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Organic breeding versus CMS hybrids

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

The sale of CMS hybrid chicory (cytoplasmic male sterility) in the wholefood trade has unleashed a torrent of discussion in the organic industry in Germany. Are there really no alternatives to products derived from this controversial breeding technology? Various media took up the theme and began questioning the credibility of the organic industry. There is already consensus among organic associations and a large number of wholesalers regarding the absolute rejection of breeding methods that are little different from genetic engineering. It is vitally important that we take immediate and urgent action to devise an exit strategy from the use of CMS hybrids. (Picture: Chicory from bio-dynamic breeding could be an alternative in 2014)

Organic agriculture too has to rely for the most part on crop varieties derived from conventional breeding, because open pollination varieties of vegetables and cereals are still hard to come by. About ten years ago, the first CMS hybrids of cabbage based on cell fusion appeared. In the case of chicory alone, conventional breeding companies are now offering nearly 20 CMS hybrids, and across Europe there are over 270 CMS varieties being sold. (Picture: Organic vegetables are the flagship products of many a specialist stores)

To produce CMS hybrids of chicory, radicchio and sugar loaf and of brassicas like cauliflower, broccoli and kohlrabi, cell fusion techniques are performed in the laboratory. This involves fusing together species that under normal conditions cannot be crossbred. These laboratory processes have been increasingly used by big firms in conventional plant breeding over the last 20 years. The resulting CMS hybrids are also propagated for organic seed, whose use is permitted by the EU Organic Regulation. For years, however, the major German farming associations have banned the use of CMS varieties based on cell fusion for cropping by member farms - Demeter since 2005, Naturland since 2008 and Bioland since 2009. 

“The whole issue of CMS hybrids is from our point of view an elementary question for the specialist trade,” says Dr. Peter Meyer (picture), the managing director of the wholefood wholesaler Weiling. “We’re critical of CMS technology, and we’re doing everything we possibly can to operate CMS-free. For example, in the case of fruit and vegetables, we’ve been trading 100% for years with goods from farming organizations in Germany or we encourage partners abroad to convert to certified produce. Regional wholesaler Bodan has engaged with the issue for many years. The company is trying with a whole raft of measures to avoid CMS hybrids, including buying Demeter goods at home and abroad. The supplier Eosta stated in reply to our enquiry that it has only CMS-free chicory in its offer. 

To source brassicas in particular, Bodan cooperates with, among others, the Breton initiative BioBreizh, that pledged to avoid CMS hybrids well before the IFOAM resolution passed in the summer of 2008. Bodan labels open pollinated varieties in its vegetable offer with SE (the German abbreviation for “samenecht” – open-pollinated) and, like Weiling, it supports plant breeding initiatives and disseminates information at training events. “Despite all these efforts, we don’t succeed in completely covering our need for fresh food with CMS-free products,” Andreas Schur concedes. “When we source EG organic produce abroad via our upstream suppliers, and with the exception of the BioBreizh initiative mentioned above, we don’t have any reliable information about whether the goods come from CMS hybrids or not.” He says that even from the same grower, it can vary from batch to batch. (Picture: Bio-dynamic cauliflower cultivation on the Obergrashof farm, a member of the Kultursaat association)

The Deutsche Bundesverband Naturkost Naturwaren BNN – the organic processors and traders association - is demanding compulsory labelling of CMS hybrids by law, so that consumers are given a choice when buying. “We need to continue with our efforts to introduce the alternatives offered by organic plant breeding,” asserts managing director Elke Röder. She says that a start has been made (Bingenheimer Saatgut, Kultursaat, Saat:gut). In her view, it is essential to define labelling and exiting from CMS breeding as the goal and to consistently promote organic plant breeding. This was the unanimous decision of IFOAM as early as 2008 at its general meeting in Vignola in Italy.  (Picture: We need to take action urgently, says Petra Boie from Bingenheimer Saatgut AG)

Identifying CMS hybrids in the price lists of wholesalers would enable retailers to choose in the case of EU organic goods. This presupposes, however, that CMS hybrids in the seed offer are labelled as such. Retailers who are aware of this issue rely as much as possible on goods from agricultural associations or on regional suppliers. Michael Fleck is critical of the statement that "the market does not at the moment allow us to dispense with CMS hybrids". The managing director of the charitable association Kultursaat points out that numerous “classic” hybrid varieties (i.e. non-CMS hybrids) are still being sold in the EU.

“If everybody involved in the value chain is in agreement about quality, and if CMS hybrids based on cell fusion per se are rejected out of conviction, we can continue to grow non-CMS varieties. Alternatives to the sterile pollen hybrids are, however, are not just the “normal, classic” hybrids but also the so-called open pollinated varieties.” According to Fleck, 63 chicory varieties have currently been authorized across the whole of Europe. Of these 63 varieties, 52 are clearly hybrids “as stated by the breeder”, and 13 of these 52 are found on the so-called negative list of the associations, because they are known to be CMS hybrids resulting from cell fusion. (Picture: Michael Fleck, Kultursaat e.V.)

Regarding current and future alternatives to CMS hybrid chicory, Fleck adds: “At the moment, we have two candidates for open pollinated chicory from Kultursaat being officially examined by the Bundessortenamt – the Federal Plant Variety Office. The results of trial cultivation and forcing indicate that we can expect the first bio-dynamic variety of chicory to be approved in about a year. For Petra Boie from Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, the case of the CMS hybrid chicory illustrates a dire situation: "Conventional breeding has developed a number of techniques that are not classified by law as genetic engineering. But what these techniques have in common is that in the breeding process the integrity of the cell as the smallest unit of life – from which under certain conditions whole plants can grow – is not being respected." She says the fact is that for years almost all the conventional breeding companies have been investing in these techniques, not least so that they can make a stronger claim for patent rights in the future.

Heinz-Peter Christiansen from the Bioland Christiansen farm in Schleswig Holstein describes the predicament in similar terms: "In order to save costs, every possible manipulation using bio-technological methods is being applied in conventional plant breeding. It is not always clear at what point it crosses the line and becomes genetic engineering.” Together with Barbara Maria Rudolf, he launched the project Saat:gut to breed organic vegetables. “A small number of big companies dominate the world market, and their only guiding principle is capital maximization. We can’t afford any longer just to watch this happening and do nothing,” says Christiansen. “In the case of cabbage, the new varieties have almost without exception undergone cytoplast fusion, and they no longer produce pollen, in other words, it is a case of male sterility,” explains Barbara M. Rudolf, the chair of the association Saat:gut (Picture: Breeding on the Christiansen farm)

Naturland spokesman Carsten Veller fears that the discussion of the issue of CMS hybrids could damage the image of the specialist trade and the organic associations. Above all, Veller wants the EU legislature to take urgent action, and he calls on IFOAM to act more robustly at the international level to deal with this issue. “CMS must be excluded in the EU Organic Regulation, and at the same time we demand a worldwide ban of CMS hybrids in organic agriculture." In his opinion, the retail trade too should act consistently and demand only CMS-free goods from their suppliers. “Dialogue between all actors in the value chain is important,” maintains Jochen Leopold, Demeter, and also bio-dynamic and ecological plant breeding should be supported.




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