July 2023, Mariager, Denmark.
It was my fourth meeting in three years with Anders Borgen, founder of the association Agrologica. We had met in Austria at Arche Noah’s meeting on the new EU organic regulation, then at the European breeders, bakers and brewers meeting in Kalö in 2019, and on Pellworm island in 2021, with a group of breeders and farmers.
This time, in a rainy period of harvest season in July, we visited his fields, storage and analytic facilities of seed accessions, - an amazing moment for me and a precious moment of time which Anders offered despite his very long working days.
© Hannes Lorenzen
Hannes Lorenzen. When we met, Anders had just come back from a meeting with cereal breeders in Austria
focusing on common bunt in wheat*. This is one of his core fields of research and of his breeding interests. Anders, what did you bring back from that
I was surprised that KWS, the major German breeding company, seems now to be seriously interested in breeding organic cereal varieties. I think this is good news, because if we want to end the chemical treatment against this most important fungus infection of wheat, we need serious breeding for resistance against the common bunt in wheat varieties. This is not only important for the organic sector; it will be also very important for conventional crop production.
So, you trust KVS that your research done over decades will not just be skimmed off by a company? That you will have the honor and they the
That's simply the way it is. I know that they will profit from my knowledge, but I have no problem with that. The most important point is that we make wheat common bunt resistant, so that we can drop the chemical treatment. If that is the result of a collaboration between KWS and me, that's fine.
They have promised to share knowledge and resources and I did that too. They cannot take away or replace what I did so far, and I have not the means to do the next necessary steps alone.
I do understand other breeders who have invested a hell of a lot of money and need to have a decent return. I have been working with very low budget so far and I am mainly interested to get the bunt and the chemicals out of the wheat. If we get the seed companies use bunt resilient varieties that would be a huge success for all – not necessarily for the chemical companies, but for farming and society.
* Common bunt is a disease of both spring and winter wheats. It is caused by two very closely related fungi, Tilletia tritici (syn. Tilletia caries) and T. laevis (syn. T. foetida). It is a major disease in organic wheat. In conventional agriculture, common bunt is routinely managed with the use of synthetic chemical seed treatments. For this reason, common bunt is considered as relatively unimportant disease in conventional agriculture. However, since synthetic chemical inputs are prohibited in organic agriculture, common bunt is a major threat once more in organic wheat and seed production. The challenge today is to manage the disease without the use of chemical seed treatments.
You have been carrying out an impressive research work over decades with a broad range of wheat varieties and of virulent varieties of bunt in order to
identify genes of resistance against the bunt. How does your research work match with your wider breeding programme?
I have infected about of 850 varieties of wheat with about 8-10 varieties of spores. What you see here in the field is a huge trial of infections with bunt. Each little plot of let’s say 20 plants carries a different variety of wheat and a different variety of bunt spoors.
To analyse each plot and to distinguish about the level of resistance against the infection and to sort out the most resistant plant for further tests is quite a job. I think I can smell bunt in a plot better than anybody else. It smells like rotten fish.
But I need more than my nose and my brain to sort things out. Fortunately, I have found another nerd in digital programming and data collection working with me.
I am getting to the limits of my mission because this is not the only field I am dealing with. Bunt is my specific research bud, but there is still my broad organic cereal breeding and polyculture trials, apart from all the meetings and communication on it.
It seems you are not looking for help from bigger breeders brothers like KWS, but you also could imagine to pact with the devil. What about some help from crispr cas in order to knock out genes which allow to breed bunt resistant wheat?
That is the tricky question...
My method of breeding is slow, extremely slow, because I must do an immense number of trials to understand the complexity of interaction between my plants and the virulent spores of the bunt. It has taken decades and I do not know whether I will have success in my lifetime. No clue when nature decides to mutate in a way that supports me.
A more efficient and less time-consuming method of identifying the specific genes which make my wheat variety resistant against the spoors would help me and other breeders to offer varieties which do not need chemical treatment earlier than any of my trials. That is the researcher’s perspective.
Nevertheless, I share the view that new GMOs are still genetically modified organisms with all the risks which that modification carries, and they must be legally treated and labelled as such.
And by the way: we should be honest as organic breeders that we already use plenty of varieties of conventional breeding to improve the performance of our organic varieties.
Your farm looks like an immense patchwork of diversity, but also like an endless demand for attention and care for specific breeds and polycultures. You have
only a few people employed to support you. How do you balance your ambitions in research and breeding with the support you effectively need in terms of work and money?
I have not enough time for research and breeding. I sit almost 80% of my time at the computer instead of being in the field. I have 50 emails a day, meetings with breeders, bakers, mills, partners, our association, funders etc. and I must spend time for conferences and travel.
It all needs to be done, but I know I must find money in order to be able to delegate, breeding as well as communication.
In order to rise to the challenge of organic breeding we need one or two million euros. I would be able to attract competent and motivated breeders, people who improve and broaden our communication and educational work, and I could concentrate on research and breeding myself.
We're still in a niche where we shouldn't be any more. We've top varieties, but we need more multipliers, farmers, and bakers to work with us.
Your barn with its seed treatment and storage facilities are a unique assembly of machinery and analytical instruments. Everything is small and resonates beauty. From a mini combiner to the small treshing machine, tools for cleaning, drying, sorting, measuring, milling and analytical taxation of flour quality, this place feels like a celebration of the value and the power of seeds. Not many people will have the privilege of visiting this place. How do you reach out to people's attention and understanding for the changes we need in our farming and food system?
I am breeder and farmer in the first place, but I know I need the support and understanding of people who change with me. I make my own bread and I know where the click for people is possible. It can happen when they taste the difference and get a notion of food quality. The exchange with millers, bakers, brewers is essential because they carry the difference on to the eaters.
Food nowadays has a lot to do with people’s identity and with their health. So, we need to grasp their attention at those points. As food intolerances are growing, people look for reasons. Apart from a lot of additives in food the origin of the flour also plays an important role, such as certain digestion inhibitors in processed food.
Testing the gluten index or avoiding gluten in bread is not necessarily a solution. There are many factors like germination inhibitors which do not allow a proper digestion. And there are reasons why allergens can enter directly into the blood stream.
Wheat contains morphine just as mother milk does and it is the door opener through the tight junctions into the blood stream. We are just at the beginning of understanding how and why certain food intolerances and autoimmune reactions are increasing. I am curious to learn more about it and include it into my research and reasoning for breeding.