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Improve performance of organic agriculture by boosting organic seed and plant breeding efforts across Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - LIVESEED (Improve performance of organic agriculture by boosting organic seed and plant breeding efforts across Europe)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2021-09-30

The European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy aims to upscale agricultural land under organic to 25% by 2030 in the EU. To increase organic production, organic inputs - including organic seed - are required, in line with the EU Organic Regulations. Currently, the availability of high-quality organic seed in most EU Member States is not sufficient to meet this demand. For this reason, when the organic seed is unavailable, conventional untreated seed can be used in organic production, until 2036 (EU 2018/848), when this measure will be phased out. Therefore, the production of organic seed must be significantly increased in the coming years. The objectives of LIVESEED were to improve the transparency and competitiveness of the organic seed and breeding sector and encourage greater use of the organic seed, through:

-Fostering harmonised implementation of the EU organic regulation on organic seed;
-Strengthening organic seed databases in the whole EU;
-Investigating socio-economic aspects related to production and use of organic seed;
-Improving the availability and quality of organic seed;
-Developing guidelines for organic cultivar testing and registration;
-Developing innovative breeding approaches suited to organic farming;
-Widening the choice of organic cultivars meeting the demand of farmers, processors, retailers and consumers.

Research activities of LIVESEED covered legumes, vegetables, fruit trees, cereals and fodder crops, and considered different farming systems and pedoclimatic zones across Europe.
To evaluate the status quo, the project carried out for the first time a comprehensive data analysis on the current supply and demand of seed used in organic farming in the EU and Switzerland. This exercise revealed several bottlenecks in data availability and transparency, and we made recommendations on increasing the quality of the data collection on organic seed production and use in the EU. A study on the functionality of the obligatory national seed databases was also carried out and found large differences across the EU with some common shortcomings. To increase the transparency and the access of seed suppliers to the national seed databases, LIVESEED developed an EU-wide Router Database (seeds4organic.eu) where national authorities can evaluate seed offers from abroad and export them to their national databases, while seed suppliers can place offers in many EU countries using a single entry. The project, furthermore, organised extensive consultations, national visits and workshops involving twenty-one EU Member States to learn about the national implementation of the EU Organic Regulation, collecting transferable good policy practices that support the production and use of organic seed and gaining insight into political obstacles. These showed that to succeed, it is crucial to limit the derogations, set up national seed expert groups that developing national roadmaps to achieve 100% organic seed supply for crops and to invest in organic seed production, variety trials and organic breeding. Research in LIVESEED involving 800 farmers across the EU confirmed that organic breeding of locally adapted varieties and in general, breeding for organic farming was considered the most important by farmers to boost organic seed use.

For the promotion and professionalisation of organic seed production by farmers, LIVESEED organised cross-visits, published 65 Practice Abstracts, and created new sections for disseminating practical know-how on the Organic Farm-Knowledge Platform. To improve the quality of organic seed, and to respond to the remaining challenges of seed-borne pathogens and seed production, LIVESEED developed a new holistic organic seed health strategy, which takes into account the broader environment and the entire seed cycle, and includes seed vigour, maturity and pathogens, plant and seed microbiome, and several aspects related to seed processing and storing. The project developed crop-specific guidelines for on-farm and official cultivar testing (DUS and VCU), and made several recommendations on the upcoming EU Temporary Experiment for Organic Varieties (Art.39 EU 2018/848), and helped interpret the new types of organic plant reproductive materials. These processes speed up the release of organic varieties to the market. The project explored concepts for increased diversity through field trials with Composite Cross and Dynamic Populations, variety mixtures, species mixtures and agroforestry, and participatory approaches, creating partnerships between breeders, farmers, value chain actors, consumers at the local level. A wide variety of new organic cultivars were released from these activities, which are adapted to local and climatic conditions. The project built crop expert networks for white lupin, brassicas, apple, winter wheat, and tomato. We explored via economic modelling exercises selected organic seed supply chains and researched the attitudes of consumers on new genomic techniques.

With its multi-actor approach, LIVESEED disseminated results to several stakeholder groups, via over XXX scientific and non-scientific workshops, meetings, conferences, field farm days, policy forums, and through the creation and dissemination of over 150 practical and scientific materials and reports, via the extensive LIVESEED website, open repositories (OrgEPrints, Zenodo), social media, and an EU-wide stakeholder platform. Results were exploited as new services and products (e.g. Router Database), the release of several new breeding materials, and new research projects and academic positions.
Key impacts of LIVESEED are:
-LIVESEED’s contribution to EU-policymaking and shaping the work on new types of organic plant reproductive materials (developing innovative protocols for organic cultivar testing for different crop categories and cultivar types, a proposal for a toolbox for identification and description of Organic Heterogeneous Material, valuable inputs in 2020 for the delegated act of the new organic regulation, and in 2021 for the new temporary experiment, including a list of priority crops, a list of experts to be included, and crop-specific protocols developed by organic breeders for cultivar testing).
-Overall promotion of policy and market incentives to improve the use of organic seed, recommendations to improve national seed databases and derogation reporting, an increase of farmers’ access to organic seed in the EU, helping harmonize the implementation of the EU regulations, and facilitating the national stakeholders to make commitments and progress at the national level.
-Reduction of higher risks of seed health issues due to the restricted use of synthetic pesticides in organic agriculture by applying a seed heath strategy based on seed microbiome, soil properties and seedling vigour, as a new way of thinking in seed management at seed companies.
-Development of transferable breeding concepts combining participatory approaches with modern breeding tools considering different socio-economic contexts, to maximize the breeding gains for organic agriculture via selection under organic conditions.
-An on-farm organic cultivar testing model of establishing locally adjusted pilot trials connected by a European digital platform for data sharing, allowing farmers to make informed choices.
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