Interview with Markus Johann
Markus, I’ve been at bioverita for maybe half a year now but I still know very little about the history of the association. Perhaps on the occasion of the anniversary we can look back at how bioverita has developed in recent years.
How did bioverita come about?
Peter Kunz from Getreidezüchtung Peter Kunz (GZPK), Amadeus Zschunke from Sativa Rheinau AG and I were in regular contact. The two were themselves involved in the organic breeding of new varieties, one for grain, the other for vegetables, and in turn had contacts with breeders in other locations. They learned first-hand that a lot of effort was being put into alternative breeding projects and that there were more and more varieties becoming available. But hardly anyone ever heard about them. The breeders are not good at marketing themselves … So our idea was that an association should take care of making organic breeding and spreading the word about the new varieties among traders, shopkeepers and consumers. At the same time, we wanted to create more appreciation for organic breeding. In 2010 we therefore decided to set up the association. And it really got going in 2011.
What was the initial focus?
In the beginning our main conundrum was whether it made sense to create yet another brand to promote organic breeding. After all, there are quite a few organic labels around already. And many customers already feel overwhelmed by this profusion. With the help of a professional marketing agency from Basel, in the end we made a clear decision to develop a new logo.
And presumably very soon thereafter the first board was formed. Who were the members?
Of the current members, Monika Messmer from FIBL, Herman Lutke Schipholt, board member of Demeter Switzerland, Amadeus Zschunke and myself were on the first board. There was also Christian Butscher as a member of the Bio Suisse board and who stepped down last year. In 2016 Arne von Schulz joined as a representative of the Kultursaat e.V. breeding initiative.
Was there any outside support?
After bioverita was founded, we had a long exchange process with Bio Suisse, which led to membership and annual financial support. We were also able to take part in a project run by the Federal Office for Agriculture in Switzerland. That also brought us financial support.
Who else was among the first members?
On the breeding side, Sativa Rheinau AG, the grain breeder Peter Kunz and Pomaculta. In terms of trade or institutions there were Bio Suisse, Demeter Switzerland, FiBL, GenAuRheinau, Biotta and Steiner Mühle. More came on board between 2014 and 2016.
What were the association’s first priorities then?
For a long time there was a lot of dialog going on. There was a lot of skepticism, with people saying “Another association, another quality label? We don’t need another one!” It was tough going for quite some time. We had to make use of every opportunity to draw attention to bioverita and organic breeding. For example, by taking part in events such as the Organic Farming Day or the “1001 Vegetables” campaign. Of course we also attended specialist conferences of the our members and market partners, such as the partner days of Bio Partner AG. Thanks to the long-standing collaboration between Sativa and GZPK with the Co-op Sustainability Fund, a collaboration with the Co-op and its subsidiary Swissmill in Switzerland was also established. We were able to convince them to make a 7 day loaf made from organically grown wheat varieties, the so-called Bio Buure loaf. This made the news in a few places but what’s more, the bread was very popular with customers. So it was upgraded to the permanent range and is still being sold at around 800 sales outlets throughout Switzerland. That was a great success for us!
What happened next?
In July 2016 we were given the chance to take part in a trip to Italy organized by Sativa and BioTropic. There were also some organic wholesalers from Germany. We wanted to give them the opportunity to see the cultivation, propagation and processing of organically bred varieties on site and to get to know some growers personally. One big topic was kohlrabi, for example, which is commonly grown in Italy for the German market. Many conversations took place during the trips in the minibus and during the breaks. It didn’t take long for the wholesalers’ understanding of organic breeding and the interest in pure line varieties for marketing had improved noticeably.
How did the special exhibition “Meeting point Organic right from the start” come about at the Biofach?
As I recall, we were put in touch with the exhibition managers by Meinrad Schmitt, Terra Berlin, who was the Biofach trade fair advisor at the time. 2017 was taken over by intensive discussions with the exhibition managers of Biofach. Our contacts, Danila Brunner and Julia Hossfeld, understood that organic breeding forms the basis for independent organic farming. We were therefore able to design a large special exhibition for Biofach 2018, which clearly explained various areas of organic breeding on several topic columns. This was the first time the topic really took center stage – right in the entrance area of the most important trade fair in the organic sector with over 50,000 visitors from all over the world! We also organized many lectures and panel discussions on the topic, in line with the exhibition, some of which were attended by seriously big names. All in all, this gave the topic a big boost and brought us many more contacts. Incidentally, we were also able to bring Anna-Lena May on board as an employee to organize the exhibition. To this day, she oversees many of the project partnerships. In 2019 we were able to repeat the exhibition in the same location. Both special exhibitions were only possible for us thanks to the support of the exhibition management of Biofach and financial support from foundations and partner institutions. Because special exhibitions can only take place twice, we had to find alternatives for 2020. In close cooperation with the exhibition management, this culminated in the “Organic Breeding Hub”. In a slightly smaller space but still occupying 150m2, we were able to bring tohether twelve different breeders, breeding initiatives and a few market partners with information stands. In 2022, when the pandemic will hopefully no longer disrupt things, we want to do something similar again.
bioverita certifies new varieties of grain and vegetables. What were the first varieties?
In the beginning, the focus was on grain varieties. In 2013 the first new wheat and spelt varieties were recognized by the GZPK. This was followed in 2017 by varieties from F&Z Dottenfelderhof and the Keyserlingk Institute. The first vegetable varieties from Kultursaat e.V. and Saat:gut e.V. were also certified in 2017. With the special exhibitions at Biofach, vegetables gained higher priority overall. By now have we now certified 120 vegetable and 36 cereal and fodder plants. And more are added every year.
There are audit guidelines for certification, which can be viewed on the bioverita website. Who developed these?
The board in consultation with the Label Commission.
Who is on the Label Commission?
Edith Lammerts van Bueren, Wageningen University (NL), Monika Messmer, Head of Plant Breeding FiBL (CH), Amadeus Zschunke, organic breeder, Sativa (CH), Willmar Leiser, agricultural scientist, University of Hohenheim (D), Jan Velema, organic breeder (NL).
How many organic vegetables and grains are now on the market?
That’s a really tricky question as there has been no formal survey. We hear how many tons of vegetables or grains of a particular variety are grown or sold from partners with whom we have concluded a use agreement. The winter harvest 2019/20 brought in more than 500 tons of vegetables. We do know that more and more of the varieties are being grown. That is of course very positive, but in the absence of direct contact and the bioverita logo use agreements, we don’t have data on the quantities.
In terms of Switzerland I can say the following: For the bread project with the Co-op alone, between 1,500 and 2,000 tonnes of organically grown wheat and spelt are processed each year. Spelt makes up about 10% of this mix. In general, the GZPK varieties make up about 60% of organic bread grain cultivation in Switzerland. We cannot make a comprehensive statement for Germany, but we know that cereals from organic breeding are grown very frequently in southern Germany in particular. For example, there are Bioland growers’ associations that today rely almost exclusively on varieties from organic breeding. Bioland Handelsgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg is constantly expanding its range of seeds with varieties from organic breeding. Processors such as Meyer Mühle Landshut are also buying and processing more and more varieties from organic breeding.
Now I have a better picture of the last ten years. So what are bioverita’s goals for the next ten years?
You joined the team in mid-2020 as the person responsible for our communication. This enables us to further expand our communication activities. We intend to keep those going. We would also like to win over other wholesalers for collaboration as market partners. With our presence at Biofach and at other specialist events, we want to sensitize and inspire more stakeholders for organic breeding. We want varieties from organic breeding to be cultivated and processed more frequently. The varieties from organic breeding should increasingly become a matter of course along the organic value chain. The goal would be that in 20 years, only such varieties will be grown and used.
Justine Lipke, responsible for communication at bioverita, conducted the interview with Markus Johann, Managing Director and delegate of the bioverita board.
Candles: pixabay; Photos from Biofach 2018: Thomas Geiger, NürnbergMesse; Tengri wheat: GZPK; Trade image: Rinklin Naturkost; All others: bioverita