Breeding for organics – new populations and varieties (Organised by ORC)

The session aimed to explore the opportunities for exploiting heritage varieties, composite cross populations (now marketable as part of an EU-wide marketing experiment) and organically bred European varieties for use in UK organic agriculture.

Martin Wolfe (ORC): Chair

Session summary

Andrew Whitley started the session with a thought-provoking and engaging presentation outlining his campaign for local produced, optimally nutritious bread made from locally grown grain – “Scotland The Bread“. Andrew set the scene by pointing out that food security is not only about adequacy of supply, but that it should also encapsulate food sovereignty. The aim of the Scotland the Bread campaign is to change the Scottish bread supply chain so that it is based on the principles of locally sourced and milled grain and baking methods that preserve nutritional integrity. It incorporates the input of all relevant players, including farmers, millers and bakers so that common goals are agreed, and is resurrecting the cultivation of 19th century Scottish varieties. Andrew highlighted the role of diverse breeding material in underpinning the security of supply in light of fluctuating environmental conditions, and described the role of composite cross populations (CCPs) in providing ‘diversity for adversity’.

The implications of population breeding were expanded on in the second presentation given by Andy Mitchell from Defra. Andy’s presentation focused on the role of breeding research in shaping policy and how these disciplines must be brought together to determine the future scope of legislation concerning crops characterised by high levels genetic diversity. His presentation outlined the development of the CCP approach, and how this challenges the current EU seed regulations, which are founded on the concept of morphologically identical, uniform varieties. He went on to describe the recent approval granted in March 2014 to change EU legislation for 5 years to allow for a temporary experiment to market populations. The UK is coordinating this experiment on behalf of the EU, and The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are now making preparations to participate. Details of the conditions for this marketing can be found here, and include the importance of traceability and transparency in the source varieties used. Andy encouraged anyone interested in the approach to grow some of the population to help us get the information we need to progress this policy beyond the experimental period.

The final presentation in this session was given by Edwin Nuitjen from the The Louis Bolk Institute. In this he described a set of case-studies in variety breeding for organics from his experiences in the Netherlands. After outlining the problems of concentration in the seed industry and difficulties in getting companies to invest in organic breeding due to small market size, Edwin went on to talk about initiatives that had successfully challenged these barriers. The Bioimpuls project focused on breeding potatoes with late blight resistance and included farmers working directly with the breeding company right through to later stages of variety production in some cases. Spring wheat was used as an example of a crop where farmers embraced the process of new population development themselves as a response to no investment from commercial breeders. It was a chain-based approach and combined the efforts of seven farmers and a biodynamic baker-processor. The final example given was of breeding open pollinated varieties of vegetables in the Odin project which aims to promote more diversity in the field and the shop. It is in the early stages, but preliminary findings suggested that the performance of OP varieties against F1 hybrids is better than the industry anticipated.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Quality for organic bread wheat is less dependent on protein levels and more on the baking method. Organically produced wheat flour with lower protein levels can be as good as conventionally grown wheat flour with higher protein levels. There is a need to refocus the concept of quality to take into account nutritional content and flavour.
  • There is a need to ensure that farmers know they can themselves be breeders and are not wholly reliant on commercial companies to develop crops suited to their situation. Historically, it has been a privatised activity, but wider encouragement is needed to show that this need not be so. Member states can join the EU temporary experiment at any point within its five year trial period. Standard seed health measures will be applied to newly purchased seed. The issue of disease build-up over time in farm-saved seed needs to be addressed and local farmers’ networks could help in this regard. In the longer term, it will be important to select for disease resistance in the population parents and offspring.

Action points

  • All speakers encouraged the audience to get more directly involved in the organic breeding process in whatever way is most appropriate to them, whether in the development of populations on-farm, supporting the EU temporary marketing experiment or promoting the use of home grown, local wheat in bread making.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Andrew Whitley (Bread Matters): ‘Scotland The Bread’ – a people-centred grain economy (2.75mb pdf file)

Scotland The Bread is a project to re-establish a Scottish grain and bread supply that is healthy, equitable, locally-controlled and sustainable. Combining participatory research and action, it links plant breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, public health nutritionists and citizens. It will develop better grain in Scotland, grow and process it for lowest environmental impact and maximum nutritional benefit and support local economies with more jobs per loaf. Scotland’s bread is made almost entirely from imported wheat. Modern varieties, already less nutrient-dense and perhaps more allergenic than their ancestors, are milled, baked and traded on the basis of long distance, low price and ‘convenience’, with little concern for health or environmental impact. This in a country which prides itself on whisky exports while struggling with serious problems of alcohol abuse and diet-related ill health. The first task is to evaluate heritage varieties for mineral density and resilience and then develop new crosses, landraces and populations, putting molecular science and organic husbandry at the service of healthy citizens – leaving commodity speculators in the casinos where they belong. Making the resulting flour into digestible bread is as important as ensuring that it reaches those who need it most.

Andy Mitchell (Defra): Cereal populations – changes to EU rules to allow marketing of seed (1.35mb pdf file)

ORC’s wheat populations are a completely different approach compared with modern varieties. They aim to maximise genetic diversity, to buffer against environ-mental variation, such as weather and diseases, and to give consistent yield. This causes difficulties for EU and UK seeds legislation, challenging the longstanding approach based on the concept of genetically uniform, identifiable and stable varieties. However, their potential has been recognised and the EU has recently agreed rules to allow limited marketing of populations of wheat and other cereals for five years, under specified controls to assure the traceability and quality of seed bought by farmers. The objectives are to get information on the benefits of populations compared with varieties, primarily in organic and low input production, and to assess the effectiveness of the controls. If the five-year marketing period confirms the benefits of populations, the EU will consider permanent changes to its seeds marketing legislation.

Dr Edwin Nuijten (The Louis Bolk Institute): Variety breeding for organics: experiences from the Netherlands (464kb pdf file)

In the Netherlands, the availability of suitable varieties for the organic sector is an important issue. Because of the limited scale of the organic sector, conventional breeding companies do not have programmes fully geared towards organic agriculture. Some companies do try to accommodate priorities of the organic sector in their breeding programmes. To address the need for varieties adapted to organic farming, various initiatives are being set up from within the organic sector, such as breeding companies and breeding cooperatives. For the past 5 to 10 years, The Louis Bolk Institute has been exploring breeding approaches that seem to fit better to organic farming. One approach being stimulated is chain based breeding in spring wheat, specifically to have more varieties with good baking quality. Another approach is the so-called Composite Cross Population breeding method in wheat. For potatoes, a successful collaborative breeding programme of breeding companies and farmer-breeders has been running since 2009. Currently the potential for the use, multiplication and selection of open-pollinated vegetable varieties by farmers is being studied. In this presentation, the lessons learned will be presented.

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