Winter 2009-2010

Garden tour
IFOAM participants look at a pepper trial at the Seeds of Change Research Farm. Photo by Terry Allan.

By Terry Allan

Breeding Diversity, the first IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) international conference on Organic Plant and Animal Breeding, was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in August 2009. Hosted by Seeds of Change, more than 150 participants from 35 countries attended from every continent (except agriculturally challenged Antarctica). Participants included organic farmers, farmer-breeders, public and private sector breeders, university researchers, activists, and representatives from local, national and international organizations.

With so many people, concurrent sessions, and interesting conversations, it was impossible to get to everything, but these are some highlights I encountered during the conference. (My apologies to the many amazing contributors and participants I was not able to mention in this article.)


Availability of organically grown seed is a weak link in organic production systems worldwide, with only about 5 percent of organic crops grown using organic seed. Even more challenging is the availability of varieties bred specifically for and under organic systems. Modern varieties are bred for high yield under perfect conditions delivered to them by industrial farming systems. Thus far we have primarily been adapting organic systems to meet the needs of modern varieties rather than developing varieties adapted to organic systems.

With the uncertainties and changing weather conditions of climate change upon us, we need to breed for resilience and adaptability under marginal and stressful conditions. “Bridging from Indigenous Knowledge to Future Needs” was the title of the first session, and the rest of the conference set out to stimulate, instigate and illuminate the voices, issues, theories, models and case studies that are attempting to help us transition to a more diverse and sustainable future.

Alvaro Toledo of the FAO touched on several key topics for the conference in his panel remarks on “Future Sources and Aims of Organic Breeding.” Regarding the cultural, management and biological bases of food security, he described our collective interdependence on genetic resources from far-flung parts of the world. Genetic sources of traits and resistances for future breeding come from crop wild relatives, landraces, and traditional, local and commercial breeders’ varieties. These sources are maintained and developed by farmers, communities, gene banks, research institutions and commercial companies. Among and between these groups are controversies over acceptable techniques, methods and protocols for accessing these genetics.

Seeds of Change farm
IFOAM participants tour the Seeds of Change Research Farm in San Juan Pueblo, N.M. Photo by Terry Allan.

Plant Breeding Methods

Several sessions discussed evolutionary and participatory breeding as alternatives to modern “elite” breeding. The term “evolutionary breeding” has a specific history that was outlined by Kevin Murphy of Washington State University. It started in the 1920s in the United States as a bulk breeding system for in-breeding (self-pollinated) crops, where natural selection was left to work in the field without human interaction.

Agroecologist Miguel Altieri of the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that evolutionary breeding had been practiced by traditional cultures for all time before the industrial system that became dominant in the United States about 100 years ago. Peasant farmers are today returning to these traditional techniques as they try to restore their lands that have been degraded by modern techniques and systems. The horizontal resistance and multi adaptability present in landraces should be used in breeding for organics.

Today, the concepts of evolutionary breeding are being used and adapted for working with cross-pollinated crops as well. John Navazio of the Organic Seed Alliance in Washington state described a few examples of his ongoing work with evolutionary breeding. The idea is to create genetically diverse composite cross populations of a particular crop, then grow them in different environments that naturally select for plants with trait combinations that can succeed in each particular environment. Farmers in different places can then save seeds from those locally adapted individuals to refine the variety for their specific conditions.

Salvatore Ceccarelli of ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) described participatory breeding as a dynamic collaboration among professional plant breeders, breeding institutions and farmers, often using evolutionary breeding techniques as a starting point. Initially developed as a breeding method for small grains and pulses in collaboration with subsistence farmers in marginalized environments bypassed by institutional breeding programs, participatory breeding is beginning to be perceived as increasingly relevant to breeding for organics. Yet, Riccardo Bocci of AIAB (Italian Association of Biological Agriculture) lamented that the mainstream scientific community generally does not appreciate the value of doing participatory breeding in developed countries.

With participatory breeding, the farmer is involved very early in the breeding process, from setting the criteria, defining the goals, identifying cultivars for improvement, making selections and crosses, testing resulting material and finally producing and maintaining the new variety for her/his own use as well as for wider distribution. Several successful case studies from around the world were presented, demonstrating the potential of this method, including: wheat and cauliflower in Brittany, France; conserving and utilizing maize landraces in southwest China; rice breeding in the Philippines; winter squash breeding in Brazil; quinoa and cañahua breeding in Bolivia; summer squash, sweet corn and carrot breeding in the United States; and native chicken selection and breeding in the Philippines.

These sessions highlighted not only links and similarities between traditional/indigenous and organic breeding conditions and requirements, but that some combination of evolutionary and participatory breeding methods can be developed to help conserve biodiversity, improve food sovereignty/security, and provide a resilient response to climate change.

Animal Breeding

Echoing similar themes, the animal breeding sessions covered local indigenous breeds, traditional breeds and breeding techniques, traditional and modern selection concepts and criteria, and modern breeding and selection technologies. Using the example of dairy cows, Anet Spengler Neff with FiBL (Research Institute for Organic Agriculture, Switzerland) finds modern conventional breeding, which focuses primarily on genetics, inappropriate for organic animal production systems primarily due to different feeding regimes that can affect the metabolism, health and, ultimately, the productivity of the breed. Her studies of animal behavior and health in relation to fodder and metabolism conclude that organic breeding should be done in direct relation to an animal’s environment, respecting animals’ integrity and ability (both as breeds and individuals) to find their own solutions to different stresses and conditions, to learn from each other, and to adapt to their environments over time.

Other speakers described their work with livestock producers in Nigeria, native Korean cattle, indigenous sheep breeds in Croatia, and the revival of indigenous cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels and horses in India.

Jacob Wanyama, a veterinarian with the government of Kenya and the LIFE Network, a group of organizations supporting community-based conservation of animal genetic resources, observed that organic animal production integrates crop, pasture, animal and, in the case of traditional livestock keepers, human culture as well. He lamented that organic certification standards in the developed world exclude indigenous livestock keepers.

For instance, organic standards require specific housing standards for livestock, where many traditional cultures have no animal housing at all. The standards are consumer driven rather than producer driven. He pointed out that indigenous breeds that are locally adapted, bred without external inputs, and essential for preserving their natural environments make up 80 percent of the world livestock population. The keepers and breeders working with indigenous livestock get little recognition or support, yet when outsiders cross indigenous with modern breeds, the resulting new crossbreed will be recognized, but not the original. As in plant breeding, issues of biopiracy occur.

Ilse Kohler-Rollefson works with pastoralists in Jordan, Sudan and India, and founded the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development (LLP). Together with Jacob Wanyama and Evelyn Mathias working on similar issues in East Africa, they saw the need to establish a Code of Conduct recognizing and protecting the rights of Livestock Keepers. The LIFE Network was formed and meetings were held over several years with participation of livestock keepers, pastoralists and other stakeholders from more than 20 countries, from which evolved a Declaration of Livestock Keepers Rights. While no mechanism seems to exist to recognize these rights in an official, legal sense on an international level, the declaration has been used to advise and influence national and international policymaking. For more information, contact Mathias at [email protected].

Animal breeding for organics appears to be several years behind plant breeding in that those involved are still trying to develop the social and scientific framework within which to evaluate breeding techniques and technologies for acceptability and appropriateness to organic ethical standards. This IFOAM conference was an opportunity to advance the discussion on developing such a framework.

Open Source Biology

Another series of fascinating workshops focused on legal issues, obstacles and alternatives for organic breeding. Vandana Shiva described how industrial agricultural institutions have set up an international legal framework through GATT and TRIPS agreements using Intellectual Property Rights to gain control over seeds, enforce monopoly, and push farmers into dependence on commercial seed companies. While the organic movement also uses legal frameworks to enforce organic standards, we must be cognizant that the variety registration laws and regulations (particularly in Europe) and even the organic standards themselves are sometimes obstacles to progress in plant and animal breeding for organics, because they were developed for an industrial breeding paradigm.

Dr. Jack Kloppenburg of the University of Wisconsin proposed a system of “open source biology” for maintaining public access to genetics and breeding material within a protected shared commons, similar to open source software systems. Participants were generally positive toward the proposal. Micaela Colley and Matt Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance stressed the need to keep genetic resources in the public domain where they are accessible to a broad range of breeders. Edith Lammerts van Bueren, organic plant breeder with the Louis Bolk Institute and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, described the movement for sustainable and organic food systems as a social struggle to resist corporate control of seeds, and thereby food systems. Everyone agreed that in addition to resistance, simultaneous proactive development of alternative structures and systems is essential to achieving more sustainable food systems for the future. Several participants described examples and proposals for seed breeding and production networks, as well as new legal and regulatory frameworks.

Organic Plant Breeding Consortium Formed

Several sessions focused on technical aspects of breeding for organics. One workshop stressed the importance of having a stock seed program to maintain the purity of what has been bred and how to use it for further improvements. This is true for the most professional operations as well as for the smallest grower or breeder who wants to maintain what he/she has created. The economy of size is different but the principles are the same. As with participatory breeding projects, professional breeders have an important role here to guide, advise and train practitioners in many of the technical aspects of maintaining and maximizing the potential of our genetic resources.

One important outcome from this conference is a project for plant breeders in the United States to form a consortium that will focus on organic breeding. The nucleus for this consortium will be the NOVIC program (Northern Organic Variety Improvement Collaborative). Specific NOVIC projects have been identified:

• Nantes carrots with field winter storage, good flavor and tall tops for weed competition (lead: John Navazio, Organic Seed Alliance)

• cold emergence for Se corn (lead: Bill Tracy, University of Wisconsin)

• snap peas: heat stress, disease package, flavor (lead: Jim Myers, Oregon State University)

• open-pollinated, quality broccoli (lead: Jim Myers, OSU)

• winter squash with long-term storability and powdery mildew resistance (lead: Michael Mazourek, Cornell University)

This nucleus of breeders hopes to attract more breeders from the conventional side as well to give breadth to this consortium.

Position Paper on Seed

Another outcome was to advance the discussion around developing an IFOAM Position Paper on Seed. “It is only through member participation that these positions can be developed,” said Jacqueline Haessig Alleje, a dairy farmer from the Philippines and member of the IFOAM World Board who described IFOAM as a “democratic, participatory organization. Issues are discussed and guidelines, programs and activities are agreed upon, developed and implemented by the members. Eventually, the position statements are evolved, revised and voted upon by the General Assembly to become official IFOAM positions.” The draft Position on Seed is posted on ifoam.org.

Organic: Solution to Climate Change

Debi Barker with the Center for Food Safety outlined evidence that organic farming is THE solution to climate change. The report from the International Panel on Climate Change attributes 25 to 32 percent of greenhouse gas production to industrial agriculture. Studies by the Rodale Institute show that organically managed soils sequester 30 percent more carbon than conventionally managed soils. Calculations indicate that converting all 434 million acres of U.S. cropland to organic management could reduce emissions by 25 percent.

Ecospiritual Closing

Vanaja Ramprasad, who works with village level seed savers in India and is an IFOAM board member, closed the conference. She encouraged us to affirm life, in spite of disturbing crises that threaten to draw us into death and darkness. She described eco-spirituality as a creative endeavor that balances right and left brain, masculine and feminine, science and nature, seeds and breeds. She recited a Vedic hymn that encourages us to “Go forth into the light of the living.”

I came away from the conference with hope and inspiration that we will not only succeed in breeding for organics, but our work, varieties and breeds will provide solutions to weaknesses in industrial agriculture, help mitigate climate change, and conserve biological and cultural diversity to become a new paradigm for a sustainable future.

About the author: Terry Allan is an organic farmer and writer living in Sonoma County, California, and working for Seeds of Change.


IFOAM’s mission is leading, uniting and assisting the organic movement in its full diversity. Its goal is the worldwide adoption of ecologically, socially and economically sound systems that are based on the principles of Organic Agriculture. For more information, see www.IFOAM.org.

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