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Eight experts participated, namely: M.S. Wolfe (U.K.) - Rapporteur; S. Collaza (Italy), D. Dubois (Switzerland), E. Lammerts van Bueren (The Netherlands), R.G. McKinley (U.K.), I. Rasmussen (Denmark), T. Ruissen (Norway) and Tamm.

The group working on plant disease, pest and weed problems started by agreeing to change the name of the panel from 'Crop Protection' (used by pesticide organizations) to 'Sustainable Plant Health'.

The first principle upon which all agreed, was to work primarily at the level of prevention rather than cure. This immediately implies that a reduction approach is inadequate since prevention involves the development of systems that need to be optimal for a wide range of social, environmental and economic considerations. This also highlights the difference between the essentially linear approach of conventional agriculture compared to the circularity of the organic approach, where different aspects affect and interact with other aspects. A further consequence is the need to develop a comprehensive ecological understanding of the problems encountered in consideration of pests, diseases and weeds.

However, it was recognized that the elements of a particular problem can be extracted from a system approach and then analysed in a reductionism sense, even though this may lead to problems in incorporating the research conclusions back into the system. Even more complex, however, is the concept of translating the research conclusions into a range of systems and to a range of individual farms.

This difficulty raised the question of defining the different levels at which we might work:

  1. single factor analysis on field plots or in the laboratory;
  2. ecologically integrative farming systems approach;
  3. farmer approach, from the point-of-view of both necessary detail and of the individual unit being a specific farm.

Going from level c) to a) increases detailed understanding, but also increases the distance form the real world. Nevertheless, each level has a value for understanding and developing novel solutions, particularly from level a), to applications and the formulation of problems at level c). For level a), the group discussed the value of molecular biological and other sophisticated approaches to the research; it was generally agreed that these were acceptable provided they were used as tools and not as goals.

A SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunity and threats) analysis was applied to the three approaches. The points distribution was generally in favour of the level a) research approach. However, the group recognized that all three levels are required. It was clear that advantages at one level were often disadvantages at another. This also underlined the complementarity of the different levels.

The group also agreed that despite the points distribution, it was important in the short to medium term to place the first priority at level c), the farm approach, simply because this approach currently lags so far behind the others in terms of recognition, effort and understanding. It was also recognized that there are many difficulties in developing this level, for example: in the time required for adequate understanding of the problem, in finding appropriate methods of statistical analysis, in developing appropriate PhD topics and jobs and in the problem of publication and communication.


Organic agriculture depends on either old crop varieties or on modern varieties bred for use in non-organic agriculture, neither of which are bred for modern organic agriculture. Focused organic plant breeding would lead to major improvements in organic production, probably more so than from any other research area.

Organic breeding would select varieties and populations best fitted to organic soils and rotations and much better able to compete with weeds. Selection would also be directed to high performance of populations, mixtures and inter-crops, which are potentially capable of providing effective buffering against environmental variation.

Organic plant breeding should draw farmers back into the process from which they have been gradually excluded during this Century. Indeed, this should happen in all aspects of organic research, because of the dependence on farmer experience at higher levels of organization.

Another, major reason for concentration on plant and animal breeding, is the increase in GMOs in non-organic breeding and production. If the GMO approach develops with no increase in organic breeding, then organic farmers and growers will be cut off from sources of new varieties within the next few years.

Based on these general arguments, the Working Group agreed unanimously to form a sub-group on organic plant breeding.

A main activity of the sub-group is to organize a meeting on organic plant breeding. This will probably take place in December 1999 in The Netherlands. The organizers will be the Louis Bolk Institute (Edith Lammerts van Bueren).

A further activity of direct interest to members is the intention to organize a bid for a European research project in organic plant breeding for the Fifth Framework Programme (Prof. Jos van Damme, NL).

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