Hot topics

There are five problem areas that need to be addressed:

 1) Seed health

Using healthy, vital seed is essential for all farming systems, but organic farming is particularly vulnerable to the consequences of low seed vitality. Seed infected with seed borne diseases can produce healthy plants if treated with fungicides, but the availability of effective organic seed treatments is currently very limited. Since conventional cereal breeding has given low priority to seed borne diseases (Mathre et al. 20011[1], Matanguihan et al. 2011[2]), resistant and agronomically appropriate genotypes are difficult to obtain. In addition, seed health is particularly important for evolutionary plant breeding focused on high genetic diversity with its high potential for organic crop production (Döring, et al. 20113[3]).

All organic breeding activities, but in particular breeding approaches relying on farm-saving of seed, need to ensure high seed vitality and would hugely benefit from more durable resistance and effective organic treatments against seed borne diseases. Conversely, evolutionary breeding can be used to identify germplasm with high field resistance to seed borne diseases.

The lack of varieties with resistance to seed borne disease is currently addressed by various initiatives, e.g. the BioBreed project (Borgen et al. 2010[4]) and other national screening and breeding programmes. However, these breeding efforts are currently largely fragmented within Europe and need to be better coordinated.

In addition, there is a lack of advanced diagnostic tools as well as breeding tools to introgress the respective disease resistance in a broad range of varieties.

2) Multiple stresses

Organic farming usually faces increased environmental variability between and within fields. In addition, climate changes are predicted to result in increased climatic variability over time and space as well as higher frequency of extreme weather events. Therefore, organic plant production needs varieties that can cope with these multiple, and (increasingly) variable stresses.

3) Breeding efficiency

It is currently unclear which plant breeding approaches, Hi-D-based or else, are most efficient to breed varieties for organic agriculture. Because of the stronger Genotype x Environment interactions in organic as compared to conventional systems there is a need for decentralized approaches for selection (Desclaux et al. 2008[5]); however techniques to be used do not need to be developed multiple times but need to be exchanged and coordinated for maximum benefit.

4) Funding and regulations

Across Europe new breeding approaches are being developed for breeding varieties better adapted to organic conditions. In many cases, such varieties have higher levels of genetic diversity than currently allowed, and often do not meet the legal DUS standards (Finckh 2007[6]). The question is what legislative space can be created to adjust current registration processes for organic varieties (Bocci & Chable 2008[7]). Also, the breeding sector is hesitant to invest in breeding for organic agriculture, the main reason being the relatively small market. As the organic sector is growing several crops are passing the threshold of relevance. However, many breeders do not seem to be entirely aware of this changing situation. Crucial questions are therefore (1) how to develop bridges between the breeding sector and the organic food sector, (2) how to ensure that collaborations continue to thrive after being established; and (3) to find options for sustainable financing models for organic plant breeding (Nuijten et al. 2011[8]).

5) Coordination and networking

Although coordinated activities have started (e.g. through the EU project SOLIBAM), current activities in organic plant breeding are still fragmented and the organic breeding sector is under-developed, showing structural weaknesses. Better transnational coordination is needed to exchange breeding material, to harmonize evaluation tests, and to exchange experiences and results.

[1] Mathre, D. E., Johnston, R. H., Grey, W. E. (2001): Small grain cereal seed treatment. The Plant Health Instructor doi: 101094/PHI-I-2001-1008-01Updated, 2006 (accessed April 2012).

[2] Matanguihan, J. B., Murphy, K. M., Jones, S. S. (2011): Control of common bunt in organic wheat. Plant Disease 95: 92-103.

[3] Döring, T. F., Kovacs, G., Wolfe, M. S., Murphy, K. (2011): Evolutionary plant breeding in cereals– into a new era. Sustainability 3: 1944-1971.

[4] Borgen, A., Rasmussen, S., Backes, G. (2010): BIOBREED – a new project on marker assisted population breeding in wheat with resistance to common bunt. In: XVIth Biennial Workshop on the Smuts and Bunts. Lethbrige, Alberta, Canada: 2010.

[5] Desclaux, D., Nolot, J., Chiffoleau, Y., Goze, E., Leclerc, C. (2008): Changes in the concept of genotype-environment interactions to fit agriculture diversification and decentralized participatory plant breeding: pluridisciplinary point of view. Euphytica 163: 533-546.

[6] Finckh, M. R. (2007): Evolutionsverbot per Gesetz, oder: Die Konsequenzen der Verhinderung der Ko-Evolution in der Landwirtschaft. . In: Kant, das Prinzip “Vorsorge” und die Wiederentdeckung der “Allmende”, edited by Lange, B. Würzburg, Germany: Ergon Verlag, p. 109-120.

[7] Bocci, R., Chable, V. (2008): Les Réseaux Semences Paysannes en Europe et l’évolution des lois sur les semences – The Peasant Seeds Network in Europe and the evolution of seed laws. Cahiers d’études et de recherche francophones/Agricultures 17: 216-221.

[8] Nuijten, E., Tiemens-Hulscher, M., Lammerts van Bueren, E. T. (2011): Opportunities and obstacles in building up new breeding programs for organic agriculture in collaboration with the formal breeding industry in The Netherlands. In: Organic Plant Breeding: What makes the difference? 10 year’s Anniversary Conference, edited by Lammerts van Bueren, E. T., Messmer, M. M., Spiegel, A.-K., Wilbois, K.-P. Frankfurt, Germany: Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), 2011.