Since 1er January 2022, a new European regulation applies for producers in organic farming. It concerns different aspects of production (animal welfare, harmonization of requirements for imported products), but above all new measures favorable to the production of new categories of seeds adapted to organic farming, thanks to the authorization of their marketing.
This provision opens a breach in the world of industrial seeds which has contributed to the construction of our agricultural landscapes and our food system, based on the homogeneity of cultures and the stability of varieties. This ideal of variety, made compulsory for the marketing of seeds in the middle of the last century, has finally been dethroned thanks to the new regulations which give back its place to the diversity necessary for the proper functioning of ecosystems.
Much more than a symbol, this development now offers the possibility of bringing the seed into line with the principles of organic farming (AB).
From thousands of cultivated plant species… to 150
Agriculture appeared 10,000 years ago with the first domestication of cultivated species. Throughout the centuries, farmers have adapted and selected in each region the plants that are the basis of our food and our culture.
Our modern era has seen our diet considerably impoverished – and at the same time cultures homogenized. While several thousand plant species have been used over the centuries for human nutrition, today we only grow around 150. And no more than three provide some 60% of the calories and protein derived from plants. .
The industrialization of agriculture has accelerated this loss of diversity: this can be explained by the simplification of agricultural practices and landscapes, as well as by the use of varieties made stable and homogeneous thanks to genetic and biotechnological tricks. Organic farming emerged a century ago thanks to pioneers who very quickly understood the great risks of ecosystem deterioration.
At the beginning of organic, homogeneous and stable varieties
Organic farming began its economic development in France after the Second World War. It was formalized there by the agricultural orientation law (LOA) of 1980. In 1991, a European regulation officially recognized it.
From this text, the use of organic seeds (ie seeds from seed plants grown according to organic principles) was made compulsory for organic farmers throughout the EU. In the beginning, we multiplied varieties created for conventional agriculture to produce organic seeds, thus keeping the logic of homogeneity and stability of these varieties for organic. However, the implementation of the regulation differed from one Member State to another, as very few organic seeds were available at the time.
Since its emergence, the practitioners of organic agriculture have been keen to stimulate living processes through specific techniques, particularly at the level of soil damaged with chemical inputs – but without worrying about seeds in the first decades.
This regulation was a saving spark among some professionals to trigger a reflection on the nature of the varieties and seeds on the market, and for an awareness of the inconsistency of using stable and homogeneous varieties designed to be productive in organic farming. in a conventional farming context.
They also discovered that most modern varieties carried biotechnological manipulations, in complete contradiction with the principles of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (Ifoam), established at the international level.
2000s, strong comeback of peasant seeds
From this awareness of the early 2000s, groups of farmers initiated participatory research experiments in France and Europe on many species to renew peasant seeds abandoned a few decades earlier.
They have many advantages over modern varieties: they are diversified, evolutionary, selected while respecting the biology of the species to adapt to the diversity of ecosystems; moreover, they are exchanged freely between the members of the associations which have been set up to support collective work, outside the legal seed market. National networks, such as the Peasant Seed Network in France, and the European collective European Coordination Let’s Liberate Diversity, ensured the political recognition of the approach.
At the same time, and to support the entire organic and farming sector, European projects – DIVERSIFOOD, LIVESEED, DYNAVERSITY and soon LIVESEEDING – have for fifteen years associated committed researchers with professionals (farmers and breeders, in particular small European organic companies) to recognize the specificities of selection for organic farming, for which a diversified seed is essential to ensure the health of the plants, regular and quality production in organic farming.
These projects also mobilize citizens in search of nutritious local products with a variety of tastes. From this collective work, selection methods for diversity have proven their worth. The results of successive projects have fueled lobbying actions aimed at convincing European and national legislators that it was necessary to get out of the diktat of stable and homogeneous variety in organic farming, a success which is now reflected in the application of this new regulations.
2022, towards the sale of organic varieties on a large scale
The new organic regulation, applied since the beginning of 2022, offers the possibility of disseminating organic heterogeneous populations – called OHM (for Organic Heterogeneous Material, in English) and MHB (for biological heterogeneous material, in French); the word “material” is symbolic of the dominant and materialist vision of living organisms which is rightly opposed by organic practitioners – outside the peasant networks, by seed artisans (especially in France), by organic seed companies (quite numerous in Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland) or producers’ cooperatives.
The terms of application of the regulation, particularly with regard to the description of these cultivated plant populations – which do not have the right to be called “varieties” since the word has been reserved for “stable and homogeneous material” – remain at the center of the project activities in collaboration with official bodies in charge of marketing procedures.
In addition, he argues the existence of organic varieties, going beyond seeds, since the entire selection process will be carried out in organic agriculture. They will be selected with natural methods without biotechnology.
Thus, the return of heterogeneity and respect for the biology of species will help the organic sector to come closer to its ideals expressed in the 4 principles established by Ifoam: ecology, health, equity and precaution.
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