FondsGoetheanum: Seeding and harvesting


The experience of sowing seeds gets under the skin. Diving into the atmosphere of this archetypal deed opens up the soul. Sowing the Future is a demonstration in favour of food sovereignty – and against genetic engineering.

Dessert fruit grower, Niklaus Bollinger, has been sowing biodynamic apple seeds since the end of the 90s. He wants to develop new, good quality varieties that do not require a lot of direct plant protection treatment.

Alternative medicine and natural cosmetics rely on medicinal plants grown biodynamically, including their seeds. Hortus Officinarum wants to ensure the availability of these seeds.

Getreidezüchtung Peter Kunz
For 30 years, Peter Kunz and his team have been breeding cereal varieties adapted to local conditions and sustainable agriculture.

Bioverita are experts in the breeding of organic seeds, and the products developed from these seeds.

ProSpecieRara saves and protects the diversity of crop plants, strengthens endangered varieties, promotes easy access to all seeds, and collects and transmits knowledge in this field.

Biodynamic breeding advances cultivation and plants

Why seed-selection? To what end? The difficulties facing old cereal varieties began a century ago with the increasing expansion of intensive agriculture. This resulted in problems of cultivation and quality. The solution lies in the re-breeding of all crop plants. A powerful responsibility.

Already a hundred years ago old cereal varieties had begun to cause big problems for farmers. They were no longer suited to the requirements of cultivation methods geared to intensive agriculture, particularly in regard to nitrogen fertilisers. When asked what could be done to prevent the decrease in product quality while increasing yields, Rudolf Steiner simply replied that all crop plants needed to be rebred.
This prompted some people in the biodynamic movement to begin experimenting with crop plants. However, it was not until the late 70s, when faced with the rise of multinational seed companies and genetic modification, that the ideas of biodynamics concerning selection were taken up, such that 20 years later cultivable varieties could be obtained.

Plant breeding and the development of agriculture

Agriculture meanwhile has continued to develop a more intensive mode: even on a well-run organic farm, harvests are two to three times greater today than a hundred years ago. Plant breeding has changed all crop plants, continually adapting them to changing growing conditions and the expectations of processors and consumers. Without this, today’s intensive production would be absolutely impossible.
New varieties of cereals need to be protected from fungal diseases that reduce yields, they must be secure and upright until harvest time in order to result in a flour whose dough, despite inhibited fermentation due to cold storage, must remain stable long enough for bakers to be able to have a "normal" day's work, meaning not needing to begin before 6am.

What then happens to quality?

It is high time we considered the compatibility of these requirements with the very nature of these plants. Many of today’s selection practices and farming methods focus on promoting vegetative growth and "massive" yield, to the neglect of transformation and ripening processes. Varying greatly from one year to another, it is these processes, however, that determine aroma, taste and structure: they are the truly qualitative elements.

Selection as midwife to something new

The living world, and therefore crop plants have not been created once and for all, but are subject to continuous evolution. This is something we are only gradually waking up to and it gives rise to a lot of anxiety. Research focused on the past, aimed for example at conserving old varieties in gene banks, cannot solve the problem because this is completely alien to the plants’ nature: they want to grow again every year and be shaped by the earth and the cosmos. Selectors accompany and guide this process: developing new varieties and contributing to diversity over many years.
During these processes, plants acquire new predispositions and finally new qualities; plant types even appear that did not exist before. Selection entails many small steps. On experimental plots many unique plants are grown. These are plants that are found nowhere else and known only to the breeder, who continues to improve them so that they can make their future contribution to the feeding of humanity.

We need a dynamic picture of the plant

Plants are much more than what modern science sees. Today’s reductionist scientific thought sees only complex biological mechanisms. But plants are living beings that derive their life from their relationships with other aspects of their environment, through which they develop their substance and take their shape. They thus give a quantitative and qualitative picture of the world around them. Plants grown in the shade have other qualities than plants grown on a sunny hillside. Active observation of such things, and following them up, forges an open mind and mobile thinking. They are the conditions for overcoming materialism and giving rise to new social forms.


Ears prepared for crossing are protected by paper cases against spontaneous pollination.

Plants are open living beings, shaped by the farm and the environment

Plants are open living beings. They live in a constant act of growing, allowing themselves to be shaped by their environment. The “seed” phase is a pause in this process. Half of their being lives in the surrounding world, in the landscape and in the farm organism. Shaping the plant is a task that belongs to the farmer, not the breeder. Even so, breeders need to be very familiar with agriculture and close collaboration is necessary if they are to succeed in getting varieties that are good from all points of view. For each variety, breeders need to establish its particular growth and development characteristics. Otherwise, its typical quality is lost, because this is not given by nature, but is recognised, conceptualised and newly formed by man. These are subtle matters that require an intimate knowledge of plants and courageous decisions involving future reality.
For example, how can we improve old varieties such as spelt that are very susceptible to diseases thus limiting the risk of a bad harvest, while preserving its typical quality? How can carrot varieties keep the green leaves necessary for mechanical harvesting, without losing their ability to preserve their flavour and be crunchy? How can grains resist rain for several weeks without starting to germinate prematurely in the ears and without producing enzyme inhibiting substances that impede germination during the next planting, possibly affecting digestion in human beings and animals, and so making the cereal inedible?


New spelt strains

Intensify traditional production instead of increasing industrial production

Biodynamic breeding means integrating breeding into the farm organism. Unlike conventional agriculture, organic farming limits itself to the resources on the farm. This is true husbandry. For example, by managing the rotation or the balance between crops and livestock so that these two aspects are mutually supportive and reinforcing. Organic selection has to take account of such things. The varieties developed must be able to use all available resources in order to achieve good yields of high quality. High yields is the goal of any healthy agriculture.

Biological selection faces great challenges – but is a match for them!

Climate change is coming faster than we think, and it will bring more and more fungal diseases. This year we were forced to rethink large surfaces of our experimental plots because yellow rust became highly prevalent. For breeders, this is a good thing because it allows them to identify and distinguish between resistant and susceptible plants, whereas when this occurs on large areas, the situation may quickly become dramatic, because the decline in farmers’ yields is considerable. Breeders must continually take the pulse of evolution. Organic farming will also change. Greater intensification can be expected, and in the future we must pay far more attention to our use of resources. We also need to increase efforts to grow food in the regions of the earth where it is needed.

Organic selection is not a luxury – Sowing the Future

That is why the world over we need many breeding initiatives, small in scale and working on a regional basis. In affluent Switzerland and Europe we can no longer live in the illusion of being able to choose whatever we fancy, cheaply provided from South America, Africa, India and elsewhere. When we act like this, we simply empty the plates of those who have less money than we do!
Organic plant breeding is not a luxury that we can afford just because we live in rich Europe: it is a necessity to which we must respond in the interest of generations to come. We carry the responsibility for crop plants. Wheat has ten thousand years of history behind it, yet in only one hundred years breeding has radically changed all crop plants. What will these plants look like a hundred years from now, in 2114? Will they have the quality that really feeds people?
We have a choice!

The time has come for everyone involved in food production and distribution, and for all consumers to be aware of the ultimate consequences of their behaviour for crop plants. The power of the multinational seed companies that dominate the market can be broken, provided that the work of organic breeders is better funded, more and more farmers use reproducible seeds, and processors, traders and consumers specifically request the products that result from them.
By their choice of products and the prices they pay, people who shop in grocery stores influence the type of production and finally the type of breeding also. We are all stakeholders in how the future unfolds. We have a choice!

Peter Kunz, Cereal Breeder