Conducted on July 2021
Anders Borgen (left) and Carlo Vollenweider (right) from the Dottenfelderhof, in a cereal field grown by Pellworm farmer Jan Gonne Thams.
© Adèle Pautrat
This interview was conducted on the occasion of the international meeting of organic cereal farmers and pland breeders organised in Pellworm, Germany, by the Seeds4All coordination team and the local NGO "Ökologisch Wirtschaften!". Some information therefore refer the reader to the pages of the website dedicated to the activity of Jan Gonne Thams, an organic farmer living on the island of Pellworm, and to the restitutions that have been made of this collective stay on a very particular territory.
The political debates on seed laws that have taken place over the past decades have essentially been about breeders' and farmers' rights, the control of the global seed market and a few corporations, exclusive patent rights, and the possibilities for farmers to propagate and reproduce theur seeds. European laws on seed breeding and marketing have hardly changed since the 1960s. The authorization and marketing of seed must meet requirements that have led to a standardisation of seed. Genetic diversity in agriculture have been drastically reduced as a result. A few high-yielding varieties are grown everywhere and are dependent on chemical plant protection measures. Only a few breeders and propagators have committed themselves to breeding seeds and plant material that adapt to climatic changes. One of them is Anders Borgen. He has been an organic farmer for 25 years and works as an organic cereal breeder in Northern Jutland, Denmark.
Seeds4All. Anders, you are trying to bring more diversity into cereal breeding. That goes against the trend. Is it worth it?
Anders Borgen. I don't invest my energy against conventional breeding. I focus on diversity because it is disappearing very fast in European cereal production. Almost all locally adapted peasant landraces that existed in Europe 50 years ago have disappeared from the fields. There are only a few varieties of wheat, barley, rye and oats that are now everywhere.
Yes diversity is a principle of nature and therefore a principle of organic farming. Is is an advantage to face the changing production conditions, the challenges of climate change, extreme weather conditions, and the drastic decline in soil fertility.
So it is not so much stubbornness that guides my work. I am curious to find out how the characteristics of individual plants and mixtures in populations can contribute to long-term resilient grain production.
S4A. Chemical-conventional breeding seems to offer ready-made solutions for every single goal and condition: high yield, resistance to drought, for every problem and purpose. Mixed populations, on the other hand, seem to offer less of everything. Why should farmers go back cultivating landraces or cereal populations?
AB. Because farmers who choose populations or organic varieties have chosen a completely different farming system. In the conventional farming system, they have higher yields - as long as everything goes well. But they depend on these ready-made solutions, which they cannot control, and which only work under the protective cloak of chemistry.
Buying conventional seeds means that farmers also have to buy and use fertilizers and pesticides. This is costly, and risky at the same time. If they choose landraces and work with their own populations, they know their crops and regain control over their production - and they save money! They can improve their knowledge and adapt to unpredictable conditions such as climatic and ecological changes.
They can also recover added value from the food chain by listening to consumers. More and more bakers and brewers are interested in the quality of these varieties and grain populations because they produce special foods that consumers want.
This is still a market niche, but soon it may be a new trend. Because conventional breeding is at its end. It costs a lot, limits diversity and it is at the mercy of climate change.
S4A. You have gathered a collection of more than seven thousand breeding lines of wheat from which you select plants with different characteristics. What are the most important aspects for a good mixture of cereal seeds?
AB. The basic line of my selections is to strengthen plant health in the broadest sense. This means seeds that are not susceptible to various diseases can successfully compete with weeds, have good growth habit and duration, or provide good quality straw along with the ear.
I observe and know each individual plant and its performance within a population. I need to know all my plants in order to select a good mix in populations. That is the part that is of interest for farmers.
But I also look to bakers and brewers. They want good specific baking or brewing properties, good water absorption or specific taste for their customers. When making the right mix, all these aspects are taken into account, not just yield.
Therefore, in a way, my mixes are useless for conventional farming system. Large conventional farms calculate average volume yields over a ten-year period and can afford large losses for some years, which are compensated by high yields in other years. How long will this last, we don't know. But small and organic farmers cannot afford such risks and losses. They need a reasonably stable income every year. And they need to get closer to natural conditions and to consumers in order to make a living.
S4A. Many people are intolerant to gluten in wheat these days. Are you also trying to select varieties or material that would respond to this growing demand?
AB. Yes, this is indeed a very high priority in my selection and breeding work. Conventional breeding has followed the demands of the baking industry to improve the so-called "falling numbers", where starch is converted into sugar, which happens during germination and results in baking qualities for industrial bakeries. I am focusing on removing these factors again to develop wheat seed varieties and blends that make wheat bread accessible again to gluten intolerant customers.
S4A. What do you take away from your visit to Pellworm?
AB. It seems to me that breeding for local conditions here on Pellworm is even more relevant than I had expected. With the growing number of wild geese eating the winter cereals and the need for delayed sowing for summer cereals until May, varieties are needed that can cope with shorter growing seasons, as in even more northerly regions where sowing is done in May and harvesting is done in September.
The conventional seed system can only offer a few varieties that suit average production conditions. There is therefore a lack of varieties and mixtures with characteristics that meet the special requirements here. That is why it makes sense to get to work now with farmers and breeders: on selecting lines and populations for the local conditions on Pellworm.