Organic production is growing – but what about its basis: organic seeds?

Goal 2035. When will we have organic seeds in organic farming?
123rf Limited©zych. Farmer opening bag with seeds

Consumers nearly everywhere in Europe tend to buy more and more healthy food – in particular food that is labelled organic. This development has received an additional push through the Corona pandemic, which made many people realise the importance – and vulnerability – of vitality and good health. But does this also increase the demand for organic seeds?

More and more organic production – but not necessarily based on organic seeds

When it comes to growing organic produce, Spain has the largest amount of certified organic acreage in Europe, and even an increasing number of Demeter-certified farms. However, the very beginning of organic plant production – the use of organic seeds – lacks far behind. Around 90% of all Spanish organic products are based on mass-produced, conventional seeds. Those seeds come in varieties which are supposedly suited for entire countries – a claim, that anyone who knows the diversity of the Spanish agricultural landscape will question. On top of that, most of these seeds, which account for roundabout 400 Million Euros a year, are purchased mainly from six huge international seed companies.

EU organic regulation stipulates that, from 2035, all organic products within Europe must be grown with organic seeds.

As a consequence, Spanish agriculture has become highly dependent on seed imports and lost control over what is being grown within its own national borders. Sustainable agriculture and regional food sovereignty, however, require the development and availability of healthy seeds that are adapted to their local climate and soil conditions.

From 2035, all organic food must come from organic seeds

So far, the increasing demand for organic products drives farmers to grow as much produce as they can, using any seed that is available to them. At the moment, this is still allowed – but soon enough, circumstances are going to change. The EU organic regulation defines that from 2035, all organic products within Europe must be grown with organic seeds. What sounds like far away is a scenario that requires breeders and farmers to react now – not in 15 years time. In France, many farmer initiatives are already getting ready for these regulatory changes and use and promote organic seeds. By doing so, they underpin their organic commitment and integrity and manage to differentiate from their competitors.

Spanish activities around organic seeds are slowly starting to emerge

Unfortunately, the Spanish wheels grind much slower. Nevertheless, organisations like Red Andaluza de Semillas and consultancies like Ecovalia, both from Andalucía, are starting to emerge. And the organic and biodynamic seed companies like Semillas Vivas in Spain and Sementes Vivas in Portugal have been promoting the idea of open pollinated, regional seed production around the Mediterranean since 2015.

 Around 90% of all Spanish organic products are based on mass-produced, conventional seeds

Together with local organic farmers in Spain and Portugal, who generate an additional income by seed multiplication, traditional, local varieties are selected and multiplied. Although Semillas Vivas and Sementes Vivas are mainly active in the Iberian Peninsula, first projects are on their way in Morocco, too. Interestingly, both companies originate on Swiss Financing, where activities around organic and biodynamic seeds are already quite developed and where consumer demand for organic foods is particularly high.

llavors ecològiques
123rf Limited©Thodsapol Thongdeekhieo. Cucumber

How can the use of organic seeds become more popular?

A key role for using and promoting organic seeds is communication in retail. But big companies like Mercadona, the leading Spanish food chain, show a certain deafness when sustainable or organic subjects are raised. This may be why enterprises like Lidl, Carrefour or smaller regional providers seek to make a difference by promoting organic as a proof of their understanding of quality. On the other hand, many Spanish companies already promote the regionality of their produce.

Most of these seeds, which account for roundabout 400 Million Euros a year, are purchased mainly from six huge international seed companies

Regional or local is often the first step into organic, and those who are really committed may soon enough start to not only use, but also promote organic seeds. The required efforts can be made transparent on product labels and, for example, coordinated in organic seed campaigns across retailers in order to significantly increase consumer awareness.

More governmental support and research is needed

Unfortunately and surprisingly, Spanish governmental departments only provide very little support for any activities around organic seeds. This is in stark contrast to Portugal, where companies and authorities have discovered organics as a strategic element for their rural development. However, in both countries, there are still hardly any research and development activities for organic plant breeding. The Germany-based non-profit-organisation Lebende Samen – Living Seeds e.V. is one of the very few players that initiates and finances plant breeding projects in the Mediterranean. The organisation closely cooperates in plant breeding with Sementes Vivas and Semillas Vivas, research institutions like CICYTEX, the Seedbank of Extremadura, the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the University of Catalunya. The breeding projects are implemented together with local farmers, and the focus on open pollinated seeds allows for anyone to reproduce the developed varieties. All activities are dedicated to preserve, develop and professionalise the cultural organic heritage of Southern Europe – without applying private patents.

Stefan Doeblin, president and one of the founders of Living Seeds e.V

Stefan Doeblin, president and one of the founders of the non-profit organisation, explains: “Our activities at Living Seeds e.V. include fundraising, the implementation of organic and biodynamic plant breeding programmes, networking with research institutes, farmers and commercial organic seed companies as well as publicity and raising awareness. We welcome all those who are interested in supporting our work to visit our website www.lebendesamen.bio and become a member of our association. With your help, we will develop nutritious and resistant organic plants for healthy yields in Southern Europe – in harmony with nature”.

Author: Ina Hiester, Lebende Living Seeds, e.V. Communication Manager

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Bio Eco Actual, Independent European Organic Press
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