“In view of the fact that the EU wants to relax its genetic engineering law, the need for organically bred varieties for organic farming is all the more urgent,” states Oliver Willing, Managing Director of the Future Foundation Agriculture (Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft). The Seed Fund (Saatgutfonds) has been part of the Future Foundation Agriculture since 2000 and has financially supported organic breeding research for 25 years.
There is no other institution like it in the world. The Seed Fund came about through the initiative of Albert Fink, then a member of the GLS Bank, and Dirk Lücke, a former manager and now a farmer. The two raised DM 140,000 in 1996, which was distributed to the first bio-dynamic breeding initiatives that year. “Then as now, the goal was to promote the development of pure line and GMO-free varieties in order to offer organic farming alternatives to hybrid varieties”, Oliver Willing summarizes the motivation behind the initiative.
Carrot Rodelika started it off
“With the development of hybrid varieties, the ability of plants to reproduce was restricted and the conventional sale of seeds became a profitable business, turning seed as a cultural asset into an economic commodity.” Yet organic farming, with its cyclical concepts and limited use of pesticides and fertilizers, has its own requirements for breeding.
The Seed Fund so far has been able to support over 50 grain and over 100 vegetable varieties that have been registered with the Federal Plant Variety Office. The Rodelika carrot bred by Dieter Bauer was the first organically bred variety with official registration in 2000.
Growing number of breeding projects
As a breeding pioneer, Bauer was also a co-founder of the Kultursaat e.V. breeders network, which today includes around 45 breeders in Germany and neighboring countries. “When we started the Seed Fund, alternative breeding was only supported by individual pioneers. It’s great that there is a broader base now, even if it still has to grow significantly”, as Willing tells us.
The number of breeding initiatives is still fairly low. In addition to Kultursaat e.V., there are currently seven other breeding initiatives and a total of over 100 projects that are being funded for research into new, pure line vegetable, grain, herb and fruit varieties. Since the breeding of a new marketable variety takes at least 10 but often 15 or more years, continuity in funding is very important to the Seed Fund. A separate committee of trustees decides the allocation of funds each year.
Origin of donations
“Contrary to what the name suggests, the Seed Fund has no equity of its own. It’s a so-called ‘revolving’ fund, a fundraising fund that renews itself every year”, explains Willing. In 2020 he raised a record €1.7 million in donations. About a third of the amount comes from private donors, another third from companies in the organic food industry and the rest from foundations to which the Seed Fund applies for funding. The Seed Fund does not receive government funding.
“We are very happy about the private donations, most of which are sums between €50 and €500. That doesn’t seem like much at first. But we know that these people have a special bond with us and that they really want to move things forward”, says Willing happily. The volume of donations has grown each year over the past 25 years, except for two years with slight ‘revenue dips’. The increasing donations are proof that more and more people are becoming aware of the topic of independent organic breeding.
Commitment against genetic contamination
However, in order to maintain or even increase the level of donations, a lot of commitment is necessary. The Seed Fund presents its work on the Internet, at events, at trade fairs and in the form of campaigns. The Seed Fund’s newsletter also reports on developments twice a year. In addition to Willing himself, long-time employee Stella Bünger coordinates the activities from the Bochum office. There has also been an office in Berlin since 2002 that has focused on educating people about the dangers of genetic contamination in seeds and has promoted legal regulations against it.
So far with great success, but the topic is currently topping the agenda once more, since new genetic engineering methods such as Crispr-CAS may no longer be subject to labeling in future. “If the draft gets through, which we still want to prevent with a broad European network, organic farming is even more dependent on its own varieties from organic breeding”, explains Willing. “This is the only way we can then ensure freedom from genetic engineering for the future!” After 25 years of commitment, the work of the Seed Fund and the organic breeders has more than paid off. And without doubt our appreciation for them will continue to grow.
Photo credits: Bingenheimer Saatgut AG (photo 2), bioverita (photos 3, 4), Tanja Münnich, Seed Fund (photo 5)