Ilmar Randuja, seed selection pioneer
Across the car park of Rüttihubelbald, a small, somewhat gaunt figure approaches with a big wheelbarrow full to the brim: Ilmar Randuja. Despite his 88 years, he works every day at full tilt. He is troubled that he needs more time to do less. But that does not prevent him from continuing with his work and research.
His youth coincided with the Second World War. He was still in school when he heard tell of the American breeder, Luther Burbank. It was said that he often carried seeds in a cloth pouch on his chest, turning to them and asking, with the greatest respect, what qualities they would like to develop. This episode was decisive; his schooling completed, he became a professional biodynamic gardener. To acquire the necessary practical knowledge of selection, he worked in several conventional seed companies and trained as a gardener with an emphasis on breeding, before returning to biodynamic farming.
From the late 50s to the early 70s, he was responsible for the garden of the Ita Wegman Clinic in Arlesheim, near Basel. He devoted all his spare time to the selection of biodynamic vegetable seeds, practicing his art in the gardens of the Goetheanum. Through careful selection and cross-breeding over several years, he created many new varieties. It took ten years for example to breed a mild variety of red and yellow peppers – in those days, pimento peppers were very strong tasting. By 1964, he had developed 30 new varieties which he offered to his friends and other interested people. His circle of consumers grew gradually, because his selections were easily cultivated and had undeniably successful results. Some of his varieties are still being produced today and are marketed by Sativa Rheinbau AG.
In 1968, Ilmar Randuja sought a position that would allow him to expand his selection work. In 1973, the opportunity was offered to him at the newly-founded Ekkarthof in Lengwil, Thurgau. A few years later, he was sending out 3,000 catalogues a year, offering up to 300 different seeds including 60 tea and herb plants. In 1989 he passed this business on to younger colleagues so that he could establish his own garden at Rüttlihubelbad.
Ilmar Randuja writes: "In Ancient Persia, without any of today’s intellectual calculations, breeders achieved incredible plant metamorphoses, which formed the basis of all subsequent great civilisations until now. Future plant transformation by selection should be driven by new knowledge of the spiritual laws of the evolution of plants, which we cannot learn in the official schools that train plant breeders. This opens up a new field of exploration that needs modest and highly motivated researchers. What we have done so far in this area should be understood as only a first commitment to this cause."
Reproducible varieties are likely to change
Crop plants have accompanied humanity for millennia. They have evolved and continue to evolve, adapting to the conditions and needs of the environment. Reproducible varieties possess qualities born of this evolution and adaptation. That is why they are so important.
Plant crops have accompanied humanity since the dawn of time. They have always been subject to metamorphosis and adapted to the successive demands of human beings, for increased yield, better resistance to pests, bacteria or viruses, improved taste and baking qualities, etc.
At the same time, the way fields have been cultivated has changed. The era of chemical synthetic mineral fertilisers began only a hundred years ago, rapid climate change is even more recent. Until then, plant crops were able to respond in their own way to all these human needs, transforming and adapting accordingly.
It is only in the 20th century – a relatively short time in the long evolution of cultivated plants – that wheat yields have increased from 1.5t to 10t per hectare. This huge increase is due partly to the transition to intensive agriculture with fertilisers, pesticides and mechanisation. But it is also the result of dramatic advances in the field of selection, such as hybrids. Even so, these hybrids have great drawbacks and defects that show up in the quality of food. Moreover, long-term, hybrid varieties are not reproducible.
The ability to change is crucial
Reproducible varieties are very important for the future of organic and biodynamic agriculture. They are often described as "stable” varieties, but this concept masks the fact that crop plants are still evolving. Even in serious conservation selection, each variety will change slightly over the years, and continually so, because the environment also continues to evolve. "Stable" suggests a permanence of characteristics that plants cannot in fact provide. What is decisive is not a plant’s immutability, but its possibility of evolution.
Reproducible varieties are capable of evolving. Breeders can use them for cross-breeding future new varieties. But they can also develop new selections from them, adapted to other growing conditions. In addition, farmers, if they wish, may consider special adaptation to the individual conditions of their farms. Many examples show that reproducible varieties give good yields of good quality.
Organic plant selection
Selection in organic farming means observing the plant carefully to sense the qualities and possibilities that lie dormant in it and that the breeder can awaken.
Organic plant breeding is only 40-50 years old. And yet it already has amazing achievements to its credit and has not yet exhausted its potential. Using these varieties maintains a fruitful balance between breeders and farmers. Without good collaboration between them, good new varieties cannot be created.
In organic farming, too, the time has passed when farmers are also breeders. Breeders who develop reproducible varieties depend on fair dealing between themselves and farmers, if they are to finance their work sustainably. Without this, the evolution of seed selection will inevitably turn towards hybrid varieties, patents and the monopolies of large seed concerns.
Without a resolute focus on reproducible varieties, the “seed” sector will continue to develop in favour of multinationals and monopolies. New hybrids will condition the profitability of the industry, accelerating the domination of large commercial interests. In the long term, this concentration will have a negative impact on agriculture and consequently on consumers.
More than ever before, in the world of organic farming future crop plants need to be characterised by profitable high yields and good nutritious quality, as well as being enjoyable to consume. Each organic farm must be able to exploit its individual possibilities. Organic farming needs an ever-greater range of varieties, entailing a larger number of selectors. Reproducible varieties are the foundation of this future.
Amadeus Zschunke, Sativa AG