Participatory and evolutionary plant breeding – a strategy for Norwegian diversity farmers?

Seminar in Oslo, Norway
November 20, 2014

By Anne-Kristin Løes1 and Jon Magne Holten2
1anne-kristin.loes@bioforsk.no, Bioforsk Organic Food and Farming, Tingvoll, Norway
2Oikos-Organic Norway.

Supported by COBRA and the Norwegian Genetic Resource Centre, Oikos – Organic Norway recently brought a range of Norwegian stakeholders together to be inspired about new ways of developing seed material for organic farming and horticulture. Excellent international speakers shared their rich experiences: former ICARDA’s barley breeder and participatory research expert, Salvatore Ceccarelli, and expert in horticultural seeds, Bernd Horneburg from the University of Göttingen. The audience engaged actively in commenting the international presentations, and plans were made for further activities to support a diverse and site-adapted organic plant breeding in Norway.

Norwegian interest for organic seeds

The Norwegian COBRA partner Oikos-Organic Norway has a special role in COBRA to describe Norwegian legislation, and interpretation of international legislations, with respect to organic diverse plant breeding. Supported by the other Norwegian partner, Bioforsk Organic Food and Farming, and the Norwegian Genetic Resources Centre, Oikos arranged a highly popular seminar on a grey November day in Oslo. 37 participants, representing all relevant stakeholders from professional breeders, the Nordic Gene bank, university breeding experts, organic advisors, farmers and gardeners to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, enjoyed excellent presentations and interesting discussions.

Regine Andersen, executive director of Oikos and active in the COBRA project, gave the Norwegian background, explaining that the legislation for plant variety protection in this country is quite liberal. Farmers are allowed, not only to keep seeds and grow them but also to breed and share the output seeds. They are also allowed to sell seeds on a non-commercial basis. Hence the legislative situation in Norway is quite supporting for a participatory plant breeding (PPB) initiative.

Participatory and evolutionary plant breeding

Arriving directly from Hyderabad, Salvatore Ceccarelli (ceccarelli.salvatore83@gmail.com) described how the current seed legislation is protecting commercial modern farming, not so much small farmers. After 15 years of conventional barley breeding, Salvatore was disappointed about his ability to create varieties adapted to marginal conditions, and started to question the principles of conventional plant breeding. The ICARDA’s barley breeding program changed from global to national programs for more local variety testing, and Salvatore expanded this by involving local farmers, not for ideological reasons but to gain scientific results. Breeding productive varieties for diverse environments that can stand up to large climatic variations, brings together all the five global problems: lack of water, poverty, hunger and malnutrition, biodiversity and climate change. Salvatore claims that we can feed the planet and preserve the environment, by cultivating diversity to improve food security. Significant efforts are conducted to adapt current varieties to “climate change”, but the change itself is the problem. We have no idea of what kind of climatic effects we need to breed for! Already, yields of four major crops (wheat, rice, maize and soybean) are stagnating on 30-40 % of their respective growing areas. More diverse varieties and better adaptations to local growing conditions are required.

Both invited experts emphasised the threats to sound plant breeding posed by the rapidly increasing concentration of seed rights in a few global agro industrial companies like Monsanto and Dupont. Such companies produce seed and pesticides, and 9 out of the 12 most toxic chemicals used in the world are pesticides. How can we expect pesticide use to be reduced when the same company produces the seed and the drug?

Out of 250 000 plant species, 50 000 are edible, 250 are food crops, but 90 % of the calories in the human diet come from 15 crops and 60 % from 3 crops only, being wheat, rice and maize. These are not even the most nutritious crops available.

Farmers’ breeding: Site specific

Whereas locally bred varieties will become adapted to local variations, modern plant breeding want to reduce the numbers of varieties to be sold and hence has a target of wide adaptation. To compensate for lack of adaptation, the growing environment is modified, by mineral fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation, monocultures and mechanization.

Whereas for a conventional variety, it is not clear whether it will be adopted among the farmers until well after it is released, by PPB the adoption occurs along with the testing of varieties. PPB does not mean you cannot use modern breeding techniques such as molecular methods. The central issue is what characteristics are selected for, and who decide about them.

Suneson (1956) is a classical reference on evolutionary plant breeding, describing the approach of utilising populations obtained from thousands of crosses, growing them on various sites while intercrossing and towards stabilisation, while finally selecting the most promising lines for further cultivation. These lines will have a good adaptation to the local conditions. This principle is what we follow in COBRA. (Suneson, C. A. 1956. “An evolutionary plant breeding method.” Agronomy Journal 48:188-191).

Conventional breeding: Advanced work

From the Norwegian semi-public breeding company Graminor, Dr. Lars Reitan presented the national cereal breeding. Agriculture is a small part of Norwegian economy, and the country has a harsh climate with large latitudinal range and a diverse topography. In spite of being close to the northern limit of cereal growth, cereals are very productive crops in most years. Breeding and testing for Norwegian conditions are needed due to the special conditions. Despite monocultures of cereals being common in conventional farming, the diversity of the cereal “gene pool” has in fact increased in Norway over the last decades. Landraces and wild relatives are included in breeding to cope with larger climatic stresses. However, seed diversity in general has decreased, and most local research stations throughout the country have been closed down, hampering the exploration of genotype/environment interactions in breeding work. As for other breeding companies, the income for Graminor is dependent on seed royalties, which are dependent on the UPOV treaty defining DUS requirements for cereals with decreased diversity to ease identification (“pure lines”). With respect to PPB, Reitan commented that plant breeding is a continuous, long lasting and time-consuming activity, requiring skilled persons over time, and a satisfactory infrastructure. All data and decisions have to be well organised, and only the last few years of selection may be transferred to farm conditions.

Positive will to bring PPB forwards in Norway

From Nordic Gene Bank, senior advisor Morten Rasmussen commented the challenge that organic farming is a small niche, which cannot afford to pay for commercial breeding. Hence, he welcomed all initiatives from farmers to do their own testing and possibly PPB. NordGen may assist such initiatives by providing seed material, and by knowledge exchange in future PPB activities. Gene banks should be playing an active role to support the development of new varieties, especially for crops where commercial breeding is not carried out such as is currently the case for vegetables in Norway. Too often, gene banks consider their task to be only the conservation of genetic diversity. Another crucial task however, is to ensure that this diversity is made available for the best of a future sustainable food production.

From the Ministry, Grethe Evjen expressed her appreciation of the seminar, and the interest of organic growers to cooperate to establish a breeding initiative. Norway has established a Global Seed Vault on arctic Svalbard, for which Ms. Evjen is the contact person.

Salvatore cited article 27 (2) in the Human Rights Declaration, that “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which s/he is the author”, and suggested that plant breeding is seen as an intellectual activity.

The seminar ended in engaged discussions among Norwegian stakeholders on how to follow up this PPB initiative. Most likely, there will be applied for a project funding to keep in touch with our invited experts and start PPB activities on the farms of motivated farmers during 2015.

– For further information in Norwegian click the following links:
Link 1, Link 2, Link 3.

Here the seminar flyer in Norwegian.

– Click here to view the seminar pictures.

– Click here for the pictures related to Seed Global Vault.

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