Interview with Stefan Doeblin

Conducted by Hannes Lorenzen and Adèle Pautrat on March 22nd, 2021

In 2014, Stefan Doeblin worked on a study about “how to reach 30% of organic farming in Europe”, jointly with the University of Brussels and two scientists from Cambridge and Athens. During these investigations, Stefan identified organic seeds as the field he wanted to dedicate his life to. Organic Food from Organic Seeds was born as a slogan - and path to go.

He had noticed that hardly any product sold in organic shops was made from seeds specifically selected and bred for organic production. Still today, most organic producers use non-treated seeds from conventional seed companies, bred for the needs of conventional production. Stefan wanted to find out how to change this unsatisfying situation and met with different breeders and small-scale seed companies that were already dealing with organic reproductive material, such as Bingenheimer Saatgut, Kultursaat, Sativa Rheinau, and others. He then considered possibilities to develop similar activities and to commercialize the production of organic seeds in Southern Europe. So, he moved from Brussels to Portugal and later to Spain where he founded the organic seed companies Sementes Vivas and Semillas Vivas, with the idea to provide organic seed material for the Mediterranean region.

At the beginning, the founding team thought they could combine plant-breeding projects with seed multiplication. Due to budget and funding reasons, Stefan decided to separate both fields. This led to the birth of the non-profit organisation Lebende Samen, based in Germany.

In the context of the entry into force of the new European regulation on organic production, research on plant breeding specifically dedicated to the organic market is an absolute priority. To date, only 20% of our organic food comes from 100% organic seeds. The new regulation will make it mandatory for organic farmers to only use organic seeds from 2035. So, the pressure is on to develop many varieties and improve organic seed diversity. We interviewed Stefan Doeblin about the reasons and shape of his commitments towards this challenge.

Seeds4All. Stefan, could you start by telling us why exactly it was impossible to finance plant breeding within the commercial structures you had launched?

Stefan Doeblin. Well, this is easy to explain. There are mainly economic reasons.

Conventional seed companies can afford to spend an average of 10% of their sales revenues in Research and Development (R&D), because they dominate the market – including the organic one – and they are using Intellectual Property Rights to prevent competitors to copy the seeds. Almost 80% of the farmers in the organic sector today use conventional, non-treated seeds, and their production represents an overwhelming share of the market.

The specific organic production of seeds is totally different. In organics, we do not breed for homogeneity, we try to breed for diversity, resilience, taste, and ingredients without any use of chemicals - and there are partly no property rights. The market share and the budget of organic seeds is currently very small. Hardly anyone can afford to fund their own R&D.

Furthermore, the seed multiplication business is very special because you have to invest around one to two years upfront before you are able to sell your seeds. That means you have to fully finance your activity during two years without making any profit. That’s expensive! As a consequence, plant breeding has always been something outsourced to non-profit organisations. The market is still too small – and speaking for Sementes Vivas and Semillas Vivas, our turnover is not big enough. Overtime this will change, and especially when organic farming will reach 25% market share in Europe, companies will have to spend money on their own R&D, but maybe mainly in a networking structure or collaborating form.

S4A. Do you only work with open pollinated seeds?

SD. All our projects are focused on open pollinated seeds due to taste, ingredients, resistance and a better adaption to the local environment. We don’t invest in hybrids. Why? Because we want to create more diversity, support food sovereignty and revive the use of traditional varieties adapted to local conditions of cultivation.

We get in touch with local farmers, and we explore local seed banks and collections, searching for the most interesting varieties to develop and to commercialise for the Mediterranean region. The reproduction of the seeds we develop and sell is not limited to any intellectual property rights. Everybody can reproduce them. It gives the national governments and the local people more seed sovereignty and creates enjoying jobs.

A conventional seed company, on the contrary, invests in R&D for the production of material, which will be kept as private knowledge and then uses it to gain an advantage in the market.

We believe in common seeds, shared knowledge, and nature. Technology should not lead the seeds. Seeds are common and culture for humanity. We do not need patents or a breeder’s right. Our advantage is time, networking, and quality. We are creating a quality level which is high enough, so that people choose our seeds with a sustainable production perspective.

S4A. Do you think the organic sector is in a position to offer a diverse range of cultivated varieties once the new Regulation on organic production enters into force? Are there sufficient actors able to take control of this new economic opportunity? What would it need to grow further?

SD. First of all, I think that the new EU Regulation on organic production and marketing is quite essential for the organic market to complete the organic value chain: starting with organic seeds to end up with truly organic final products. That is essential for real progress.

To answer your question, no, there is not enough so far: not enough hectares, marketable quantity, and not enough companies. We are really in the beginning. The organic seed-marketing sector represents maybe 1% of the total seed market. We have to scale up to grow towards 25% in the next 10-15 years, and many challenges have to be overcome. In particular for the investment. To give you a figure, only in plant breeding, we would need to invest around 3 billion Euros in R&D to achieve 25% of market share by 2035. That’s a lot, and that’s why our activities focus on different things.

Our Verein “Lebende Samen”, by searching for more members and reaching more people, is dedicated to raising awareness. It may sound a bit strange, but Covid-19 helped us in developing part of our activity. People are getting more conscious about the fact that organic has something to do with public and personal health. They also had more time to focus on caring for their gardens and starting to grow plants and food, which was a positive development for our commercial companies.

But the most important and difficult part of our job is to convince farmers to use organic material. This has to be done mainly to improve organic quality levels. That’s why the new EU Regulation on Organic Production is so important: it will bring more diversity, more investment and increase the availability of organic seeds. It will also create a kind of pressure that is needed, so that organic farmers will have to use organic seeds as soon as the variety they are looking for is available on the market. Soft pressure is important I think, so that farmers start to use organic material, heterogeneous material, and open pollinated varieties, which have been challenged to market in past decades.

So, to develop the organic seed sector, we need to work with the entire food chain, either trying to convince stakeholders to invest more in regional production or stimulating suppliers to use organic seeds. This is a top-down approach; on top the consumer, then the stores, then the farmers.

S4A. You talk a lot about the farmers and the fact that the development of the whole sector will depend on their will to use organic seeds. Do you think that part of the solution is that farmers take a responsibility in plant breeding and start selecting, growing and using their own varieties in the future?

SD. Farmers have always produced their own seeds, which is great. But many farmers are also buying seeds. This is a fact.

At “Lebende Samen” we conduct participatory plant breeding projects to involve farmers: we bring scientists, professional plant breeders, and farmers together. The farmers can learn how to breed while the scientists can learn what the farmers really need. It is a fast process to implement scientific results on the market.

Our projects are mainly focusing on the needs of Southern Europe’s farmers. We do many tomato and melon seed varieties, because this is a big market. On the contrary, under current circumstances, we prefer to focus breeding of traditional varieties that have a commercial impact.

Seed savers organisations may concentrate on rare populations and species – and that is appreciated. It is important for cultivated biodiversity. But you also need to have different perspectives, different methodologies; you need to have and to develop commercial activities to make the organic seed sector a dynamic and resilient alternative.

S4A. Maybe the future legal framework will lead some seed savers organisations that are not developing commercial activities yet because it is illegal, to start doing it.

SD. It would be lovely, welcome to any commercial activities! Actually, more often they are not commercially oriented. But this might be a matter of time. The development of commercial activities is essential to develop the organic alternative.

Our companies are working with 30 contract farmers that multiply the seeds for us. That’s another business model in which farmers can participate in a commercial activity and make an additional income through organic seed business.

But to convince farmers to participate, you need real commercial opportunities. The organic production of seeds must leave the niche of the business, which means we have to influence the consumers’ choice and the retail chain’s offer towards more diversity, better taste, better quality.

S4A. Could you give some practical information for people who would be interested in launching commercial activities in this sector? What were the main challenges and difficulties you encountered when you founded your own companies?

SD. When we started, we had no clue that European legislators would pass such a progressive Regulation, which is now an invitation for anybody willing to start an organic seed business!

But what you still really need is a long breath. The first big challenge is clearly to find investors willing to take a minimum 10-year risk. Then, to find support and models on how to set up a seed company because, again, the market is not that much developed yet. We tried to collaborate with other organic seed companies in the beginning. It was a great input, but we were all at an early stage of development and we missed the open collaboration process. We learned it the hard way.

What I understood quite late is that we can learn a lot from conventional seed companies. Not regarding how and what they produce of course, but regarding how to manage a company, to deal with margins, cash flow, etc. That is the kind of things you can really learn from them and cannot learn from the organic sector yet.

For “Lebende Samen”, the biggest challenge was and still is to find members and donors. It takes a lot of time and efforts to collect money for plant breeding projects and to convince people of the benefit of getting more plant diversity for the organic market. We currently have around 20 funders, most of them are from Germany, because Germany is quite far ahead in the development of the organic sector, accelerating the efforts to develop the organic supply chain. In the future, we would like to expand the fundraising to other countries though and would especially appreciate donors from the area we are focusing on.