14 July 2020
Land sharing and sparing

OF&G and Agricology webinar

6 September 2021
Organic World Congress 2021

New date! Postponed from September 2020

3 July 2020
Environmental Land Management: consultation reopens

Interactive online seminars throughout July

29 June 2020
Benefits and challenges of herbal or diverse leys

Opportunities for farmer involvement

29 April 2020
Tim Bennett is the new Chair of ORC

Former NFU president takes on chairmanship of Organic Research Centre

Organic seeds and breeding for organic growers

Organic seeds and breeding for organic growers

Reporting on current developments in research and exploring the potential for growing the UK organic seed sector and the development of participatory plant breeding. (Organised by OGA)
Ben Raskin (Soil Association): Chair

Session summary

Breeding and propagating open pollinated vegetable seeds for organic production is now at a cross-roads. The skills necessary to develop locally adapted selections were once commonplace, but are now practiced by only a few. There is a need to reinvigorate this approach to provide plants with the diversity required to adapt to increasingly unstable environmental conditions.

This session featured speakers with both practical and research experience in seed production. Lively discussion centred around the practical challenges of balancing economic and production needs.

The session started with an introduction from chair, Ben Raskin, of the Soil Association and session organiser, Phil Sumption from Garden Organic. They emphasised the importance of grower-researcher collaboration which was illustrated by each of the speakers, relating their own experiences and motivations for promoting seed saving through a participatory approach.

Peter Brinch outlined current gaps that need addressing, drawing on his campaigning and advisory work. Peter has worked in biodynamic and organic seed production for a number of years, including field-based and advisory roles. He instigated an initiative in 2010 to increase the profile of open-pollinated seeds and he has built on this through campaigning to broaden the availability of organic seeds in the market in collaboration with Tolhurst Organics at Hardwick. He highlighted the value of a participatory approach through programmes such as the Duchy Originals Future Farming programme farmer field labs whereby the needs expressed first hand by growers are partnered with researcher who can work together to address these gaps. The audience were encouraged to register their interest in this programme.

Louisa Winkler then described some early results from UK trials of sprouting broccoli, as part of the SOLIBAM project. The project funded under the EU FP7 programme and have a dual focus; firstly to look at agronomic aspects of growing diverse sprouting broccoli populations developed from an Italian landrace, and secondly, to look at the potential of a method for on-farm breeding that might be used by growers to produce their own locally adapted lines. Whilst early results do not indicate any consistent trends yet, nor do they suggest any significant disadvantages in using greater diversity on-farm. Louisa also highlighted the legal challenges to future trade of diverse population seed, concluding that although there are many difficulties, the potential rewards are considerable.

René Groenen talked about his involvement in cooperatives to promote wider adoption of seed saving, and shared his insights into the factors that influence the success of this approach. Rene has extensive practical experience of organic/biodynamic seed propagation in the Netherlands and Germany. Two organisations were described, which were founded by a proactive network of biodynamic growers who cooperated together to develop solutions to increase access to vegetable seed for their specific needs. The first of these, Bingenheimer Saatgut, focuses on the maintenance, propagation and trade of existing varieties whereas the second, Kultursaat eV, in involved in breeding activities for generating new varieties. Rene concluded by drawing together the practical lessons learned from these initiatives with some advice for successful seed saving.

Discussion following the presentations covered a range of aspects from the economics of seed saving to the motivation members of the audience had for trying this initiative on their own sites. In response to the example set by German growers in developing organisations to promote trade and breeding activities, a show of hands indicated that a number of UK growers are also in a position to contribute to such an approach and Ben Raskin encouraged them to engage with the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme to develop this further.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:
  • There is a need for clear objectives outlining what is to be achieved when embarking on a seed saving and propagation programme, but also some flexibility to make the most of opportunities which enable this as they present themselves.
  • There is the potential for significant economic benefits through seed propagation, but this is heavily influenced by annual growing conditions and should be seen as a longer term outcome rather than a primary aim.
  • The development of networks of growers interested in propagating seed for organic vegetable producers could be facilitated by the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Louisa Winkler (ORC):  The latest work on sustainable, organic and low input breeding from the SOLIBAM project (2 MB)

SOLIBAM is an international project developing breeding methods for the organic and low-input sectors.  In various ways, it is testing the hypothesis that within-crop diversity can enhance stability and productivity.  Louisa will talk about results from two horticultural trials taking place at Wakelyns Agroforestry on a sprouting broccoli population and a French bean landrace-cross.  Currently, the legal environment is hostile to the marketing of diversified seed lines.  Louisa will briefly talk about the activities underway to try and change this, within SOLIBAM and beyond.

Peter Brinch (Open Pollinated Seeds): Organic seeds and breeding for organic growers, a participatory approach

Earlier this year an initiative, ‘Organic Seeds by Organic Growers’ was started through an introductory seminar at Tolhurst Organics at Hardwick. The proposition with this initiative is to develop a network of organic horticultural seed producers in an effort to broaden the availability of organic seeds with their introduction into the seed market through seed companies who prioritise organic seeds and biodiversity. This initiative also offers an excellent opportunity to improve on open pollinated varieties which have been badly neglected by seed companies for decades.  As part of the recently introduced farmer field labs under the Duchy Original Future Farming Programme, the Soil Association, Garden Organic and Open Pollinated seeds UK,  are seeking to co-ordinate a project with organic growers for the purposes and aims set out above. We believe the improvement of many open pollinated species is possible given the opportunity and dedication through a participatory approach by growers and facilitators and that this improvement will help to address the widened gap that has been created between open pollinated and F1 hybrid vegetable species.

René Groenen (Biodynamic grower):  Organic seed production  (4.54MB)

It is not difficult to save your own seeds and to maintain varieties and to do some breeding. What are the obstacles to do so? What is helping you to get you there? By showing how things in practice are done within the “Initiative circle”  of biodynamic gardeners in Germany, several themes will be discussed. Out of this “Initiative circle” 2 organisations have been founded: one for the maintenance of already existing varieties, propagation of vegetable seeds and the trade to the market; this organisation is called “Bingenheimer Saatgut”. How in practice things are done, from maintenance  of varieties and seed propagation on the field till financial conditions. The second  organisation ,” Kultursaat e. V. “, is founded for the breeding activities for new varieties and for fundamental research for new breeding tools. Here the financial theme is important and off course also the practical work on the field; which breeding methods are fertile?