Seeds, Food and Health – raising awareness

More and more consumers are waking up to the importance of buying good quality, local food. When asking various organic shop owners, I was told that their most dedicated customers are young couples with children. Some consumers in cities have begun to support local farmers by buying food directly from the farm or from farmers markets. In this way, the profit is beginning to shift back to the farmers and a dialogue is created between producer and consumer, especially in organic and biodynamic food production. Farmer’s Markets are becoming popular again. Community supported agriculture, where consumers become a member of a farm, guarantee the budget of production, support harvesting and are personally involved with the farmers, even if the harvest is poor due to weather conditions. It is a model with real potential to balance producer and customer interests and could be used for all kinds of agricultural projects.

Today one kilo of carrots costs around €0.4 in the conventional market, and €1 in the organic market (Aldi Germany) whilst one tractor costs between €20,000 and €100,000. Meaning that large amounts of produce must be sold in order to afford a tractor. In order to obtain cheap labour, the produce must be cheap within the industrial business model. The workers are then likely to spend any surplus on goods and housing where the margins are really high and projectable. For example, a product such as an iPhone, has a total margin of more than 30%, whereas if you buy conventional carrots the margin is maybe 4-5% if you calculate the average over the years. Since the industrial revolution, most governments subsidise food and agricultural activities in order to keep the cost of living low (hidden in high taxes) as well as covering the cost of cleaning the agrochemicals from the water. A consumer who buys organic food pays twice. They pay a higher price for the organic product in comparison to the market price of the conventional equivalent and then they pay for the government subsidies to clean the water and to support the agriculture machinery with their taxes. But at least one thing is certain when buying organic produce – non-toxic food with higher a spiritual frequency.

Development of Biodynamic Seeds and Plant Breeding

In the last 30 years, more and more seed initiatives, especially through the biodynamic associations, have been established. In the 1980’s in Germany, some biodynamic farmers identified seeds as an issue that needed to be taken care of. They founded plant breeding and seed multiplication initiatives. This resulted in the set up of three companies; Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, a 100% organic and biodynamic seed production and processing organisation, the non-profit association Kultursaat e.V., which already finances 30 biodynamic vegetable, flower and herb plant breeders, and the cereal plant breeding company Darzau. In addition to these came Sativa Rheinau AG, a 100% organic seed production and processing company, Peter Kunz cereal plant breeding and the non-profit seed-saving organisation ProSpeciaRara in Switzerland. In Austria, the organic seed company Reinsaat and the seed-saving organisation ArcheNoa established themselves on the map as well as DeBolster in the Netherlands. With revenue ranging between €6-8 million, all seed companies are profitable and plant breeding associations are funded by over €4 million per year. In the UK, the biodynamic seed company Stormy Hall Seeds was established and has now developed into the Co-operative Seeds organisation. In Denmark there are now several seed initiatives developing and in the USA is the organic seed alliance. There are now many seed-saving organisations across Europe, the majority of which are not-for-profit and volunteer-run. The problem is that these initiatives do not reach economy on scale and lack the ability to coordinate activities and combine forces. If all Demeter and organic farmers used organic and biodynamic instead of conventional seeds, the production would reach the volume and scale needed to earn enough to finance plant breeding independently. On the other hand, the growing awareness shows that seeds are an issue.

What we can learn from the existing organic and biodynamic seed companies? They show us how important it will be to create a model that can be replicated in various markets using local knowledge to serve local seed production needs.In 2015, a small, international group of passionate people from 6 countries (Belgium, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK) created an Iberian seed initiative, Living Seeds Sementes Vivas, in Idanha a Nova, Portugal (which has since expanded to include a site in Spain), producing and distributing organic and biodynamic seeds. The challenge was to establish and spread the local knowledge and wisdom of producing high quality seeds whilst taking production to a larger scale with the aim of empowering countries to be more independent in their food chains. The short-term method would seem to be to produce high quality, open and self-pollinating seeds; traditional populations approved for multiplying and registered without plant breeder rights or patents, to promote organic and biodynamic agriculture as well as local markets and direct sales from producers to consumers. The current Portuguese government has defined organic agriculture as a strategic pillar. They have installed a promotional programme of organic food in public schools and hospitals. Idanha-a-Nova established itself as the first officially organic “Bio-region” and four others followed in its lead and received the same status in November 2018. The municipalities and the local people’s initiatives play a vital role in this movement. The government and the municipality of Idanha have given the project a 50-year lease for land and building, which underwrites a 50-year commitment for organic seed production in Portugal. This public-private partnership seems to have created a lineage of publicly owned organic seeds for production and processing.

The production of organic and biodynamic seeds is based on a different business model; one that is participatory, shared, collaborative and network-orientated. The lack of knowledge and investment could potentially be partially compensated for by sharing, collaborating and networking in seed development and plant breeding. The exchange of seeds, trials of seed adaptations, knowledge in how best to clean seeds and which machines are necessary, how to manage the machinery for seed cleaning and processing, which storage to use with which temperature and humidity level, which kind of seed bag is necessary to guarantee a high germination rate – even under high temperature conditions of 45°C outside… these are just a few of many questions to be answered. Networking with seed companies, research institutes, trainers and farmers reduces costs and generates more knowledge through the exchange of experiences. European initiatives like ECO-PB (European Committee of Organic Plant Breeding, eco-pb.org), FIBL (European Research Centre of Organic Agriculture and Plant Breeding, fibl.org), the EU organic farming and plant breeding project Liveseed (liveseed.eu), are all essential for improving local, sustainable projects such as Sementes Vivas. The collaboration of plant breeding programmes and seed multiplication projects with public institutions makes it possible to quickly and effectively gather local wisdom and seed material. The exchange of organic and biodynamic plant breeding experiences between Central/Northern Europe and the Iberian are requisite.

The only way to save our world is by introducing a new agro-business model based on networking, shared investment, localism and passionate collaboration with a larger proportion of consumers. “Small is beautiful” but small in collaborative networking is more beautiful.

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