to follow a series of agronomic practices (e.g. essentially rotations and associations of a large number of plants and animals) that make organically managed systems biologically much more complex than conventionally managed systems. The organic agriculture system relies on the creation and maintenance of conditions that positively nurture the health of crops and livestock and on harnessing of natural processes (instead of using artificial inputs). Many involve the positive use of biodiversity, thus making the conservation of biodiversity an integral part of the farming activity.

Reasons for the adoption of organic agriculture

There are millions of small farmers in developing countries who do not have the economic means to buy high yielding seeds or the fertilizers and pesticides necessary for their cultivation. Many of them have opted for the maintenance or re-introduction of organic systems based on traditional forms of agriculture. These promote the use of varieties that are better adapted to local biotic and abiotic conditions (e.g. biological control of pests and diseases, climatic stress).

Convincing farmers to adopt organic agricultural techniques is not a difficult task. Many farmers, besides cultivating high yielding varieties that require large amounts of off-farm inputs, have continued to plant a part of their land with crops for self-consumption, using natural methods.

In developed countries, the role of organic agriculture in the restoration and maintenance of species, varieties and breeds risking extinction has also led many organizations or individuals to adopt this system to save genetic, species and ecosystem diversity. Conservation efforts, through organic management, are however even more important in centres of diversity. In these areas, cultivation of populations with high genetic variability is an indispensable inheritance for agriculture and as such, for food security for future generations.

The price premiums which organic products command (and in Northern countries, payments received for organic agriculture) give an economic value to biodiversity and to the efficient use of resources. There are farmers who farm organically because they are attracted by the strong demand for organic products. For these farmers, conversion to organic management is a way of adding value to production and obtaining better prices on the market. These farmers are required to implement a minimum level of biodiversity in order to be granted the organic label. In fact, crop rotation is the first step towards improving agricultural biodiversity. This is one of the methods required by organic certification bodies, as well as by financial support programmes. For the organic system to be economically viable, market-driven farmers are led to use local species, varieties and breeds that are more resistant to disease and local environmental conditions in order to compensate for the restriction on synthetic input use.

By choice or by necessity, organic farmers do not make use of synthetic agricultural inputs. They rather rely on the “natural inputs” by enhancing biodiversity through in situ conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources. Independent of the motives that farmers have for the adoption of organic agriculture, in every case a marked increase in biodiversity is visible. Many of these empirical systems have given satisfactory results and have since become the focus of study in research centres.

Why is biodiversity important in organic systems?

When diversity is encouraged, locally adapted plant and animal breeds which are more appropriate to local ecosystems can be used. Most importantly, agricultural genetic diversity is a basic insurance against crop and livestock disease outbreaks.

Organic farmers breed varieties for quality, nutrition, resistance and yield, in reduced input growing conditions. Research has shown that these characteristics are more likely to be found in older native cultivars. In particular, open pollinated varieties offer diverse and regionally adapted characteristics that are better suited to organic agriculture. Open pollinated varieties, which represent an important gene pool for resource-poor farmers living in marginalized and stress-prone areas, are rapidly vanishing. They are replaced by very few hybrid varieties which require inputs not available to poor farmers and which entail dependence on large seed companies. A significant proportion of local breeds remains in the care of pastoral people and traditional livestock owners in developing countries (e.g. pigs in China, cows in India and poultry in Asia and Latin America). Local breeds are robust and suitable for free ranging; however, two local breeds are becoming extinct every week.

Organic systems encourage the preservation and expansion of older, locally bred and indigenous varieties and breeds. Farmers who save their own seeds can gradually increase crop resistance to pests and diseases by breeding for “horizontal resistance”. Horizontal resistance is the ability of a crop to resist many or all strains of a particular pest (which differs from breeding for “vertical resistance” to have a gene to resist one specific strain of a disease). By exposing a population of plants to a certain disease or pest (or to several pests at one time), then selecting a group of the most resistant plants and inter-breeding them for several generations, a given population becomes more resistant than the original population. Horizontally resistant cultivars are well adapted to the environment in which they were bred, but may be less suitable for other growing conditions.

Many indigenous groups have an expert knowledge of biodiversity in their own areas. Traditionally, these groups have conserved, improved and shared genetic resources according to their food preferences and socio-economic and environmental conditions.

Case studies

Following are a series of 16 case studies, selected from published materials from diverse sources including inter-governmental, governmental and private organizations. In all of these, the close relationship between the introduction of the organic agricultural system and the maintenance of biodiversity is evident, as is the resulting improvement in the socio-economic conditions of the farmers.

The case studies are presented according to the main contribution they make to the different aspects of agricultural biodiversity, including:


In some communities, the adoption of conventional agriculture has substituted traditional cultivation systems with high biodiversity for monocrops of genetically similar individuals. In a relatively short period of time, such systems have led to environmental degradation, social disintegration and misery within the communities. However, many traditional agricultural systems that have been the basis of food security and community cultures have since been saved through organic agriculture approaches.

The introduction of organic management, based on traditional experiences and new knowledge of natural processes, has allowed the maintenance of the agro-ecological systems and has improved socio-economic conditions of rural communities, especially in environmentally vulnerable areas. These agricultural systems are also based on strong farmer participation in the decision-making process, exchange of information and distribution of benefits.

The examples below illustrate the community-based rehabilitation of abandoned and degraded agro-ecosystems, through organic agriculture, in the flood plains of Bangladesh and mountainous areas of Indonesia and Mexico. The polycultures systems established by these communities (like many others around the world) are characterized by highly diversified ecosystems and an improved agricultural biodiversity. The good markets associated with organic products have not only provided food but have also generated further community services.

Nayakrishi Andolon:
a community-based system of organic farming, Bangladesh1

In the flood plains of Bangladesh, community-based organic agriculture resulted from an increasing awareness of the harmful effects of the Green Revolution. The latter was showing a tremendous decline in crop yields despite an enormous increase in the need to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Groundwater was less available, livestock and fish populations were diminishing, the health situation was worsening (including gastric, skin and respiratory diseases) and exogenous varieties were gradually replacing traditional varieties. This forced many poor farmers to sell their land and other productive assets, shifting from farming to non-farming occupations.

Following particularly terrible floods in 1988, some farmers, together with UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives), a non-governmental organization, gathered together to seek an alternative – not just an alternative method of farming, but also community-based work, which is organic in nature. They named it Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agriculture Movement). The rationale for such a name was to indicate that this method is not "old" in a backward sense; but is a newer method, incorporating traditional knowledge and wisdom and appropriating newer ideas and "scientific" innovations that are suitable for farmers and the environment.

Initially, the peasant women took the lead in stopping the use of pesticides, mainly for health reasons. Then, a group of farmers organized themselves to experiment with green manure and compost. Compost made of water hyacinth, available in abundance, became quite popular and soon Nayakrishi Andolon spread from village to village. As experience and confidence grew, the farmers developed a set of ten simple principles for Nayakrishi farming, all focusing on the use of locally available resources to enhance the efficiency of land, water, biodiversity and energy as well as the control over seeds within the farming community.

In addition to chemical-free agricultural practices, the production of biodiversity is built-in within the Nayakrishi method of food production. As a fundamental principle of agricultural practice, Nayakrishi farmers reject monoculture and base their practices on mixed cropping and crop rotation. This has an immediate effect in overcoming the present narrow genetic base, but is also a highly effective method for pest management and the nutritional health of the soil.

In Nayakrishi villages, farmers derive more varieties of fish, together with a wide range of uncultivated crops, which either come as accompanying crops due to multiple cropping in the fields, or grow on the common land as no more herbicides are used. Livestock and poultry also develop more rapidly, thereby enriching the food security of the people. Similarly, the planting of local-variety trees is an integral part of the practice in Nayakrishi villages, which, in turn, attracts birds, butterflies and other pollinators and predators.

The local species, varieties and breeds are always preferred to those that are introduced. The strategy of Nayakrishi Andolon for the maintenance and regeneration of biodiversity and genetic resources is based on some simple rules and obligations between members. The strategic importance is in the conservation and regeneration of species and the genetic variability of the cultivated crops and homestead forestry. However, there are a large number of species and varieties that are not cultivated. The conservation and regeneration of biodiversity for these species and varieties are mainly maintained by the overall organization of Nayakrishi Andolon.

Every village where Nayakrishi is actively adopted has its own gram karmi (extension workers). Apart from networking and campaigning for Nayakrishi, gram karmi maintains audits of the natural resources of the village. This information is pooled collectively and is a vital practice in maintaining and managing the local biodiversity. The Nayakrishi farmers can easily be put on alert if it appears that any "land race" or "wild" species or variety is disappearing or being lost.

Around 65000 families from all over Bangladesh now follow Nayakrishi principles and the movement is spreading fast. Most important is the general confidence among farmers that Nayakrishi is “economically viable”, but the ecological situation is also improving, the land is regaining fertility and biodiversity is being strengthened.

Ladang cultivation of organic spices in Sumatra, Indonesia2

On the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, ruthless exploitation by forestry, fishing and extractive industries in the last decades has decreased the rich biodiversity of the region. Despite this, some areas still survive in a state close to that of pre-European colonization, mainly because of their mountainous, remote locations. Some of these areas form part of national parks that still support the rare Sumatra tiger, rhinoceros and elephant, as well as some native people following traditional lifestyles in the forest.

Many poor farmers live around these areas and use slash-and-burn techniques for the production of crops for self-sufficiency and for the market. These practices threaten the remaining forest areas and even the national parks on whose boundaries they encroach.

Thomas Fricke, a former advisor to the United Nations, World Wildlife Fund and Indonesian national parks on sustainable agriculture projects, aimed to find a solution to that problem. In 1995, he and his wife Sylvia Blanchet founded ForesTrade, an international company dedicated to preserving biodiversity through responsible trade.

In 1996 ForesTrade, in collaboration with local NGOs and the National Parks of Indonesia began the Indonesian Cassia Cinnamon Project, encouraging local farmers to stop clear-cutting the rainforest. The project focused on land bordering a national forest park, providing a buffer zone for the protection of biodiversity in the rapidly disappearing forested areas.

Some of the local people joined forces with ForesTrade, creating grower groups for the production of organic spices for the European and the United States markets. Good prices, generally a little better than could be expected from the conventional market, are paid to the farmers, together with a bonus to the local community. The community bonus is used to run training centres, nurseries and other community services.

These farmers agree to follow organic agriculture practices, avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They rely instead on composting, crop rotation and biological pest and disease control. Organic growers are not permitted to use fire for clearing their plots. All slashing and weed control is done by hand, using simple tools such as axes, hatchets, machetes or knives. Slashed matter is then reduced to mulch. Farmers also agree not to poach rainforest resources, where some farmers previously clear-cut slopes to plant crops, spoiling the environment and causing widespread erosion.

Crops are produced in a modified, traditional “home garden” or “shifting cultivation” situation. Each grower operates one or more traditional gardens (or Ladang) in which a variety of annual plants (such as potato, aubergine and onion), short-lived plants (such as cassava, banana and yam) and longer-lived plants (such as cloves and cinnamon) are produced. As the Ladang matures, the longer-lived trees dominate shading under-storey crops. These trees can be either selectively felled (e.g. cinnamon) or left to produce during their mature phase (e.g. cloves and coconuts) before the cycle is started again.

Certified-organic growers in Sumatra produce a variety of spices and essential oil crops, such as chilli, turmeric, ginger, vanilla, cloves, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg (and mace), black and white pepper, patchouli and cassia (cinnamon). They are inspected and certified by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (Australia), by the Dutch certification body SKAL or by Oregon Tilth.

In a short time approximately 3000 Sumatran farmers have begun producing organic spices for the world markets. This has led to improved socio-economic conditions for the communities while at the same time preserving biodiversity both in the national parks and in the local agro-forestry systems (garden/forest plots).

Organic coffee production and biodiversity management, Chiapas, Mexico3

At the end of the 1980s, small coffee producers (most of them Tzotzil and Tzeltal indigenous people) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the highlands of Chiapas, southern Mexico, faced a deep economical crisis due to the drop in coffee prices on the world market. Together with the disappearance of direct support for coffee growers in terms of technical assistance, marketing and financial support, this resulted in the abandonment of practices for maintaining the crop and processing the beans, leading to lower yields and product quality.

Many of these farmers organized themselves in 1983 into the Beneficio "Majomut” Coffee Growers' Union of Ejidos and Communities, a grassroots social organization with 1450 members in 25 communities. The organization was created as a means to bring together farmers in the processing and direct marketing of their coffee. Members work an average of two hectares and cultivate corn, beans and coffee. As coffee is sold, it forms the main source of family income. Gradually, work has expanded to include the entire productive process and it has become a means for organizing, managing and carrying out integral development projects for the communities.

To fight the declining price crisis, farmers were compelled to find alternatives to conventional coffee production and marketing, so they decided on organic coffee production. The conversion to organic agriculture began in 1992, and by 1995 the first organic certificate was granted. The introduction of organic techniques has been carried out through the training of community promoters who create experimental organic lots in each community as a base for the learning process and research.

Activities are based on the exchange of experiences through a farmer-to-farmer approach including: development and evaluation of agro-ecological practices, participatory research through farmers experimentation, and training of community promoters and community participation. The agents participating in the process include: communities associated with farmers’ organizations, the network of promoters, the coordinating network of small coffee growers' organizations and international cooperation agencies. The Majomut Union is also promoting work with women to strengthen participation in the organization's internal democracy.

Farmers’ extension covers the following themes: soil conservation; production of organic fertilizers; coffee pruning; management of the diversity of animal and plant species; natural control of pests and diseases; organic production of crops for self-sufficiency in maize, beans and other food species; and internal control for supervision of the organic certification of coffee and quality control of the product.

The management of biodiversity within the coffee production systems and other cultivations constitutes an example of a rich local germplasm and of knowledge applied in the design of the stratification of the vegetation. This is knowledge transmitted from generation to generation resulting from a continuous process of adaptation.

In 1995, a census was carried out on the species found in the organic coffee production systems of La Unión. The study demonstrated that in addition to coffee, there were more than 30 associated plant species of agronomic interest: fruit trees (loquat, mango, lime, guava, peach and orange), shade trees (eucalyptus, ash and pine), horticultural crops (tomato, chilli and beans), as well as medicinal and other plants used for the prevention of erosion. The benefits generated by the higher organic coffee prices were therefore accompanied by an improvement in the biodiversity of the coffee production system.


The continued cultivation of crop species within their centres of diversity plays a fundamental role in the maintenance of genetic diversity. As such, centres of diversity represent a fundamental resource not only for farmers of the present but also of the future. It is this genetic variability that allows populations to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

The introduction of organic agriculture in the two case studies below has increased the economic value of cocoa in Mexico and cotton in Peru and as such, has provided livelihoods to peasants and indigenous communities. This is a necessary basis for the maintenance of agricultural production in the centres of diversity. The creation of a market outlet for indigenous products represents, together with sustainable use, a viable way of maintaining, in situ, a diverse genetic heritage.

Organic farming for the Mayas’ chocolate, Tabasco, Mexico4

Tabasco is a very fertile, mainly flat region in the southeast of Mexico, bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It was there that the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez landed and cocoa was discovered together with the new continent. Tabasco is in fact the first place in the world where cocoa was cultivated. It was the Mayas who originally cultivated cocoa, a species that has its biological origins in Amazonia. Tabasco now produces 80 percent of Mexican cocoa. The remaining 20 percent come from nearby Chiapas.

Cocoa has a deep bond with Mexico and its culture. Today, however, its cultivation is suffering a period of crisis. The brokers of multinational companies, who have the monopoly on purchases, establish low prices from which small farmers do not earn enough to live and maintain their families. In desperation, farmers have been cutting down the tallest trees in order to earn minimal incomes from the wood. Together with this, emigration and abandonment of the countryside are undermining the socio-economic and environmental situation in the traditional cocoa-growing areas of both Tabasco and Chiapas.

In 1984 some farmers began producing organic cocoa but they faced marketing problems. In 1993 a group of women headed by Doña Sebastiana (Slow Food Award) decided to process the organic cocoa grown by their husbands in the traditional manner of the women of Tabasco and the Mayan women before them. These women began making chocolate to sell to tourists in hotels and at Villahermosa airport. The idea was a winner.

In 1997 two biologists decided to form a non-profit association, the Asesoria Técnica en Cultivos Orgánicos, to promote a complex cocoa-farming project, involving both men and women. The men would be responsible for the land, producing organic cocoa and developing a system of reforestation, recreating ideal conditions for shade production of the crop. In fact, men’s cooperatives provide a very important ecological function; in addition to farming organically, they also implement a programme of reforestation. As cocoa requires shade, there must be taller trees in the plantation. This system assures the conservation of the Tabascan ecosystem. Today, the cooperatives are carrying out a “progressive level” reforestation plan. Timber is obviously important but the trees are also valued for their tropical flowers and fruits, which the women preserve and sell with the chocolate. Women’s main role is to produce chocolate in the traditional manner.

In this project, the added value to the organic crop and processed chocolate boost family earnings and make it possible to purchase drying equipment. The result is that today there are seven cooperatives, four men’s and three women’s, directly involving 200–300 people and indirectly involving thousands of farmers and processors.

Organic and naturally coloured cotton, Peru5

With a unique agricultural history, the cotton plant was domesticated independently in four different geographical regions, giving rise to four distinct botanical species: Gossypium arboreum (northern Africa), G. herbaceum (India), G. hirsutum (Central America) and G. barbadense (Peru). Organically cultivated, naturally pigmented cotton is one of the oldest industrial crops of humankind and still survives as a backyard cultivar among many peasant and indigenous peoples of the tropics. Natural cotton colours recovered from Indian communities include colours ranging from white, beige, brown, chocolate, green to purple.

Since 1982, the Native Cotton Project of Peru has aimed to identify, recover, multiply and redistribute seeds from indigenous landraces of coloured cotton to local farmers and artisans. With the support of the American Indian Institute, Aid to Artisans, the Peruvian Science and Technology Council and other organizations, the project has facilitated the reintroduction and commercial revival of naturally coloured cotton as an organic cash crop providing much needed income to thousands or rural farmers and weavers.

The project concept holds an efficient, economical and lasting strategy for the maintenance of genetic diversity, which sustains indigenous agricultural systems. It promotes local consumption and good linkages with external markets, placing added value on organic textile fibres.

As a result of the agro-ecological farming systems of the jungle Indians and the conservation of ecotypes adapted to moist tropical conditions, native farmers constitute the most qualified and legitimate guardians of this unique cotton germplasm. With a high degree of natural resistance to insects, disease and drought stress, native cotton can also provide valuable genetic materials for improving other cultivars and commercial cotton varieties.


In the past, agriculture played an important role in the maintenance of genetic diversity. The substitution of a large quantity of species for only a few and the adoption of high yielding and uniform varieties from a genetic point of view, has caused a significant reduction in the genetic inheritance of cultivated species. Many agricultural species, varieties and breeds which have played an important role in the human diet and traditional cultures have practically disappeared over the last century.

In the last decade, the adoption of organic agriculture has indirectly established a rescue process of species, varieties and breeds threatened by under-use or extinction. Stronger collaboration has been evident among movements aiming to defend biodiversity (such as the Slow Food Movement) and the organic agriculture movement. This is especially the case now that there is interest in traditional, speciality and organic products. For the rescue of varieties threatened by extinction, the development of a market is fundamental and it is here that organic agriculture plays an important role as the price premium gives an additional value to the product.

As illustrated by the case studies below, the restoration and enhancement of under-utilized species and varieties has been motivated by a food demand concerned with health and culinary traditions. The first two cases illustrate the discovery of the nutritional value of the gluten-free quinoa in Peru and Saraceno grain in Italy. The case of rice in Indonesia shows the role of local varieties in traditional diets and cultures. Consumer demand for speciality products, such as the Garfagnana spelt in Italy, has re-established this product’s economic viability. In all these cases, organic agriculture has allowed the maintenance and improvement of species and varieties that otherwise would suffer strong genetic erosion or extinction. Although not illustrated under this heading, similar examples exist for animal breeds and races.

Organic quinoa from the Cotahuasi river basin, La Unión, Peru6

At least since 3000 BC, if not longer, the seed of the plant Chenopodium quinua has been a vital part of the Andean diet, used as a grain in baking, as well as served in numerous dishes prepared by Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous peoples throughout the Andean region. Yet, in spite of its nutritious value and hearty growth, the arrival of the Spaniards led to change. Farmers were sent into the mines of Peru and Bolivia and non-native crops were introduced for consumption by the Spaniards. During the colonial period, quinoa use was associated strictly with native populations, leading to an undesirable perception of the seed as belonging to the lower class. In the last ten years, however, there has been an increasing interest in quinoa. The absence of gluten makes it ideal for sufferers of Celiacs disease.

In 1994, following the new interest in quinoa production, a group of farmers from La Unión, the northern part of the department of Arequipa, Peru, decided on a scheme for the promotion of farming within the province, adjusting their activities to the requirements of the international market. One of the initial strengths was considered to be that of agricultural production without the use of synthetic organic chemicals, following their rich cultural tradition.

The Association of Organic Crop Growers (APCO) was then formed in 1996. Its social objective was to promote and develop organic agricultural production among the farmers of La Unión and encourage the conservation of biodiversity, research, commercialization and other activities that would lead to an improvement in the productivity and quality of the produce. By the end of 2001, there were 238 farmers belonging to the association and 350 enrolments were being processed for inclusion in the 2001-2002 agricultural campaign.

The territory coincides approximately with the Cotahuasi River Basin. With valleys between 2400 and 3400 metres above sea level, organic farmers produce quinoa associated with maize in a wide rotation that includes alfalfa, potatoes, peas, wheat and other crops, depending on the altitude of the farm. Land is fertilized directly through bovines that are allowed to graze on the crop residues or pastures. Control of pests and diseases is carried out through modifications in the sowing season and through other agro-ecological practices. An Internal Control System Committee ensures, with the participation of the farmers, that the norms of organic production are followed. APCO organizes the certification of its produce with the certification agency, Biolatina.

With the help of the Specialised Sustainable Development Association (AEDES), a development NGO that advises the local government and the population of La Unión Province, awareness has been raised amongst the APCO members of the role of organic crop production as a method of conserving and protecting the environment and biodiversity of the Cotahuasi Basin. This has included the creation of a micro-regional rural development plan integrating within the management of the Cotahuasi river valley, the local knowledge of the Andean cultures, in order to achieve sustainable management of biodiversity. This has been carried out according to the guidelines of the local Agenda 21 and has improved the socio-economic conditions of the farmers of the valleys.

Slow Food and the Ark of Taste: the case of Saraceno grain and Zolfino bean, Italy7

In 1996, the International Slow Food Movement (an association of some 80000 gourmets worldwide, with objectives ranging from gastronomic education of consumers to the promotion of biodiversity for food and agriculture) launched the idea of an Ark of Taste. The objective of this project is to document, catalogue and safeguard small and quality agricultural diversity threatened, or potentially threatened, by extinction. The products chosen to be safeguarded include plant species, varieties and ecotypes, as well as autochthonous or well-adapted animal populations in a specific territory.

In order to promote these products, guaranteeing them an economic and commercial future, preserving degraded territory and creating new employment opportunities, an organizational instrument called “Presidia” was created. These are formed by local producers and are backed by local public organizations. “Presidia” elaborates production regulations for each of the products that it intends to save. These take into consideration not only the cultural-historical aspects and biodiversity, but also environmental problems and small-scale economies, proposing agronomic and livestock practices that are not aggressive to the natural environment. In some (but not all) cases the production regulations are explicitly of organic nature and prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as in the case for Saraceno grain from Valtellina and the Zolfino bean from Pratomagno, Italy.

Saraceno grain (Fagopyrum sculentum) was one of the fundamental foods in the diet of the poor farmers from Valtellina (Piemonte Region, Italy) and of the whole Alpine region until the last century. It was used to make black polenta and “pizzoccheri”, a type of home-made pasta made with flour from the Saraceno grain and wheat. However, its labour intensive and costly cultivation is a factor that has led to its decline. The Saraceno grain is now only cultivated on the slopes of the high valleys due to its rusticity and resistance to cold climates, and where it is lightly attacked by parasites. However, as the Saraceno grain does not contain gluten, the last few years have seen an increased interest in its cultivation as it is an ideal food for people affected by Celiacs disease.

The Slow Food Presidia, supported by the Municipality of Teglio (Piemonte) and by the Mountain Community of Valtellina de Tirano, proposed the reintroduction of the cultivation of Saraceno grain using organic production techniques and has since elaborated production regulations that only allow for organic fertilization and prohibit pesticides. The land used for Saraceno grain cultivation is put through a rotation of two or three years.

Another Presidia that has adopted organic regulations is that of the Zolfino bean, a dwarf variety (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) cultivated in an area of Pratomagno, Tuscany, Italy. It is characterized by certain peculiar organoleptic qualities that make it especially suitable for some gastronomic preparations typical of the Tuscan cuisine.

This variety is particularly adapted to low-potential lands in the hills and mountain areas and is frequently cultivated on terraces in association with olives. The drastic reduction in the farming population that occurred in the region after the Second World War has caused the progressive abandonment in the cultivation of this bean8. It is only the patient work of a few farmers over the last few years that has allowed the Zolfino bean to avoid extinction, stimulating its revival and development.

Recovery of local varieties of rice through organic methods, Indonesia9

Rice is the staple food of not only 95 percent of the Indonesian population, but of Asia as a whole. In 1967, paddy rice varieties in Indonesia were diverse, including over 7000 varieties. However, in 1965, the planting of local rice varieties was prohibited, resulting in their near extinction.

The changes in the Indonesian agricultural system over the past 25 years have had many deleterious effects. Among them are soil infertility, the appearance of new pests, the economic dislocation of many poor and food insecurity. After some years of adoption of modern farming techniques, the productivity of rice dropped, even though the use of fertilizers increased.

Due to the near extinction of many local rice varieties, in 1997, “Pusspaindo” (a private organization that focuses on biodiversity) launched a project for the recovery of local rice varieties. The main objective was to promote farmers independence through the use of local varieties, conbined with local wisdom and traditional production systems.

In cooperation with poor farmers and farmhands, one kilogram of a local rice variety was obtained. This was planted, multiplied and distributed amongst the farmers. In 1997, several local rice varieties (e.g. Siyem Putih, Rajalele, Nongko Bosok), which are top “yielders” and resistant to pests, have been found in East Java and are being planted in East and Central Java.

Aside from the revival of local rice varieties, Pusspaindo is also promoting the production of rice using organic methods of pest control. Pusspaindo has carried out experiments proving that local rice varieties can achieve higher yields than the newly introduced varieties. Yields of 10–14 tonnes per hectare have been achieved.

Indigenous agricultural knowledge, from land preparation to planting, harvest, processing, rituals and prayers and recipes for medicine, has also been documented. Local rituals have been staged to make farmers realize the importance of local rice varieties.

Other activities carried out in relation to local rice varieties and the indigenous knowledge that accompanies them include: organization of farmers into groups; establishment of demonstration plots; production and dissemination of educational materials; organization of seminars and training workshops; opening of a consultation service; development of a marketing system; and establishment of a network and advocacy campaign.

According to Pusspaindo, local rice is superior compared to modern rice. It has a better flavour, higher production, is more nutritious, can be grown continuously throughout the year, is easier to plant and more economical, especially if grown organically. Some local varieties also have medicinal properties for common diseases such as stomachache, cough, metabolic acceleration, and others.

Most importantly, local rice is part of Indonesian culture. For thousands of years, Indonesians have been growing local varieties of rice, developing their own technique for the production of high yields, providing for their own needs, as well as a surplus. This they did for a thousand years without damaging the soil, at the same time developing and conserving their varieties. In fact, Java was previously known as Jawa Dwipa (Jawa meaning island and Dwipa meaning rice) and used to be famous for its tradition as an exporter of delicious rice.

In this context, many communities who care about the future of Indonesia, especially in terms of food security, have been bound together in the study of the traditional knowledge surrounding rice production and natural agricultural ecosystems, understanding that their futures could be dependent upon them.

Protected Geographical Indication and organic production norms for the Garfagnana spelt, Italy10

Spelt wheat (diverse species from the genus Triticum and Spelta) is the oldest known cereal. It was first cultivated by the Babylonians and later by the Egyptians. For centuries it was the staple food of Asian and Mediterranean populations. According to some studies, its centre of origin is in Palestine, from where it was spread by nomads. In Italy it has been cultivated since the Bronze Age and later spelt became one of the principle foods of the Romans. Its decline began in the Middle Ages when other cereal crops of greater yield and easier working started to be cultivated.

For these reasons, spelt wheat remained in limited marginal areas of altitude between 500 and 1500 metres above sea level. This includes the Garfagnana (an area of high hills and mountains in the Lucca Province, Tuscany) where the difficult geo-pedological and climatic conditions allow the plant, thanks to its rusticity, to vegetate and grow.

Spelt persistence in the Garfagnana area depends above all on its links with local traditions. It is the fundamental ingredient in some traditional dishes such as soups and savoury cakes. Since the early 80s, spelt wheat has seen a return in various regions in central Italy, as the healthy properties of this cereal attract consumers. Spelt wheat contains high levels of fibre and is cultivated traditionally, without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Consumers’ interest has determined an increase in price of the cereal and consequently, the diffusion of its production to the plains. Here yields are higher, but cultivation practices do not always follow traditional methods, threatening the production on the hills that has been maintained for centuries.

In order to overcome this situation and give value to local production, the Mountain Community of Garfagnana applied for, and obtained, European recognition for Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 1996. The regulations drawn up for Garfagnana spelt common variety (Triticum dicoccum) and the description of the genotype that through the years has adapted to the local climate and terrain, prescribe agronomic practices for its production as “organic”. These include rotations with meadows, the prohibition of the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and the mandatory use of seeds coming from local populations. Compliance with these regulations is guaranteed by the activities carried out by the Italian Association for Organic Agriculture (AIAB), under the authorization of the Ministry of Agriculture.

These measures have stimulated an increase in the production of Garfagnana spelt and in the value of the production. The area under cultivation has practically doubled in the last three years, reaching about 200 ha, the producers obtaining a price of between 25 and 30 percent higher that spelt without a geographical indication label.

The adoption of the PGI for Garfagnana spelt is important for the preservation of local varieties that have been selected throughout centuries. The “organic” regulations (including the prohibition of chemical pesticides and fertilizers) afford greater value to production and provide a guarantee to the consumer with an interest in food with decreased pesticide residues. Production also favours the local economy of Garafagnana which, like all mountain areas of Italy, has suffered a decrease in population over the last decades and a progressive socio-economic marginalization of its inhabitants.


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 third 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.

Selection of quality wheat varieties for organic agriculture on sandy soils, Germany11

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 obtain the qualities that the bakers and millers request.

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’s 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 an 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 in turn is dependent upon the fodder harvest that varies according to a specific location’s 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 for 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.

Maremmana cattle with the organic rearing approach in marshy areas, Italy12

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 few-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 with 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 now receive financial compensation the reduction in meat yield of this animal, which is bonier 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 3000 ha (of which 1 000 ha of forest) and raising in 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 whead 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 increased: in 2000, 5840 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 lower.

Rearing native chickens through organic agriculture, South Africa13

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 high 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, lack of protection and predation are also contributing factors to high losses. In South Africa, Newcastle disease, which caused serious problems in 1994, regressed in 1995 and again in 1996. However, it has still not been eradicated and isolated outbreaks have been observed in chicken and ostrich production units in several regions of the country14.

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 native properties, of the birds 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 attend 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 also proved equally useful for the provision of breeding animals for organic farms, for eco-tourism and in educational and research institutions.

Restoring drylands with permaculture, Bahia, Brazil15

In the North East of Brazil there is a large semi-arid region of 900000 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. When travelling out to the drylands of Bahia, she pointed out that the problem of crop failure was not lack of rain but rather 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, survived under extreme conditions.

The idea emerged to plant all of these crops together in one field, maximizing the use of space. This improved the performance of the castor crop thanks to greater soil moisture conservation and fertility, due to inter-cropping 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 during 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 1000 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.


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 with 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 systems of selection and distribution. These empirical systems have been based on the selection of individuals better adapted to the local environment and 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, the 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, such 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 and 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.

In situ restoration of local varieties through organic agriculture, Andalucia, Spain16

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. The decision to cultivate following methods of organic agriculture was due, on one hard, to the negative effects of conventional agriculture on health and the natural environment and on the other, to the few market opportunities that conventional agriculture offered.

In 2000, the cooperative cultivated 13 hectares of horticultural crops and employed seven people. The cooperative sells the majority of it products directly on the local market, complementing this with sales through consumers’ associations.

One of the problems that the cooperative has faced since the beginning is 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 1998. The project, entitled “Study of the potential use of local varieties of horticultural crops for organic agriculture”, 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 agricultural 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 are responsible for deciding what varieties should 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.

Changes in plant breeding of pumpkins as response to socio-economic limitations, Cuba17

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.

In Cuba pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) is very popular thanks to its 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 have 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 different sources in 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 on 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 farms 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 the 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 the farmers, and the opportunity to screen those resources. Clearly, farmers’ agricultural knowledge and skills were 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 in research for maize resistant to fallarmy worm (Spodoptera frugiperda) and beans with good productivity under low input conditions.

Network of biodynamic seed production and plant breeding, Germany18

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 graph attached). 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 are 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. Since maintenance and breeding are integrated in the vegetable production cycle and 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 by 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 regard to 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 three to five 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 and 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 the United Kingdom): ideas, experiences, varieties and breeding lines are shared to provide a widely available open-pollinated assortment of vegetable seeds of high quality.



As demonstrated by the case studies, organic agriculture, almost without the help of governmental institutions, is providing an important contribution to the in situ conservation, restoration and maintenance of agricultural biodiversity. The spontaneous establishment of participatory systems of research and development is shaping a simple and practical system of equitable sharing of benefits derived from genetic resources for food and agriculture.

The growth pattern shown by the conversion to organic agriculture throughout the world suggests that this contribution is likely to increase even further. Considering the role that organic agriculture plays in the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity, public institutions, especially research centres and universities, are recommended to carry out actions that could include:

1 Sources: UNDP, 2000. The Nayakrishi Andolon: A Community-Based System of Organic Farming – Innovative Experiences; Farhad Mazhar et al., 2001. Nayakrishi Andolon: Recreating Community Based Organic Farming. Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture; Mark Lynas, 2001. A Message from Bangladesh: Recipes Against Hunger. Greenpeace International.

3 Source: Walter Anzueto Anzueto and Alberto Ortiz Gutiérrez, 2001. Organic coffee production and its contribution to natural resource management and conservation. Growing Diversity.

4 Source: Carlo Bogliotti, 2002. Doña Sebastiana Juárez Broca - Slow Arch. Magazine of the International Slow Food Movement.

5 Source: Vreeland, J. M., 2000. Systems and Genetic Diversity in the High Jungle of Peru. In: The Relationship between Nature Conservation, Biodiversity and Organic Agriculture. IFOAM/IUCN/AIAB.

6 Source: Jordan Erdos, 2002. Quinoa, Mother Grain of the Incas. In: Sacred Food of the Incas from the World’s Deepest Valley. APCO/AEDES web site:

8 In the Regional Register (Tuscany) of Autochthonous Genetic Resources LR 50/97 it is shown at risk of genetic erosion.

9 Source: Sismanto Joseph, 2002. Management of Diversity of Local Rice and Organic Agriculture for Strengthening Indonesia’s Food Security. Centre of Study and Development of Indonesian Rice (Pusspaindo). Paper presented to the GRAIN International Workshop on the Local Management of Agricultural Biodiversity, Rio Branco, Brazil, 9-19 May 2002.

10 Sources: Rossi Asanella and Massimo Rovai, 1999. La valorizzazione dei prodotti tipici: un analisi secondo l’approccio di network. Rivista di Economia Agraria N° 3/1999, INEA; Di Napoli Raffaela, Davide Marino and Paolo Foglia, 2001. Biodiversità e sviluppo rurale. Quaderno informativo INEA.

15 Encyclopaedia of Sustainability, 2001. Polyculture in the Brazilian Drylands.

16 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.

17 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.

18 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).

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