FondsGoetheanum: Seeding and harvesting

Strategy for organic plant breeding in Switzerland

Maya Graf, Green Party National Advisor, president of the Swiss Working Group on Genetic Engineering (SAG)

The conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources is a prerequisite for food security – worldwide. Seed diversity, seed availability and seed breeding are essential. But they are under threat.

In recent decades, seed production has experienced increasing monopolisation, a depletion of plant varieties, and laws and treaties that reduce access by farmers and breeders.
Today, the five largest companies dominate over 50% of the entire global seed market. These are not only seed companies, but also chemical companies. They combine the production of GM seed with the manufacture of appropriate pesticides, all protected by patents. Syngenta, for example, is the global leader in the sale of pesticides and  number three for seeds.
This calls for a growing commitment to ecological plant breeding. For organic farming in particular there is a lack of suitable varieties, but breeding costs are prohibitive. The state is needed here. In a reply to my motions in Parliament for the promotion of indigenous plant breeding, the Federal Council in 2012 stated that for state-assisted breeding of the most common 60 species of cultivated plants of Switzerland – currently only 20 breeding programmes are underway – it would need to spend an additional 15 million CHF. The Confederation now spends 3.6 billion CHF on food and agriculture. It is imperative to lay the foundations for a Swiss organic farming sector that is independent of foreign concerns and agribusiness. It is a positive step that the Federal Office of Agriculture has initiated a strategy for plant breeding in Switzerland.

Maya Graf (1962) grew up in Sissach on a farm which she now runs organically. Since 2001, she has served on the National Council and in 2013 she was the first woman in the Green Party to hold the presidency. She is also president of the Swiss Working Group on Genetic Engineering (SAG), is co-chair of HochstammSwitzerland, and is responsible for the Green Party’s portfolio on agriculture.

Confederation adopts new strategy

Interview with Peter Latus, Federal Office for Agriculture, responsible for varieties and seeds

What are the most important tasks of the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOA) regarding seeds?

Seeds and seedlings are a prerequisite for crop production. Regulating the registration of varieties and seed is our remit within the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Training and Research (RFLD).
In Switzerland, we have only limited plant breeding and seed production. However, the bilateral agreement with the EU guarantees to producers simple access to seeds and allows easy access to the EU market for the seeds of our breeders.

What are the requirements for seed?

Under Switzerland’s growing conditions, varieties must give a good and secure yield, guarantee efficient use of nutrients, be healthy, and meet the yield standards required of crop plants. A new variety must be better in the totality of its qualities than varieties currently grown. This applies to all registered varieties, whether they are from a multinational company or Peter Kunz’s cereal selection team (Getreidezüchtung), where they practice biodynamic selection.
The requirements for seed quality are also high: farmers should have no problems during cultivation. The seed should germinate properly, not contain weed seeds, or deliver seed-borne diseases. The FOA only regulates the seeds for commercial crop plants.

What legal protection is available to the breeder?

Breeders may obtain protection for their varieties for 25 years, and grant licenses during this period. Variety protection also includes the privilege of the breeder: a protected variety can be used by breeders for breeding.
Unlike in Germany, Swiss farmers do not pay a license when breeders produce their own seeds.
The world’s main commercial plant breeding companies concentrate on the selection of the 5-7 most important species in the world, such as cotton, maize, soybeans and rice. The huge acreage in the world planted to these crops ensures the major seed producers a high revenue through licenses and therefore high profits.

What is the policy direction of the Federal Strategy for seeds and seed selection?

Our strategy on seeds and varieties must fit into the overall goals of agricultural policy. That is to say, to ensure sustainable, resource-efficient and economically viable production of healthy food, over the long term. That is why we need continually to progress in the field of selection in order to achieve the ambitious goal of ecological intensification.
We are working on a plant breeding strategy which inter alia derives from Maya Graf’s postulates, in essence:
1. Of 60 plant species constantly available, three to six must be robust native varieties.
2. They must be produced by the farmers themselves.
3. Swiss private breeders should be included as far as possible.
4. The varieties will be selected according to ecological criteria.

The strategy should be ready in 2015. The working group formed for this purpose includes biodynamic breeder Peter Kunz and Monika Messmer, from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).
Today, in its Agroscope Centre the Federal Government selects varieties of 20 different species, at an annual cost of about 4 million CHF. The additional cost for the selection of 60 species would be approximately 10 million CHF (without production or marketing).

For organic farming, the reproducibility of seeds is a major concern. How important is this for the FOA?

For the FOA, this is not a direct goal. As already discussed, the objectives of the Confederation are to provide agriculture with high quality seed of appropriate varieties from appropriate species in order to lay the foundations for sustainable agriculture. Whether the varieties are hybrids or reproducible, for FOA that’s a secondary issue.

One last personal question. From your perspective, what are the major challenges facing Switzerland in regard to seeds and seed selection?

Through its strong animal husbandry, Swiss agriculture creates high added value. Two-thirds of agricultural land is used for livestock production, but my concern is with the high level of soybean imports this entails. In the future I think we should be moving towards more production for direct human consumption, and less via the indirect route of animal production. To this end, we need as many as possible modern species that are currently neglected or varieties that we have stopped growing.

Thank you for this interview.