Seeds: The Quality of Life

Different grains on a field
Maintaining biodiversity: an important theme for SAGST

Worldwide, biodiversity forms the foundation of the diet of all human beings and livestock. As such, it is a topic that affects us all. Seeds are objects of both cultural and economic value. Sebastian Bauer and Klaus Plischke, who manage projects in the area of seed research and cultivation on behalf of the Software AG Foundation, explain the multifaceted aspects of this complex topic in an interview. More information, including articles and research studies, can be found on

A recent SAGST advertisement featured the title: “Sterile seeds: A good business idea?” What initially sounds contradictory - after all, seeds are a symbol of fertility - seems to have become almost normal. What are the reasons for this?

Sebastian Bauer:  It used to be the case that farmers stored a portion of the harvest and sowed the seeds the next year. In many developing and emerging counties, this is still the case today, and ideally also in organic farming. In recent decades, however, a new breeding method developed and established itself in the conventional sector: hybrid breeding. The idea is that certain characteristics of a plant are combined in a kind of selection process along a breeding line. This selection works by inbreeding. The chief attraction is that the first generation delivers above-average results, for example in yield - but the seed obtained from the crop cannot be planted again, because it partially loses its fertility and homogeneity. This is still to some extent a “normal” breeding method. Breeding by genetic engineering and the subsequent patenting of characteristics does not allow for any re-sowing at all.

Klaus Plischke: Basically, the seed is then equipped with a kind of biological copy protection, which has led to extreme excesses and monocultures. Often, farmers and gardeners can no longer reproduce the plants by seed themselves, but have to buy new seed every year. As a result they become ever more dependent on a small number of global chemical companies which divide three-quarters of the global seed market amongst themselves. Behind all of this is a merciless business idea.

Bauer: It is, in fact, the commercialization of plant breeding. At the same time these varieties thrive only in combination with fertilizers and pesticides that are offered by the same chemical companies. This increases dependence even more. The next step was and is to breed plants using genetic engineering techniques so that plants produce their own pesticides to ward off pests; but this is happening without the ability to assess the impact on people and the environment.

Isn't high-performance agriculture - one that makes use of all technical possibilities, including genetic engineering - necessary to feed everyone in the world?  Put another way: is it possible to feed the world with agricultural practices that are environmentally friendly, that conserve resources, and that are based on a diversity of varieties and varieties that are true to seed?

Plischke: I am firmly convinced that we can only ensure our long-term ability to feed the world with ecological, resource-conserving agriculture. In the short term, high-performance agriculture can certainly produce greater yields per hectare. This means that organic farming initially requires more land. This is not true everywhere, though - in developing countries, for example, the yields of peasant agriculture are significantly higher than in mechanized agriculture, which is based mainly on monoculture. In global terms, organic farming is thus even more effective. You have to factor in the many “collateral damages” caused by high-performance agriculture. There is direct damage, such as groundwater pollution by excessive use of fertilizer and the application of chemicals. Indirect damage, such as increased allergies or a decrease in food quality, is difficult to trace or prove. In addition to these damages there are also an ethical component and a very disturbing social component. Especially in India, the devastating social consequences of extreme dependence on generically modified seed, including expensive sprays, are now clearly visible. Thousands of small farmers are committing suicide because they can no longer feed their families and are crushed by heavy debt.

Bauer: This image was also confirmed by IAASTD's 2008 global report “Agriculture at a Crossroads”, which thoroughly eliminates the myth of the superiority of industrial agriculture from an economic, social and ecological point of view. The report, initiated by the World Bank and the UN and adopted by 59 countries, calls for radical changes in farming, away from industrial mass production and towards organic farming. Small farms, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are the most important guarantees of sustainable food supply for a growing world population. The Alternative Nobel Prize (Right Livelihood Award) 2013 for Hans Herren, co-chair of IAASTD, shows the importance and power of the topic.

What role does biodiversity play in this context? Do we really need a thousand seed varieties?

Bauer: Thanks to the industrialization of agriculture and the commercialization of seed research and breeding, companies want to bring their varieties to market for a profit. This means that other varieties were neglected in the cultivation process and became unattractive for commercial seed companies.

Plischke: This diversity - in the form of thousands of seed varieties, on the one hand, and seeds with a broad genetic diversity, on the other - is essential as the basis for breeding work. Every strain has a unique combination of traits, whether resistance against certain pests, adaptation to geographic circumstances, or taste characteristics.

Bauer: It's only thanks to this diversity that plants are able to adapt again and again, for example to changes in climate. These qualities are lost when I no longer cultivate them, and I can no longer breed them into modern varieties.

In other words, organic is not always organic, and the question of seed diversity is even more important for organic farming than for conventional?

Plischke: This is a serious problem. In vegetable breeding, as an example, for some plants such as cauliflower or broccoli there are hardly any varieties left that are true to seed, i.e. that can be directly replanted, but only hybrid or CMS (sterile) varieties. Although hybrid varieties are partially allowed in organic farming, CMS technology is not permitted, because this technology is genetic manipulation, i.e. genetic engineering. We consider this ethically questionable, also as a foundation, because it alters the basic structure of nature without really knowing all the consequences. The incentive is a business idea, in a negative sense. The goal is maximum profit, not the production of healthy food for human beings.

Bauer: An additional problem is that the highly bred conventional varieties are often no longer suitable for organic farming, as their natural resistance is no longer there - the plants must be treated with pesticides and fungicides (and heavy metals in seed dressings), for example. In addition to these growing-related reasons, there is a very different aspect: the quality of food. Even when we just look at taste, this has hardly played a role thus far in conventional breeding. Here we come to a point where it is not about the negatives of conventional breeding, but about the positive and unique aspects of organic and especially biodynamic cultivation. It's not just about the material, the foodstuffs, but about the living aspect, which is literally our means of life. It's about the life force that is made available to human beings by the consumption and enjoyment of our food. The aim is to optimally support people, to provide them with a basis for physical, mental and spiritual development. Salutogenesis is the keyword here. That is the key, in my view. Of course, this is not an easy field to research. That's why we as a foundation fund research projects that investigate ways to make life forces visible and demonstrable, for example with image-creating methods.

What are the real problems and challenges in seed breeding and research? Why are there hardly any organic seeds in some areas?

Plischke: In Central Europe, we have perhaps eight or nine initiatives focused on biodynamic breeding in vegetables and cereals. In the area of cereals, these initiatives can develop, register and sell three to five new varieties per year. This is a process that costs (for cereals) many thousands of euros. Biodynamic cultivation is by no means fully funded; some breeders do this in addition to their full-time jobs.

So is the financing of seed breeding the problem?

Plischke: It is indeed a great challenge, because the returns and licenses from the sale of the seed alone don't even come close co covering the costs of organic seed breeding. At the moment we have expenditures of about two million euros per year, of which about 800,000 euros are covered by the seed fund of the GLS Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft (“Foundation for Future Farming,” a foundation associated with the GLS bank and focused on the future of sustainable agriculture).  350,000 euros is donated by SAGST and the rest comes from different grants and donations.

Bauer: Another challenge, in my view, is that the varieties that have been bred so far often have small yields in cultivation. This is because conventional varieties that have been around a long time have a breeding advantage thanks to many years of development. This means that growers' acceptance of organically bred varieties is lower. The pressure on the market is enormous, and unfortunately it's often more a matter of quantity than of quality in terms of organic farming. There's also the expectation of uniformity on the side of retailers and regulatory authorities. The retailer thinks that customers will only accept snow-white cauliflower, but not cream-coloured ones.

Are there any concrete models for success?

Bauer: GLS Treuhand and the Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft, including the seed funds, play a very important role, because this has really created a neutral body that distributes funds free of its own economic interests, according to need and necessity. This fund can also be further developed, in my view, in that it can also receive public funding or larger sums from the value creation chain. But the entire field is still in the grassroots stage; one can't really even speak of a niche yet. For financing seed research and breeding, I see two main strands: on the one hand, the organic seed breeders provide a service to society, as seeds have cultural value, in terms of biodiversity. This is in the interest of the state and should therefore also be supported. The other strand includes all participants in the value chain.

Plischke: Another best practice example is the initiative “Kultursaat,” an organization that's involved with breeding research and crop plant conservation on a biodynamic basis. Especially worthy of note is the project “Fair Breeding” that includes all stakeholders in the value chain, from grower to retailer to final customer, in pricing. Such collaborations are above all effective in creating awareness. I am sure that many people are willing to pay more, but I have to explain it to them.

Bauer: One very exciting idea is to transfer the open source concept from the software industry to the field of seeds. At SAGST we have funded a preliminary study about this. At the moment we have two project applications in this field, which we are evaluating together with the Stiftung Mercator Schweiz. These are about further developing the open source concept and developing concrete suggestions. Another approach is to consider the idea of a “commons”, the idea of common property.

What role can a foundation like SAGST play in this regard?

Plischke: As a foundation we can offer a platform, create connections and establish contacts - for example between sellers, companies and growers. We can be a neutral moderator. In the end, of course, it is also a matter of providing funding, whereby the foundation performs what is actually a task of the state. Our concern is for plant breeding to remain high in quality.

Bauer: In our role as moderator we have to ask ourselves the question, how we can further develop this area so that it's no longer a niche topic? What is also important to me is the concept of association. All participants in the value chain, from the breeder and the producer, to the grower, to the retailer and the customer, must understand themselves to be part of one association with an interest in keeping every link in the chain strong. This includes, for example, an appreciation of quality and fairness in pricing. A commercial grower who gets too little for the products he cultivates is not economically sustainable, has difficulty using seeds from organic breeders for the reasons listed above, and can contribute only in a very limited extent to the overall process.

What can the consumer, the end consumer, do to ensure that products labelled “organic” really are?

Bauer: Consumers can do a lot. Anyone, for example, can directly support organic seed breeding by making tax-deductible donations to the seed funds. But quite practically, people can also check when purchasing products whether they were generated from a true to seed variety. This is sometimes even listed on the packaging. Finally, by asking targeted questions we can ensure that more awareness if created for this issue.

The questions were asked by Peter Augustin.