Organic plant breeding in the Mediterranean: our Projects

Our trial fields are in Idanha a Nova, Braga and Coimbra in Portugal as well as in Andalucia and Extremadura in Spain. They are chosen depending on the project partners. In 2021 we will start to operate in Morocco.

First participatory plant breeding project between Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula

This breeding project focuses on legumes, fava beans, and peas that are supposed to resist the increasing drought and heat in Southern Europe and Northern Africa. The results will also benefit farmers in Northern and Central Europe where weather conditions are becoming more and more extreme. The project has chosen legumes because they feed and cover the soil, are beneficial for carbon sequestration and nitrogen fixing, and serve as food for humans and feed for animals at the same time. Trainings will involve small-scale farmers, teaching them how to breed legumes and how to improve the quality of their seeds. For them, fava beans and peas are important crops and an important income stream. Therefore, healthy, adapted plants that can deal with drought and heat will secure their income whilst the required knowledge about the reproduction of open pollinated seeds will increase their food and economic sovereignty. Furthermore, the project will demonstrate that the organic market can give better returns. The breeding material is donated by the gene-bank ICARDA and the farmers of the High Atlas Mountain. We aim at establishing close partnerships between high qualified research centres (Science Centre of Idanha a Nova, Portugal, INRA, ICARDA Morocco), seed companies (Sementes Vivas is Portugal and Morocco) and small-scale farmers organised in the Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association, organic farms of Domaine Agricole and some farmers in the Iberian. The project will last 3-4 years and the participants are confident to be able to register some new varieties.

Open pollinated carrot varieties for organic production in the Mediterranean

Together with the organic seed company Living Seeds – Sementes Vivas S.A. and the organic wholesaler and producer Lehmann Natur, our association Lebende Samen – Living Seeds e.V. has set up a project in Sevilla/Spain and Idanha-a-Nova/Portugal. The aim of the project is to identify open pollinated carrot varieties suitable for organic production and select potential populations and improve existent cultivars to provide potential alternatives for hybrid varieties. Although COVID-19 made it impossible for the project to be carried out as planned, first conclusions about characteristics such as taste, colour and adaptability to Mediterranean organic conditions have been drawn. Read our report…

Evaluation and conservation of traditional varieties

When traditional varieties are received by the Lebende Samen team, they are evaluated and scored for user characteristics and plant habitual needs. The findings are archived in a data-base for traditional varieties. These base seeds are then grown and studied in order to find out how to improve their agricultural performance. The traditional characteristics of the variety are saved whilst the use and value are improved with a view towards more modern cultivation systems. Given the frightening reduction of varieties of locally cultivated plants, the archiving and preservation helps to protect the cultural organic heritage and documents and develops suitable plants of high nutritional value for the local population.

Selection cowpea and beans

At present, bean and cowpea evaluations are being organised in trials to study and improve their value in terms of resilience, taste, flavour, yield etc. Both crops are important and dear to Portugal. With the selection of local varieties, diverse cross-pollination seeds shall become available which are suited for a changing climate, whilst keeping their exquisite flavour and traditional character. Traditional varieties which are particularly vigorous and healthy are also registered in the national catalogue.

Base seed selections

In order to invigorate openly pollinated base seeds - in contrast to hybrid seeds which will not offer usable seeds themselves - selections are being made to improve yield, plant health, and quality characteristics of its fruits such as flavour and taste. This selection work is being done for many kinds of traditional crops as well as quinoa which has proven to be very well adapted to the Portuguese climate.

Flower mixes

Bees are stressed throughout Europe. Healthy flowers attract them and many other beneficial insects, and lead to an improved quality of their honey. Lebende Samen - Living Seeds e.V. organises biodiversity flower mixes in trials - both mixes of different varieties, as well as mixes of different species. A mid-term goal is to develop an insect-friendly flower mix which is suited to the Iberian climate. On the long run, this will contribute to overall biodiversity on organic farms and landscapes, whilst the flowers will protect and cover soils, deliver precious organic matter, and enchan us with their beauty.

Training Programmes for Farmers

For now, organic farmers can receive a certificate of exemption for the use of conventional seeds. This exemption will be suspended in 2035 through an EU directive for organic farming. Research should therefore focus on developing organic varieties adapted to the needs of the farmers and addressing the climate challenges. Biodiversity is key for organic farming and we need plenty of varieties due to different environmental conditions in each region. Farmers and gardeners have to be trained how, where and when to use organic seeds.

Training Programmes for Plant Breeders

In order to be able to move forward with organic plant breeding, skilled plant breeders are important. Our association therefore focuses on training programs and knowledge exchange among different countries from the North to the South. Our programmes are adapted to the specific agricultural and horticultural conditions and support the local organic and biodynamic vegetable, herb, and flower production. In the long term, they aim at reducing expensive imports from other countries, thus establishing food sovereignty. Since 2018, we have organised several programmes where we brought young breeders of southern Europe and senior breeders of central and northern Europe together. Those included Dr. Beat Boller from Agroscope (Switzerland), Thomas Heinze from Bingenheimer Saatgut (Germany) , Ruth Richter from Goetheanum (Switzerland), and Professor Dr Gunter Backes, University Kassel-Witzenhausen (Germany).