Under the Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission has set a target for at least 25 % of agricultural land in the EU to be under organic farming by 2030. This is an important element of the European Green Deal. Achieving this goal will require the development and dissemination of new organic cultivars, and the EU-funded LIVESEED (improve performance of organic agriculture by boosting organic seed and plant breeding efforts across Europe) project sought to support this by tackling the issue of organic seed availability and quality from a variety of angles, from market aspects through to regulation. Launched in 2017, the project brought together 48 organizations from 18 European countries, including plant researchers, crop breeders, seed producers, organic associations, and retailers.

New approaches
One of the researchers involved is Edwin Nuijten, a plant scientist at De Beersche Hoeve in the Netherlands, who led a part of the work plan that focused on how different breeding approaches can support and strengthen each other. “Breeding is not only about producing the best plant for the best field, but it’s also a process, we need to take into account also the social aspects,” he says. LIVESEED’s goal was to combine the best elements of different plant breeding approaches.

The consortium identified four specific approaches, referred to as ecosystem-based, community-based, trait-based, and corporate-based. Ecosystem-based approaches examine how a crop interacts with and can contribute to the surrounding environment. Community-based approaches have a strong connection between the breeder and growers, seeking to maximize societal value to them. Trait-based approaches pursue broader societal benefits by improving specific traits, such as increasing the concentration of essential vitamins in crops, while corporate-based approaches seek to maximize profit and minimize costs. “These are all value-driven but their values are different,” adds Nuijten. “This is not to say that some values are better than others, but to ask how we can connect them so that they strengthen each other, and improve ecological and social resilience.”

Knowledge platform
The consortium gathered information on breeding techniques and published a number of research papers. More than 800 organic farmers were consulted on various aspects related to plant breeding and seed markets, and LIVESEED contributed to the expansion of the Organic Farm Knowledge Platform with a dedicated section on these themes. The LIVESEED project also developed a router database at the EU scale which enables seed suppliers to enter offers into other national databases with a single entry.

The team is now working on the implementation of their findings, drafting guidelines for implementing a combined breeding approach. The situation is acute, as developing new crop varieties is a slow process, and breeders must act now to prepare for agricultural challenges in the future, such as tighter restrictions on pesticide use and a changing climate. In addition, notes Nuijten, farmers and consumers are threatened by dysfunction in the plant breeding and seed market. “When you look at conventional breeding, two or three companies dominate the market of each fruit and vegetable. If one company terminates its breeding program, farmers are wholly dependent on the other.

"Even for conventional agriculture, the situation is not sustainable,” he explains. “Organic seed and plant breeding can provide an opportunity to think about more sustainable breeding approaches. We need to develop many more new alternatives, so this resource is useful for all farmers,” says Nuijten. “It’s often said that organic food is too expensive, but you could say that conventional food is too cheap – take hidden costs into account and a different picture emerges.”

For more information: 
European Commission