On the Trail of Organic Breeding in Italy

bioverita and the initiatives around organic breeding form an increasingly dense network in German-speaking countries, all linked through organic breeding. A less well known fact is that Italy also plays an important role when it comes to breeding, propagation, cultivation, processing and marketing of new varieties from organic breeding. From July 6th to 10th we therefore went on a road trip together with German and Swiss trade partners and various institutions.

Our destination was the middle of Italy. What would we encounter? Committed organic pioneers, large and small successful marketing organizations, vegetables and grains from organic breeding in the fields, wonderful pasta made from organic grain as well as important manufacturers who are in the process of discovering varieties from organic breeding for themselves.

bioverita on anniversary tour

Why Italy?

With over 70,000 producers, Italy has by far the largest number of organic producers in the European Union and the trend is rising. According to the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), almost 2 million hectares (ha) were organically farmed in Italy in 2019, which corresponds to 15.2% of the total agricultural area. In comparison, it was 1.61 million hectares and only 9.1% in Germany. Despite the growing domestic demand for organic foodstuff in Italy, a large percentage is grown for export. Because of its climatic conditions, Italy is the most important producer of organic vegetables for the German market after Spain. In addition to fruit vegetable crops (cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes), kohlrabi, which are very popular in Germany, are also in high demand.

In the Emilia Romagna region, many farms traditionally specialize in seed propagation. The warm, dry and constant weather on the east coast from Bologna to the southern Marches allows seeds to fully ripen, even crops that need two years to reproduce in Germany. And last but not least, several Italian organic pioneers have been promoting organic breeding for many years and are now testing the first varieties in cultivation. In addition to breeding projects and trial cultivation for new varieties, there is also the commercial cultivation of varieties from organic breeding and seed propagation. So there are many reasons for visiting Italy!

Best soil quality in Italy

Expertise on Board

The travel stops were organized by Federica Bigongiali, who was involved in breeding durum wheat at the University of Pisa and, as an agricultural scientist, coordinates the cultivation and propagation of various cultures in Italy for Sativa Rheinau AG. At the same time she heads the “Seminare il Futuro” foundation, of which we will hear more later on, and cooperates on several breeding projects with the University of Pisa. Amadeus Zschunke, a trained plant breeder with management skills,

founder of Sativa Rheinau AG and bioverita, who can answer every conceivable question about organic breeding at any time, was also with us. The driving force behind the trip was also Markus Johann, founding member and managing director of bioverita, equipped with a lot of patience, experience and the necessary contacts to promote organic breeding. The three were competently supported by Fausta Borsani, thanks to their organizational and language skills.

Federica Bigongiali, Amadeus Zschunke, Markus Johann

Rolling Contact Center for Organic Breeding

32 degrees, blue sky, sunshine, 2 p.m., it should have been siesta time. But after a long journey there, everyone was naturally excited about finally setting off. Driver Iulian Anuculaesei was waiting for us at the main train station in Bologna with a large coach. Due to Corona, the bus turned was larger than usual. So there was plenty of space for spontaneous discussion groups and small conferences in a wide variety of constellations between destinations, some of which were several hours drive apart.

Driver Iulian skillfully drove us some 1,380 km through Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and the Marches. Even in the face of serpentine roads, narrow historical streets and densely overgrown, dusty dirt roads with potholes, he exuded an astonishing calm. He also provided us heat-sensitive northerners with an inexhaustible supply of bottles of chilled water. We were so lucky to have him with us!

Our coach

The First Stop

… led us to the headquarters and the logistics warehouse of EcorNaturaSì. Fabio Bescacin, organic pioneer in Italy and founder and chairman of the supervisory board of EcorNaturaSì AG, welcomed us. For many years the company has supported organic breeding projects and cultivation trials with new varieties in Italy. Since 2019 this commitment has grown to include the “Seminare il Futuro” foundation, which looks after the preservation and

further development of local varieties and at the same time financially supports the development of new varieties, e.g. of durum wheat for pasta production. Fabio sees the future use of varieties from organic breeding as part of the company’s quality offensive. Organically-bred varieties are ultimately more resilient to disease and therefore need fewer synthetic pesticides. Fabio explains the long history of the AG, which includes two organic farms to this day.

The logos of the merged companies

Organic for All of Italy

The AG was formed in 2005 through the merger of Ecor, the first wholesaler of organic products in Italy, and NaturaSì, an organic supermarket chain which today has a presence in 360 locations. The two warehouses in Bologna and San Vendemiano hold a total of around 21,000 products. In addition to its own markets, the wholesaler supplies 160 other organic food retailers throughout Italy with around 90,000 boxes of goods

per week, including 10-12,000 containing fruit and vegetables. Shops can order until 7 p.m. six days a week and the orders are processed through the night. Smooth, state-of-the-art logistics are required to ensure delivery the next morning. Mario Cicolecchia, Head of Logistics, guides us through the different areas of the warehouse and explains the different tasks and challenges.

View of the wholesaler’s high-bay warehouse

The Bestseller Cage

We were amazed not only by the high-bay warehouse, but also a huge “cage” in which the warehouse’s 600 or so bestsellers are moved around fully automatically. Fascinated, we photographed robotic arms that assemble boxes of goods for delivery. At the same time, we were reassured to hear that 300 people also work on site.

Despite all the technology, smart employees are needed in many areas, Mario stressed. One of them accompanied us every step of the way through the warehouse and kept an eye so that we wouldn’t accidentally get under a set of wheels or caught in some shutters …

Robots at EcorNaturaSì

La dolce vita

Fortunately, we made it outside safely and had the chance to fortify ourselves with a strong espresso. Then the take took us to Cesena, a city around 100 km southeast of Bologna, and checked into our first, very comfortable hotel. We spent the evening together with a seemingly never-ending menu of Italian food on the market square of Cesena

in a very pleasant atmosphere. While we were deep in conversation, the local Italians were feverishly glued to their screens and were finally able to cheer their 4:2 win against Spain at the European Football Championship.

Dinner in Cesena

On the Second Day

we started around 8:30 a.m. and drove to the P.M.P. Sementi seed processing plant at Cesena. The plant was in a beautiful location, with views over the gently undulating landscape of Emilia-Romagna. Just check out the first group photo.

About 250 growers farm several hundred hectares of vegetable crops, herbs and flowers for P.M.P. In turn, P.M.P. works on behalf of seed dealers in Europe and worldwide, including Sativa Rheinau AG, which then pack and market the seeds.

Group photo in Cesena

Seed Processing

Propagating high quality seeds is a challenging task, as Nicola Pesaresi, son of the company’s founder explained. The requirements are high and the growers’ is always work at the mercy of adverse weather conditions, disease or contamination. Since it takes a lot of

experience and the right equipment for cultivation, P.M.P. cultivates long-term relationships with their suppliers. They buy whatever the harvest is; sometimes it’s more, sometimes less. Depending on the plant, very different machines are required to process the seeds supplied.

Nicola Pesaresi from P.M.P. Sementi


During our visit, the extraction of rocket seeds was in full swing. Nicola explained that the seeds need to have a minimum size in order to germinate well and produce a good yield. Therefore, the machine sorts three different seed sizes into three large bags: the optimal size, a slightly smaller size, and seeds which are too small.

Those too small are sorted again by a machine in order to pick out any remaining usable seeds so as little as possible is wasted. P.M.P. also has its own farm for the propagation of seeds, for example for the bioverita-certified carrot Rodelika.

Rocket seeds being processing

Propagation in Practice

Then we visited the Maroncelli family’s propagation farm in Cervio near Ravenna, which cooperates with P.M.P. Even though it was still morning, it was very hot already. So we were all the more pleased to be welcomed with cold drinks, apricots and pieces of melon. Amazing! While refreshing ourselves, we learned from Ezio senior that he converted the farm to being organic in 1986 – that long ago, he was the only one far and wide.

What convinced him to do so were his children, who had noticed that there were fewer and fewer butterflies in the fields. He didn’t want to just accept that. 16 years ago, the family created an additional income stream with seed propagation. P.M.P. pay them per area cultivated, not per kg of seed delivered; the focus is on quality! They propagate a wide range of cultures, from parsley and salad chicory to carrots and beetroot, but also flowers such as mallow and poppy seeds, some of which find their way into Sativa’s range.

Father Maroncelli and his son

Ideal Conditions Outdoors

Most of it is grown outdoors. Only basic seed that is used for further propagation is grown protected in greenhouses. Unusually, in order to keep the pressure of soil-borne diseases low, the greenhouses are constructed in such a way that they can be moved every season.

After the tour, during a small snack, we learned that apricot kernels can be eaten and how delicious they are. Maroncelli senior had a hammer ready to break open the apricot kernels. They contain hydrogen cyanide, but they taste like almonds and aren’t bitter at all. Unfortunately it was time to say goodbye and drive some 200 km to Florence in our bus.

Seed propagation inspection

On Historical Tracks

With some 40°C, this was the hottest day of summer so far. When we arrived at the hotel, we had a chance to freshen up a bit and then set off on a full tour with city guide Luise Hoffmann. Originally from Germany, she has lived in Tuscany for 30 years and guides us confidently through the historical maze of alleys, full of impressive history and stories. Due to Corona, the square in front of the Basilica Santa Croce was almost deserted.

Dante Alighieri, carved in stone, seemed to be unfazed and the wild boar at the Fontana del Porcellino was visibly happy about our bioverita cap. Fortunately there was time for a culinary stop during our three-hour tour and a chance for some delicious gelato. Later, exhausted, we fell into our chairs at the restaurant Il Theatro, whose antipasti alone would have been enough to fill us up for days. But explain that to an Italian…

Out and about in Florence

On the Third Day

… we set out for Pisa in the morning to visit the “Centro di Recerche Agroambientali ‘Enrico Avanzi’”. It is owned by the university and currently has 50 master’s students in agricultural sciences, 25 of them in organic farming. Director Marco Mazzoncini welcomed us in the shade of old pine trees and explained that the institute, with 700 hectares of forest and 400 hectares of arable land, has a lot of land, but depends on EU funds and project funding.

Thanks to the mediation of Federica Bigongiali, the university institute has been involved in organic breeding projects for durum wheat, common wheat and spelt since 2016, which are financed by the Peter Kunz cereal breeding company and the “Seminare il Futuro” foundation. A stroke of luck for organic breeding, as this guarantees integration into university research and support for the breeding work from the institute’s 30 employees.

Visit to the University of Pisa

Durum Wheat from Organic Breeding

Durum wheat in particular is of great importance in Italy, as it is the basis for pasta production. There are currently no varieties from organic breeding. So it is welcome news that two of the varieties developed so far through selection and crossing are currently in the registration process.

That means a big step forward, but of course the search for varieties with good traits in terms of cultivation, processing and food quality continues. For example, durum wheat varieties from Morocco are being cultivated on a trial basis and used in crosses because they are particularly drought-tolerant.

Selected ears of corn in the breeding garden

Grower Involvement

There are also crosses with Emmer varieties, a very old grain that has hardly been bred at all but is similar to durum wheat in many respects. This year, for the first time, growers were involved in the selection process so that their practical requirements flow directly into the breeding work. Federica is delighted about the positive exchange with them and told us that the growers involved

have developed an understanding of the complexity of breeding and the financial outlay, which they would otherwise not have gained. The cultivation of old varieties is generally promoted in Italy. In practice, however, these varieties are often not up to today’s requirements. So it takes some persuasion to encourage growers to try new varieties.

Federica Bigongiali demonstrating grain breeding

Wanted: the Perfect Processing Tomato

We then had a chance to examine the trial cultivation of 24 varieties of so-called industrial tomatoes, which are particularly suitable for processing into sauces, etc., on the university’s grounds. Also included was the bioverita-certified variety Mauro Rosso, which we will get back to later. Unfortunately almost all the fruits in the fields were still green, so we didn’t get to sample them. We learned that processing tomatoes have special requirements as, since large quantities of them are required, they are grown outdoors.

The fruits ideally have to ripen at the same time for the one-time harvest in August and be well-suited for machine processing. Climate change is making tomato growing in Italy more and more difficult as the weather becomes more volatile and there is more rainfall in summer than previously. The goal of experimental cultivation is to find out whether varieties from organic breeding in particular have better potential for adaptation than the varieties from conventional breeding.

Tomatoes in trial cultivation

La Selva in Tuscany

And since our heads were filled with tomatoes anyway, we took the bus about 200 km south to visit the manufacturer La Selva near Grosseto. The lovely landscape of Tuscany passed by us on the long trip. The soil was very dry, it had not rained for a long time. At La Selva, we were warmly welcomed by Monika Mayer, who has been

working for the company as a food technician for 20 years. While she told us the story of the company, we were once again treated to wonderful delicacies on a terrace with a far-ranging view. Of course there were also vino, pasta and one or other vegetable mousses from the La Selva range. What a privilege!

Delicacies at La Selva

Four Hectares from Organic Breeding

We learned that the company was founded in 1980 by Karl Egger, who is also a co-founder of the Naturland Association. In 1991 he launched the first organic tomato specialties based on Tuscan recipes, which are still key to the brand today. La Selva grows vegetables and olives for processing on 700 hectares but now cooperates with many producers from the region. Tomatoes are grown on a total of 35 hectares, hybrid varieties dominate almost everywhere due to their reliable yield.

We are all the more pleased that there was a test cultivation with the Mauro Rosso variety from organic breeding in 2020. The test was so successful that the area was doubled to four hectares this year. Together we visited the large tomato field and used the opportunity to tell La Selva about the marketing of organic varieties in Germany and Switzerland. It was truly wonderful to see that the hard work of the wholesale partners who were with us would soon quite literally bear fruit in Italy!

The Mauro Rosso tomato in cultivation

Urbino Here We Come

With wistful glances at the sea in the distance, we got back on the bus and embarked on the long journey across Umbria to Urbino. Iulian our driver had to really stay focused now, as we had to cross the Apennine Mountains and some of that was on winding tracks.

Those travelers who had not fall asleep from all the beautiful vistas were able to enjoy the mountain scenery outside the window and later on the impressive hilly landscape of the Marches. Somewhat exhausted, we took up residence in our rooms and had a late night meal.

Landscape near Urbino

On the Fourth Day

… we are awakened by a wonderful sunrise over the hills of the Marches. While the morning was still fresh, the early risers among us explored the medieval town of Urbino together, which with its defiant walls and its Palazzo Ducale cast a spell over us. But before too long we were back on the road, this time heading for the Girolomoni Cooperative near Isola del Piano. It brings together 400 organic farmers who produce grain for the production of flours and pasta.

Girolomoni can proudly claim to be the only pasta manufacturer in Italy that covers the entire production value chain: from growing the grain to cleaning, threshing and milling to the manufacture and sale of a wide variety of pasta. Last year a total of 15,000 tons of grain, mainly durum wheat but also spelt, emmer and triticale grain were harvested, producing 10,000 tons of pasta. Only 20% of these are sold on the Italian market, 80% go abroad. In Germany they are available under the Rapunzel brand.

Organic Pasta from Girolomoni

Test Cultivation of Grain from Organic Breeding

After a tour of the cleaning and milling facility, we met Giovanni Girolomoni, son of the founder of the cooperative and Francesco Torriani, who coordinates grain cultivation. The two told us about the challenges of production in the mountainous and increasingly arid region of the Marches.

New, adaptable varieties from organic breeding are not only important to be genuinely organic right from the start, but also to be able to adapt better to climatic conditions. For this reason, together with EcorNaturaSí, they are involved in the “Seminare il Futuro” foundation and are testing the first organic durum wheat varieties in cultivation.

Giovanni Girolomoni und Francesco Torriani

Pasta Varieties

So far, the growers of the cooperative have generally used organic seeds, i.e. seeds from conventional breeding that have been propagated on organic land. Accompanied by crickets chirping, we walked from the unusual place where our conversation had started, the Monastero di Montebello which dates to 1380, down to the restaurant of the Agriturismo in Girolomino.

Here we – once again – had a a delicious meal and, among other things, a chance to try several of the cooperative’s pasta varieties. It is really difficult to say goodbye but another interesting visit is beckoning, this time north of Bologna, in Reggio Emilia.

The Monastero di Montebello

La Collina

Our last visit takes us to Andrea Ferretti’s La Collina bio-dynamic farm. A wide range of vegetables are grown on 40 hectares. They are used for direct marketing in the farm’s own shop and in other Naturasí health food stores as well as in various markets in the region. The cultivation of tomatoes is particularly important for the production of passata, a creamy tomato sauce.

Andrea is growing 16 new tomato varieties, which we had already seen in trial cultivation at the University of Pisa, out of personal interest but also on behalf of Sativa. Before new varieties are registered, they are always tested in parallel at different locations over several years. The 16 varieties were bred by Mauro Buonfiglioni, who now has decades of experience in breeding tomatoes. As the name suggests, the Mauro Rosso variety also is one of his.

Andrea Ferretti shows us how he grows tomatoes

Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Tomatoes

For Sativa, Mauro is not only working on new industrial tomatoes. At the La Collina farm, cross-breeding and selection work for several other types of tomatoes is ongoing: elongated tomatoes that are peeled and boiled down as a whole fruit, bush tomatoes with cherry tomatoes for further processing and tomatoes for selling fresh. For these projects, among other things, old varieties are used into which modern resistances are crossed. Amadeus Zschunke explained that Mauro is also working on so-called tomato rootstocks.

For commercial cultivation, almost all tomatoes, regardless of the variety, are currently grafted onto a substrate when they are young, i.e. onto a rooted plant that has its top cut off. These substrates must have a high resistance to typical tomato diseases; so far there are none from organic breeding anywhere in the world. Grafted plants are not only healthier, they also have a significantly higher yield. The development of rootstocks from organic breeding represents a very important step towards being “organic right from the start”!

Growing Tomatoes in the greenhouse

The Grand Finale

In the meantime, evening had arrived and the sun was slowly setting over the greenhouses and vegetable fields. We took a seat at a long table in the open air and went over our experiences of the last few days together. We had had a chance to get to know many different people

who work in small or large organizations, in cross-generational family businesses or in cooperatives day in day out in Italy, dedicating themselves to the production of organic food and the promotion of organic breeding in all its facets.

Dinner at La Collina

A Journey Full of Inspiration

The visits to the different locations and the exchanges between breeding, seed production, seed propagation, cultivation and marketing was very enriching for everyone involved. There clearly is progress in many areas in Italy but of course there is still a lot to do. So went home with lots of ideas for campaigns, collaborations and new projects in mind. One important finding was that organic breeding must always be viewed in the context of the agricultural system, because a plant variety by itself does not guarantee success or failure.

The cultivation of varieties from organic breeding is part of a sustainable agriculture, which, in addition to the production of healthy food requiring a low supply of nutrients and water, cultivates a consistent circular economy and the development and maintenance of humus. We were highly motivated to continue our work to ensure that varieties from organic breeding become more and more widespread and will hopefully one day be the default!

Vegetable delicacies
Our travellers (back row): Elke Röder, Theresa Koch, Luise Gemmeke, Petra Boie, Regina Lutke Schipholt, Annika Woltjen, Amadeus Zschunke, Federica Bigongiali, Harald Rinklin, Sascha Suler, Timo Tottmann, Niklas Hättig; (front row): Anna-Lena May, Lina Veit, Fausta Borsani, Herman Lutke Schipholt, Markus Johann, Justine Lipke; not in the picture: Romana Slusarek, Mauro Finotti, Doris Thewes