Organic Seeds for Portugal: The Benefits of Cooperation

Mrs Ana Maria Barata is the Head of the Seed Bank in Braga, Portugal, within the National Institute of Agricultural and Veterinary Research INIAV under the Ministry of Agriculture. The gene bank was founded in 1977 and, assigned by the United National Food and Agricultural Organisation FAO, hosts a European and Mediterranean collection of important cultural seeds like maize, beans, cabbages, and other vegetables as well as aromatic plants. Ana Maria Barata has been involved in research in plant genetic resources for a long time - especially by gathering, evaluating and conserving genetic resources. She is convinced that it is necessary to bring organic plant breeding to Portugal and therefore supports the Portuguese-Spanish organic plant breeding company Sementes Vivas / Semillas Vivas and its related non-profit organisation Lebende Samen e.V.. Over the years, she and her institute have become close cooperation partners for seed related research and studies. An example is the recently published case study „Organic Breeding for Diversity - Exploring Brassica Germ plasm“ co-authored by herself and Stefan Doeblin, the initiator and founder of Sementes Vivas and Lebende Samen. The following interview with Ana Maria Barata was held in September 2020 via video call by Karin Heinze, BiO Reporter International.

Karin Heinze: Mrs Barata, very nice to meet you, thank you for the opportunity to ask you some questions regarding your long-term commitment to organic seeds. Your experience and knowledge in this area are very valuable to us. Since when have you been collaborating with Sementes Vivas and Lebende Samen?

Mrs Barata: In late 2014 I met with Bettina Gerike and Stefan Doeblin, the founders of Sementes Vivas. They contacted and visited me. Their idea of founding an organic seed company was very interesting for me since Portugal had hardly any seed production and especially no organic seeds at all. Organic seeds used in Portugal came from Italy, France or the Netherlands and therefore it made much sense to establish a Portuguese organic plant breeding company. Not only myself, but also the institution INIAV believed in this idea, because we saw the necessity of becoming more independent by producing organic seeds and doing research and breeding in a specific way to develop varieties especially for the Mediterranean. So, we were happy to help and support this young initiative.

Karin Heinze: Have you recognized a rising demand in organic seeds

Mrs Barata: There is a rising demand because Portugal has strategic reasons to push organic agriculture and horticulture aligned with many other European countries. This is the result of the increasing interest of consumers to buy organic food because it helps to solve many ecological problems. Therefore, the necessity to expand the area of organically farmed land as well as the need for organic seed production. But, you know, with Sementes Vivas it was the first time that people with a serious concrete business idea for organic seed production in our country contacted me and convinced me of their plans. The collaboration was set up quickly, starting at a small scale. But today I can say we are working together with Sementes Vivas in big projects, for example in an EU-project with cabbage (Brassica) in the context of LiveSeed, a European project under the umbrella of IFOAM Organics Europe and FiBL, the research institute for organic farming in Europe. This project is planned to be finished in 2021.

Karin Heinze: What drives you personally to invest time and interest into organic plant breeding?

Mrs. Barata: I believe in the benefits of organic seeds and farming – for nature’s sake and thus for us. In the beginning, I had to convince the people here at the seed bank in Braga, but now the issue is very topical and widely known. Our ministry is also convinced that it is future-oriented to invest in organic agriculture and that of course we also need organic seed production. This means that we should invest heavily in organic seeds if we are aiming for 25% - 30% organically farmed land in Europe in the future, already by 2030. This is exactly what the EU intends to do with the Green Deal. The Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture has decided to support this plan and to implement it in this decade. Our ministry really cares about the development of organic farming because it not only helps to solve the biodiversity, climate and environmental crisis, but is also is a good way to help small farmers access markets and increase their income levels.

Karin Heinze: What are the benefits for the seed bank’s cooperation with Sementes Vivas?

Mrs. Barata: First let me say something personal. We respect each other and have developed not only a business cooperation, but also a friendship over the years. To continue this collaboration, we had the agreement of the National Institute for Agrarian and Veterinarian Research (INIAV) and signed a Memorandum Of Understanding in 2016 which defines that Sementes Vivas multiplies and returns seeds to the gene bank and is allowed to market these seeds. Therefore, I am very grateful that Sementes Vivas established a seed company and continued working together with us at the seed bank. It is a win-win situation in my opinion. Sementes Vivas is testing seeds from the gene-bank and after selection they can commercialise the seeds. Another big benefit of collaborating with Sementes Vivas is the fact that the climate conditions in Braga, where the seed bank is located, and Idanha-Nova, the place where Sementes Vivas has some of its trial fields, are quite different. This is perfect for research, testing and breeding.

Karin Heinze: Which projects are you currently working on, together with Sementes Vivas?

We have three programs going on with Sementes Vivas: One is the selection and production of cabbage in organic mode, another is to study maize intercropped with cowpea and the third one is an EU funded project in collaboration with Lebende Samen for the evaluation of carrots. For these projects, it is very helpful to have a partnership in the private sector, to have a different research approach and to share work, too. After all, research is also always a question of capacity and financing.

Karin Heinze: Do you think organic plant breeding has a bright future in Portugal?

Mrs. Barata: Yes, I think the demand is rising and will increase further in the future. Talking about the future, we are very pleased to see another exciting project with Sementes Vivas coming up. Jointly with Stefan Doeblin and his colleagues, INIAV has proposed to implement and coordinate a proposal for a research and training centre for organic production in Idanha. This ambitious project involves not only Sementes Vivas and but also the University of Coimbra, FIBL and the municipality of Idanha. Many good initiatives are getting together here, and I appreciate that very much. It is important to have a place where we can do research, field trials and spread the practical knowledge of organic plant breeding further, train more people in that special field. Sementes Vivas wants to become more important in organic seed production because the organic market and the demand for organic vegetables are increasing on the national level and on the export level in the Mediterranean. So seed production in organic is needed.

Another important reason why I believe in a bright future for organic plant breeding is the necessity and our common effort to fight climate change. Farmers and all of us have to deal with it and we need new breeds to make our food plants resilient for these challenges. Organic breeding methods are effective and based on old local varieties that can be more resilient in certain climatic conditions. We maintain those varieties in the gene bank, and we have good material to develop resistant and healthy adapted genetic materials. In a common effort of working together with Sementes Vivas and Lebende Samen we can reach better results in a shorter time. I would also like to mention our project "Farmer´s Pride" - where we work together with experienced small farmers who select their own seeds from old varieties. This is great – but we need a systematic approach as well and that can be done by the experts of Sementes Vivas with its team of professional plant breeders. So, to finally resume our relation with Sementes Vivas and Lebende Samen, it is a very important and fruitful collaboration.

Karin Heinze: Thank you very much for this interesting conversation, Mrs Barata.