BREEDING FOR BIODIVERSITY — AND FOR RICHER FLAVORS IN DANISH BAKERIES
Can you sense biodiversity in bread? If you were to sniff a slice like you would a glass of vintage wine? The independent cereal breeder and Ph.D. agronomist Anders Borgen plays The Long Game in organic seed cultivation. Today he is bringing a range of carefully cultivated grain varieties to a market that didn’t know it was starved for a broader quality range.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Organic seed breading is not lucrative. That’s one of the first things Anders Borgen states when we talk.
– It’s difficult because it’s strictly regulated, for one. You need to get your grain variety listed on the EU’s catalog of approved grains, which is very expensive. Then you have to sell your variety to a seed company and hope that your grain can “scale” there. Because the more it sells, the more the breeder gets, he says.
Since farmers generally want high-yielding varieties, most regions are dominated by very few seed companies. According to Anders Borgen, four seed companies cover 50 percent of the seed market worldwide.
WHY GET INTO ORGANIC GRAIN OR PLANT BREEDING AT ALL?
Borgen is perhaps as rare as some of the heirloom varieties he has chosen to make crosses with. He began as a farmer himself back in the 1980s. But that’s nothing he wants to make a big fuss about: “We were just a couple of hippies with great ideals.” So, he took his passion for organic farming to university, where he studied agronomy and specialized in seed-borne diseases.
According to Anders Borgen, the grains conventional farmers use are treated with fungicides by default.
– You have to remember that we treated seeds with mercury for 80 years; until 1993, he says, laughing, shaking his head, implying that mercury has been swapped for less audacious chemicals.
While organic farmers can avoid plant diseases through crop rotation, that does not help them when it comes to seed-borne conditions since the latter do not follow the soil—they follow the seeds. This realization made Anders Borgen want to help organic farmers by focusing his research on the seed-borne fungus, Common Bunt, also referred to as Stinking Smut.
– It has these fungus spores that spoil the grain and make it smell like rotten fish. It has a very nasty smell. Only a few infected plants will ruin the whole field.
On one hand, Common Bunt is easy to prevent, he says. All you have to do as an organic farmer is to screen your seeds before you use them. And then clean them with vinegar if needed. On the other hand, what’s technically possible is not always economically feasible. The screening part is not expensive, but “the cleaning” part is rarely an option.
– As a researcher and grain breeder, I can wash my grains with vinegar, but that would cost too much for a commercial organic farmer. So, if a farmer finds Common Bunt in screening, they would discard the batch and buy a new pack of grains. But this then leads to another problem, he continues.
– It is only possible to buy new fresh seeds—quickly— if the varieties the farmer grows are “common.” For organic farmers who grow niche products, seed supply is scarce. For example, there are only two farmers in Denmark that grow durum wheat. They cannot get a new batch of durum seeds that easily. That’s why my long-term goal has been to breed organic seeds that are resistant to this disease.
Still, if seed breeding is not a very lucrative business, couldn’t organic farmers suffice with more common grain varieties? Is there a need for more cereal variety?
Well, yes, there is, and not only for the pure joy it can render when you bake. If you zoom out and see the bigger picture, then all the fields and rows of cereal become bigger than their parts. It all comes down to the importance of biodiversity.
GRAIN BIODIVERSITY — IS THAT EVEN A THING?
Princess Mary, Ella, Birkers Valmuer, and Jane Fonda are four of 2000 varieties swaying in the wind on Anders Borgen’s laboratory fields in Mariager, on the Danish peninsula, Jutland.
“They are all my babies,” he explains— bred with a focus on disease resistance, baking quality, allergens, protein levels, and more. They all have in common that they are bred for Danish and southern Scandinavian climates—and that they are all different, also within each variety.
– Instead of offering varieties where all the plants are identical, I offer a mixture of breeding lines, which means that there will be diversity within each crop. This, in turn, is good for regulating wheat- and plant diseases.
By making mixes, Anders Borgen offers genetic diversity within a variety, which, according to him, is sought after amongst organic farmers.
– Many conventional farmers support this concept too, even though they can get “better” priced seeds from conventional seed companies. They think what I’m doing is good and important, he says.
What they like is the value of “difference”.
BIODIVERSITY AS OPPOSED TO MONOCULTURE
With the mixture-notion, Anders Borgen does not solely offer exciting new flavors and characteristics—he provides a biologically sound way to render resilient and sustainable crops. Which is the exact opposite of growing “monocultures”.
– Yes, a grain variety needs to be genetically uniform, but my “varieties” are not strictly uniform. My purple wheats, for example, all have purple seeds, but they differ in height and nuance out on the field.
When individual specimens are different, they are not all susceptible to the same diseases. This is one of the core values of biodiversity— local biodiversity, that is.
– For example, with globalization, it can seem like the overall diversity rate is increasing. It is true that you initially get exposed to more diversity in the form of products you didn’t have before globalization. But this then leads to less local diversity, which means that global diversity is decreasing.
What do you mean?
– Let’s say we have 1000 products locally, then comes globalization which leads to us replacing 900 of those 1000 products with imported products. We can even end up with way more than 1000 products locally. It then seems like diversity is increasing, but when you zoom out, you notice how the situation is the same everywhere; everybody has the same type of products everywhere. And at the same time, local diversity of products is lost. So we end up losing 90 percent of regional diversity—everywhere.
Anders Borgen says that this is what has happened to the seed market.
– The UN has evaluated that we have lost 75 percent of our genetic diversity in cultivated plants.
CAN BIODIVERSITY BE INCREASED?
Anders Borgen left university over 20 years ago and has since been doing his grain research, and after a while also organic grain breeding in his own company, Agrologica. Thus, competing for the same funds that researchers at universities are.
– This has enabled me to do breeding on types of cereals that commercial companies have deemed unprofitable
Anders Borgen has chosen a line of work that does not cater to the needs of agribusiness and industrialized food production, where the focus lies on high-yielding wheat for industrial bakery applications. Because he is playing The Long Game.
– The way I breed is the same way conventional plant breeding is done. I make crosses and select pure line grain varieties, so they become genetically identical. I then choose the “good ones” and throw away the rest. I only keep the ones that are resistant to plant diseases and other important traits, and then I re-mix them. That way, I recreate diversity.
– Yes, it takes a long time. It took me ten years to get my first grains ready.
MAKING BIODIVERSITY “LEGAL”
But for all his patience and dedication to actually generate biodiversity, the grains need to reach interested farmers, millers, bakers, and consumers. And for this to happen, a couple of legal and market hurdles need to be addressed.
– That’s why I have initiated Landsorten, Anders Borgen says.
Landsorten is a membership organization with an incredibly diverse and unique organic cereal collection, specially bred for Scandinavian growing conditions. Currently these varieties are bred by Agrologica, under the guidance of Anders Borgen.
Kind of like a CSA. Members pay an up front, annual fee to get access to the seeds in Landsorten’s collection. There are three membership tiers: private, farmer and miller. Farmers pay a base fee plus a fee per acre of varieties grown from Landsorten. Millers pay a base fee plus a fee per kg of processed grain. Members may also save and sell seeds to each other. The cost for buying seeds elsewhere is lower than the membership fee, but the value of local variety is much greater at Landsorten, members have a say in which varieties are developed, and the breeder is compensated fairly. Additional perks include educational field days, and a supportive member community.
– Since it is costly to get a seed approved and published on the EU’s catalog of approved grains, we had to find a way to cultivate these organic grain varieties without getting them approved. We found a way through a paragraph in the EU directive that says that you can sell seed for research purposes, Anders says and continues:
– So, what is research? Research is doing trials. The law does not limit research to something that only universities or researchers can do, which opens up for farmers to do tests.
According to Anders Borgen, this makes it possible for Landsorten to give or sell seeds to its members for research purposes.
– It isn’t about the amount of seed either, we are allowed to sell it as long as we can argue that this is only for a trial production, he says and clarifies that the farmer after the trial period is free to save his home grown seeds and continue using them.
– The Danish Minister of Agriculture has approved this interpretation of the seed legislation, Anders Borgen assures.
But Anders Borgen’s quest for increasing grain biodiversity does not solely rest on this “loophole”.
– Our legislators are also facing a dilemma, he says and explains:
– On the one hand, they have the EU legislation. It states that “you can only sell certified seeds.” And on the other hand, we have The International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which says that farmers are allowed to use, exchange and sell home saved seeds and that they have the right to protect biodiversity by using landraces.
IS THE SEED LEGISLATION HINDERING BIODIVERSITY?
– I’m not in favor of giving up the seed legislation, Anders Borgen says. I think what we have obtained now is the ideal situation. It has ensured that the seeds on the market are of good quality. If the seed market were deregulated, we would end up with the American situation, where anything goes.
– American seed breeders have resorted to genetic modification, which enables them to patent their seed product. Thanks to our legislation, we do not need patents. And that’s a very good thing because patents hinder development. You cannot take a patented crop and breed new varieties from it. According to Anders Borgen, if patents become a reality, it would stop the seed development that humankind has pursued for 11,000 years.
Since the grain legislation allows for Lansorten to be, as he says, a “kindergarten” for organic crop experimentation, Landsorten has helped solve the legislators’ dilemma. They can now adhere to the seed legislation—without violating the international plant treaty. Which then paves a beautiful path towards increased grain biodiversity in Denmark.
WHY BAKERS WANT ORGANIC GRAINS
Anders Borgen’s heart lies in agricultural trades, where he is a link between science and food producers—local farmers and millers, and artisan bakeries. The farmers and bakers that choose his grains—and who are pioneering members in Landsorten—do it for “interesting” baking qualities and the common good. He can, for example, offer them grains with a higher protein level, like (the previously mentioned) purple wheat that is adapted to Scandinavian circumstances, as well as being resistant to Common Bunt.
In a way, the bakers are driving the demand for organic seeds. Anders Borgen explains that when standard grain varieties are used in organic farming, their protein level is lower, which is not beneficial for the baking quality. So, when offering grain varieties that yield higher protein levels under organic farming practices—that’s a big plus for artisan bakers.
In summary, what are the most fascinating aspects of Anders Borgen’s story and the dawn of Landsorten?
Perhaps that direct profit from selling a multitude of different organic grain varieties goes hand in hand with a social return on investment. Anders Borgen and Landsorten have pushed open a door that, in the long run, allows each bakery to forgo their imported commodity flour— and instead engage with growers in their region.
Et voila! Fertile circumstances have been put in place for a local grain economy to thrive. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who was once just a “hippie with great ideals”.