Green shoots of organic plant breeding

The green shoots of organic plant breeding? ( 557 words)

We have often grumbled over the years, says Professor Martin Wolfe, about the lack of support for plant breeding for the organic sector…perhaps someone’s been listening at last.

European plant breeders came together in 1956 to form a collaborative, non-profit making, non-commercial organisation, the European Association for Research in Plant Breeding, which took the name Eucarpia. Over the next 22 years, Eucarpia defined and started ten Sections, to cover all the main aspects of plant breeding. The organisation now has some 1300 members, with representatives from most of the EU countries and others from across the globe.

However, since 1978 there have been no new Sections – until this year. Following an earlier initiative, and led by Prof. Edith Lammerts van Bueren(1), Eucarpia decided to form a new Section, on “Organic and Low-Input Agriculture” which will provide invaluable research links and perhaps funding opportunities for ORC led projects.

This all took place at a special meeting in Wageningen in the Netherlands, the first of the Organic Breeding Group, entitled ‘Plant Breeding for Organic and Low-input Agriculture: Dealing with Genotype-Environment Interactions’. This involved close collaboration with ECO-PB, COST SUSVAR and ISOFAR. The ORC was represented by Dr. Hannah Jones and by Martin Wolfe who gave the keynote lecture at the end of the meeting. The next major meeting of Eucarpia will be the four-yearly Congress, which will take place in September 2008 in Valencia, where, again, we will be well-represented.

For me, a key outcome of the Wageningen meeting, and an indicator of real change, occurred during a discussion session when a well-known German breeder pointed out that his latest success in breeding wheat for conventional production arose out of a programme based on breeding for organic production – something that, until now, we were able to suggest only in theory.

In recent years, we have, of course, been very much involved in the EU COST Action, SUSVAR (SUStainable low-input cereal production: required VARietal characteristics and crop diversity (, which does have a Working Group on Genetics and Plant Breeding. This, and the Action as a whole, has been hugely successful with many valuable meetings and opportunities for our Research Team. However, the programme is limited to four years, in this case from 2004 to 2008 – and there is no possibility for extension.

What we are now hoping is that the new Eucarpia Section will provide a seamless continuation for the work of SUSVAR which has been so ably and energetically chaired by Dr Hanne Oestergaard(2). Indeed, we owe a great deal to the imaginative hard work of Hanne and Edith (and many others), in providing this essential switch from the COST Action to the Eucarpia Section.

Just as one example of our activities in the COST Action, we now have a European team, that, in combination with the ORC wheat population project (see Top of the Pops this issue), is ready to spring into action as soon as there is the slightest whiff of EU funding in this area of research for sustainability.

(1) Prof. Edith Lammerts van Bueren works at the Louis Bolk Institute and is Professor of Organic Plant Breeding in the Agricultural University of Wageningen.
(2) Dr. Hanne Oestergaard is a Senior Research Specialist in the Biosystems Department of the Risø National Laboratory, Technical University of Denmark – DTU.

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