Organic Plant Breeding is Part of the Ecological Transformation

Helena Maria de Oliveira Freitas is a professor for biodiversity and ecology at the renowned University of Coimbra, at the faculty of life sciences. She studied biology in Portugal and Germany and worked in Stanford/ USA on climate change subjects. Back in Portugal she started her own research team “Science for People and the Planet” at the University Coimbra which over time grew to about 250 researchers in all kinds of ecological issues from soil ecology to climate change. Helena Freitas was also president of the nature conservation organization WWF in Portugal and has a chair for biodiversity protection at the UNESCO, where she aims to promote ecological goals in African states. Another important engagement is her role at the board of the EU commission where she focuses on climate change and the FARM TO FORK strategy. She is very committed to ecological transformation and is one of the key supporters of the centre of applied science in Idanha, the first science centre for organic agriculture in Portugal located directly in 800 hectares of organic agricultural land. That is the very place where Sementes Vivas is operating from. The following interview with Prof. Helena Freitas was conducted  by Karin Heinze, BiO Reporter International.

Karin Heinze: What an amazing career, dear Helena Freitas. Sementes Vivas and Lebende Samen can be quite grateful to have you on their side as a strong supporter and advanced specialist in ecology and biodiversity. Can you tell us how you got in contact with the initiative and why you carried on supporting it?

Helena Freitas: It must have been at one of the conferences that were organized by the municipality of Idanha and Sementes Vivas in 2016 and 2017. Back then, I was developing a strategy and roadmap for regional initiatives and local clusters to promote local resources, in order to change the health and education system and increase job opportunities. For me, the company Sementes Vivas clearly showed a lot of potential for local development. I saw it as a hub for change. There was a kind of benign impulse to build a completely new resource by growing local seeds and by organic plant breeding. Two aspects I liked most: The goal of transforming the traditional agriculture into an innovative, future orientated farming system in harmony with nature. The second aspect was that these young people were highly motivated and moved into a region which was in danger to be depopulated – amongst other things, due to the lack of job opportunities. They founded something really inspiring, something new.  This was a very strong combination and a great approach. Stefan Doeblin and his team managed to build a sustainable company in Idanha, involving the municipality and the major. All this shed a positive light on Sementes Vivas, showing the high potential of the ideas of the initiative and convinced me to support them ever since.

Karin Heinze: What did your contribution lead to? 

Helena Freitas: During many discussions we developed the idea to build an organic centre for practical field work, breeding, and research in Idanha.

Karin Heinze: Which role will seeds play in the organic centre?

Helena Freitas: To collect, save and maintain local seeds and to preserve genetic resources is a great goal and a very beneficial work for our society. To do this in an international network and in collaboration with the national seed bank (INIAV) is wonderful. But there is another important narrative which is also very much in line with the plans of an organic centre as well as with the goals of many transition initiatives in the EU and worldwide - this is the narrative of change. It is a fact that we are facing the climate crisis. The transformation of our food systems plays a big role in coping with it. We really need this change in our industrial agriculture and our industrialized, food wasting and unhealthy ways of dealing with food - we need to select, buy, cook and even eat differently. This is a challenge for all of us, but there is no other way! In our small project, I can see a sustainable path to the future. We have the chance for an ecological transition and to share the knowledge of organic farming and plant breeding with other interested people. Organic plant breeding is an important instrument for more biodiversity, and we have to make use of that. At the science centre for organic farming and organic plant breeding we can also work on programs to increase soil fertility, do research in plant physiology, plant health, plant nutrition, breeding research and much more.  

Karin Heinze: Where does the Organic Centre stand now? Is there any governmental support?

Helena Freitas: The farm and the infrastructure of Sementes Vivas company is there and the municipality as well as the ministry of agriculture promised support. This was the status in summer 2020 but then the pandemic subdued a lot of activities and drew most of the attention. Of course this was necessary – but it was not very helpful for our project. But we have chosen two students, Marie and Paulo, to support the field and research work and we will apply for more human resources and money. A fantastic advantage is the fact that FiBL Switzerland is involved and we will get their advanced knowledge, their experience and their network. We will certainly benefit from this.

Karin Heinze: What about support from the EU?

Helena Freitas: That is a complicated issue because there is much uncertainty and of course the old system with its lobby still works. On the national level and on the EU level there are some good strategies and promising plans like the farm to fork strategy and the climate strategy. But when it comes to the very concrete Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) you see the old lobbies with their goals that counteract the ecological transition - despite the fact that we only have one decade for a real bottom up transition and the transformation towards more climate protection, against the massive loss of biodiversity, the contamination of water and soil. We have to accelerate the process very much to get the things done in this decade.

Karin Heinze: How can this bottleneck be overcome?

Helena Freitas: Sometimes there is a step into the right direction and we can only hope that many more of the political leaders of this world get the recognition from the press and from voters because it is high time to initiate and realize a transition towards sustainability. There are some impressive people on a very high responsibility level like our Portuguese UN General Secretary António Guterres or EU President Ursula von der Leyen with her plan to make Europe climate neutral, many scientists expressed strong warnings and influencers like Greta with her Fridays for Future movement got a lot of attention. We should support them. I think the youth will play an important role as a game changer.

Karin Heinze: Do you recognize an increasing interest of students in topics like ecology, organic seeds, and biodiversity?

Helena Freitas: The environmental perception of young people and their wish to create a different social, health, food, and agriculture system is really strong. At my university I can see that more and more young people are motivated to study ecological subjects. We are just about to start a new master course in biological resources and new farming solutions. Our main goal must be to invest in the ecological transition and the decarbonization of the planet. Ecological seeds, local varieties that can adapt to the changing climatic conditions for sure play an important role and the interest on these topics is increasing. It is our chance to develop a better strategy. Therefore let us stay positive and optimistic.

Karin Heinze: Any last words from your side on organics? What is your conclusion?

Helena Freitas: We all must notice the urgent call of this decade and work on solutions for a transformation. Every day we have to do our best and keep on working in a powerful way along with our convictions. Organic is part of the solution for the future of our planet. Sharing and spreading the organic principles is absolutely vital, because organic ways sustain our health and the health of the world`s ecosystem. It is an intelligent approach because if you protect the planet, you protect the people and keep this complex system of life going. On the other hand, when we as mankind go back to our biological matrix, deep into our biological nature, we can enliven our essential values of humanity, friendship, love and understanding, peace, cultural sharing. We must rebuild our inner wealth and recover so many aspects of the beauty and richness of our world. It is the most intelligent way to live in harmony with nature, biodiversity, and common goods.

Karin Heinze: Thank you very much for your interesting insights.