Edith Lammerts van Bueren, Agricultural scientist

Louis Bolk Institute, Hoofdstraat 24, NL-3972 LA Driebergen

A position paper prepared for the Ifgene workshop Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants in the Context of Genetic Engineering, 9-11 May 2001, Goetheanum, Basel, Switzerland


Organic farming1 is being recognised as a growing economic activity and one that meets many of society's current demands on agriculture such as sustainability, biodiversity, regional development, multifunctionality and respect for the intrinsic values of plant and animals. However, as this method of farming expands, plant breeding is becoming a major bottleneck.

Currently, organic farmers largely depend on varieties supplied by conventional plant breeders, even though organic farming conditions ask for varieties with different characteristics from those. Another problem is that conventional breeders are increasingly using gene technology to produce new, genetically modified varieties which are neither desired nor allowed in organic farming. Continued dependence on conventional breeding systems is therefore undesirable.

In order to present a GMO-free plant breeding system for organic agriculture ('organic plant breeding') as an alternative to breeding with gene technology, the organic sector must do more than explain why it is against the use of GMOs. It will have to explain what approach to breeding it does want if it is to do justice to plants from an organic point of view.



The Louis Bolk Institute, an independent research institute in the field of organic farming, published a discussion paper and a final report on the organic sector's ideas and preconditions for a professional plant breeding system without gene technology (Lammerts van Bueren et al, 1998 and 1999).2

Organic breeding is not the same as propagating varieties that have been produced by the conventional system and selling these on the organic market. Organic farmers have different requirements for variety characteristics (products) and for the manner in which the product comes about (process). Guiding principles for a breeding system for organic farming must encompass both ecological and socio-economic aspects.



Organic farmers want a production level that is economically sound and viable from a sustainable farm management view. The demand on natural sources in and around the farm should not exceed the carrying capacity. Farm management is aimed at supporting the self-regulating ability of the soil, the plants and the animals on the farm. In paricular, soil fertility must be prevented from deterioration or even enhanced.The use of synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides is not allowed.

Because of the use of compost, organic farmers are more exposed to natural variability in farm conditions. That is why organic farmers need varieties that adapt well to specific soil situations on each farm and that grow well at low fertility levels. More than conventional farmers, organic farmers greatly value variety characteristics that contribute substantially to weed reduction, that contribute to a broad resistance to diseases and pests and a high product quality, for example taste.

To find basic, ecological principles for a breeding method for organic agriculture we have translated the basic principles from the farm level which involve a closed circular course, self-regulation and diversity to the plant level which requires respect for 1) self-reproducibility, 2) autonomous adaptability and 3) species barriers and species-specific characteristics. These principles characterise the specific nature of plants, in other words their intrinsic values and integrity .

1. Self-reproducibility.

According to the ecological principles of organic agriculture, a crop must be able to complete its life cycle in natural, organic soil circumstances. This ensures that the crop maintains its developmental potential in different growing conditions and guarantees sustainable use in the breeding system. Some modern hybrid varieties have lost their reproductive ability. Apart from losing their uniformity in the next generation, parent lines of some hybrids can only be maintained with propagation by tissue culture. Another issue is cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). This technique makes the propagation of hybrids easier by ensuring that female lines and progeny are male sterile. Sterility may be restored with a restorer line, which is not always available. From an organic point of view production of sterile varieties (including the latest method of seed termination) is ethically unsound as they result in an unsustainable use of plants, which are the result of centuries of cultivation. The proposal is to allow the use of hybrids in organic farming only if the vigour of the parent line has not declined to the extent that natural propagation is no longer possible and if F1 progeny can still be used for reproduction (i.e. is not male sterile using cms without a restorer line).

2. Autonomous adaptability

Central to the ecological standpoint is the view that plants or crops should be studied in their interaction with the environment, in other words as a whole. Thus in situ selection is more important than selection based on individual, genetic traits alone. It is therefore important that breeding activities are carried out in organic circumstances, at the regional level.

Supporting autonomous adaptability to natural variation in environmental factors means increasing the genetic variation in and among the varieties of each crop and striving for durable levels of polygenetic resistance to diseases and pests rather than absolute, monogenetic resistance, as is the case with the use of the current genetic modification techniques.

3. Species barriers

Another question often posed in discussion is to what extent crosses between species should be allowed. Organic agricultural principles aim to respect natural species authenticity. Cross-breeding may be allowed to increase variation, for example to transfer the resistance characteristics of a wild plant to its cultivated equivalent, provided the cultivar maintains its ability to have the fertilisation taking place on the plant itself (and not in vitro).

In addition to respecting natural species authenticity, plant breeding from an organic perspective should retain or improve the quality aspects of a plant, such as taste, keepability and nutritional value. Desired aspects are subject to regional differences (diversification).



From an organic agricultural perspective, a succesful plant breeding programme is not only based on a close plant-environment interaction, but also on a close cooperation between farmers and breeders, optimising the use of mutual knowledge and experience. A more participatory plant breeding approach should be developed.

Modern plant breeding becomes more and more dependent on legislation measurements. Current legislation on the authorisation of new varieties is a bottleneck in the marketing of varieties with greater genetic diversity, suitable for organic farming. These laws need to be amended. The organic sector agrees that breeders' rights should be maintained, but demand more consideration for organic farmers' needs. This will require several changes such as a new funding structure for organic breeding.



In the above mentioned papers, the possibilities and acceptability of all current breeding techniques for organic farming were assessed on the basis of ecological and socio-economic principles. The techniques can be subdivided according to the level of plant organisation: the level of the crop and the plant, the level of cell (tissue culture) and the molecualr level (genetic modification).

Organic plant breeding should be based on selection and crossing techniques at crop and plant level. These techniques address the plant-environment interaction and are better suited to a participatory breeding approach.

The organic sector has its reservations about breeding techniques at the cell level. Although the cell may be defined as the smallest living entity, there is no question of interaction between the organism and the natural organic environment at this level. From an organic point of view the plant is the smallest entity to focus on. Reducing plants to the level of the cell and culturing cells in the laboratory should be seen as an ecological detour, since adaptation to the organic farm situation must occur at a later phase in the breeding process. Many of these techniques are termed 'biotechnology'. Some have been used for years without enough awareness and objection from the organic sector. Sometimes these techniques are necessary when the 'distance' between the wild plant and his cultivated equivalent has grown too far for crossing. Alternatives will need to be developed should the organic sector decide against using such techniques.

EC Regulation 2092/91 on organic production prohibits the use of genetically modified material in organic production. Such a ban is justified on the basis of organic farming principles:

However, in addition to genetic modification, selection techniques have been developed at the level of DNA, which do not alter a plant's DNA. In this case, such a DNA diagnostic method might supplement, but never replace, other field selection methods in an organic breeding programme.

A specific breeding system for organic agriculture is essential if the sector is to develop its potential and optimise its farming methods. It is important that organic agriculture, in the interests of a free choice in society, remains GMO-free. It is thus unavoidable that the organic sector sets up its own alternative breeding system, which does not exclude participation of or cooperation with conventional seed companies.

The organic sector makes a plea for a plant breeding system that respects the principles and demands of organic farmers and consumers. These principles and demands raise new breeding objectives. An organic breeding system should operate at a high level of plant organisation and should take into account regional differences and the complexity of agro-ecosystems. The scientific challenge to organic agriculture is to develop and optimise crossing and selection techniques at plant and crop level.



E.T.Lammerts van Bueren, M.Hulscher, J.Jongerden, M.Haring, J.Hoogendoorn, J.D. van Mansvelt, G.T.P.Ruivenkamp (1998). Sustainable organic plant breeding. Discussion paper: defining a vision and assessing breeding methods. Louis Bolk Institute, Driebergen.

E.T.Lammerts van Bueren, M.Hulscher, J.Jongerden, M.Haring, A.P.M. den Nijs, J.D. van Mansvelt, G.T.P.Ruivenkamp (1999). Sustainable organic plant breeding. Final report: a vision, choices, consequences and steps. Louis Bolk Institute, Driebergen.



1. Organic agriculture is understood to be that section of agribusiness which operates in accordance with Council Regulation (EU) no.2092/91 on organic production.

2. The discussion paper is part one of the project 'Towards sustainable organic plant breeding' funded by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries (Department of Science and Knowledge Dissemination), which ran from September 1997 to April 1999. The aim of this project was to draw up a vision and statements on the possiblities for a plant breeding based on organic values (part one), to guide the discussion between various organisations connected with the organic sector (part two), and to draw up a policy plan for development of a plant breeding system for organic agriculture (part three). After the discussion paper of 1998 a final report was published in 1999.

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