Issue 06/24

Food is full of life

Miriam Margareta Gimm
Nicola Tams

Fifty years ago, mathematically every person worldwide had half a hectare to grow food, today it is a quarter of a hectare and by 2050 it will only be a thousand square meters. Where cereals and potatoes once grew, there are now semi-detached houses and supermarkets. On the remaining area, more and more crops are being grown with pesticides, mineral fertilizers and monocultures. This is at the expense of the soil, whose natural functions are so severely disrupted that it cannot withstand heavy rainfall and storms. Around 970 million tons of fertile soil are lost in the EU every year due to erosion – that is equivalent to the amount of soil needed to raise the entire city of Berlin by one metre.

In an agricultural system that is largely geared towards short-term yields and in which too little attention is paid to long-term effects, it is difficult to achieve a change in thinking. In addition to how we treat the soil, this is also evident in how we treat the plants that we cultivate and that interact with the soil. Most crops grown today are bred for maximum profit. A healthy interaction between the environment and cultivation is ignored.

Near Bremen, Florian Jordan and Ulrike Berendt grow lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, chinese cabbages, pointed cabbages, carrots, beets and parsnips on light soil. When we visit him, Jordan shows us around the extensive grounds. Among other things, he specializes in tomato cultivation and develops tomato varieties that are particularly resistant to certain fungal infestations. Each plant is closely observed, documented and tasted. Of all the tomatoes grown, only those with the desired abilities are used for cultivation, which means they are crossed and propagated. This is a very time-consuming process that takes several years, during which Florian gets to know the plants intensively through his observations and develops them in the desired direction. Once a plant is «fully» bred, it is also propagated on other farms and then mainly sold via the organic online retailer Bingenheimer Saatgut.

Classic cultivation methods such as crossing and selection are used in biodynamic cultivation in the same way as in other cultivation processes. Suitable fruits are selected by Florian, deseeded and the seeds are sown again the following year and checked for their characteristics. Then they are crossed again and the best ones are selected. «Taking care of the plants and looking after them is a bit like watching children grow up», says Florian with a smile. The plants continue to develop every year, developing certain characteristics or not. Florian keeps a close eye on the plants, makes notes on the various characteristics and selects according to his ideas.

Florian and Ulrike also experiment with a mixture of different lettuce varieties that can cope well with difficulties such as drought, diseases or weeds. So the aim here is not to cultivate a new variety with specific characteristics, but to find out which varieties work particularly well when grown together. The diversity of the varieties increases the resilience of the entire crop, as the different varieties can cope with different conditions. This prevents crop failure, as some varieties always thrive better with one problem than others.

«Cultivation specifically for organic farming is so important because varieties in the conventional sector are cultivated for the conditions in conventional farming. Organic plants, on the other hand, have to be able to cope well with weeds and diseases and also with little water and fertilizer. Organic cultivation therefore needs varieties that are particularly resilient», says Florian. «We also pay more attention to vitality, aroma and digestibility rather than mass. If a plant grows quickly and becomes large, the taste always suffers because fewer aromatic substances can be produced. This is why we taste all our plants during the cultivation process. All of our varieties are cultivated in a seed-proof manner, which means that fertile plants can pass on their good characteristics and the natural integrity of the plant is respected.»

Despite the many dedicated growers, there are unfortunately far too few seed-resistant varieties and even in the organic sector, hybrid seeds are often used. Hybrid seeds are seeds that have been obtained from crosses. Over several generations, the parent plants are fertilized with themselves and thus specific desired characteristics of the varieties are developed. Since hybrid seeds can only ever be produced by highly specialized breeders, in other words by corporations, the development of seed-resistant varieties contributes greatly to food sovereignty. However, the cultivation of seed-resistant varieties generates almost no money and seed breeders in the organic sector are dependent on funding and donations.

Today, the majority of all plants grown in agriculture are hybrids. Hybrids are bred plants that produce a high yield but their fruits cannot be used again as seeds. However, this also means that farmers have to buy the seeds and are therefore dependent on large corporations such as Monsanto or Syngenta, which own these varieties. This applies to conventional agriculture, but unfortunately also to a large part to organic farming. Demeter was the first organic farming association to issue guidelines for the cultivation of alternative seeds and promotes traditional cultivation. Genetically engineered plants are prohibited by Demeter. Certified Demeter seeds are always seed-proof.

On February 7, 2024, the European Parliament voted in Strasbourg on the deregulation of new genomic techniques. In the future, it should be possible to approve cultivated plants in Europe with significantly simplified procedures using new genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering promotes the agro-industrial approach; instead of working to improve the system, plants are being genetically «optimized» for certain properties, often so that they work better in combination with certain pesticides. Deregulation of genetic engineering processes in agriculture threatens to bring a flood of patented plants onto the market. This is a legally confusing and economically threatening situation for small and medium-sized cultivation and agricultural businesses.

One example of a biodynamically cultivated plant that is well adapted to current conditions is the special rye (Lichtkornroggen) developed by the grower Karl-Josef Müller in Darzau, Lower Saxony. This rye has a mild taste and a light color, is lighter and more digestible than rye, but tastes just as good. This rye is ideal for organic cultivation, as it requires fewer nutrients and is better able to withstand drought. It is also very complex to cultivate cereals. One of the main aims of cultivation is to make the young plant resistant. But only those who bring their own varieties onto the market can become independent of conventional methods of cultivation. As a result, seeds become cultural assets and do not remain purely an economic factor. The varieties then belong to associations such as the non-profit organization Kultursaat e.V.

The cultivator Christina Henatsch from Gut Wulfsdorf confirms what Rudolf Steiner already described in the «Agricultural Course» in 1924: nutrition and the gut have great influence on our mood and our thinking. There is an increasing rebellion of the digestive system, for example in the case of gluten intolerance or other food intolerances. There is «life» in food, which means that it makes a difference what we eat and what we support. Food doesn't just have flavor. It also has an effect. Some foods lead to irritability and a decrease or increase in performance. The «observation of the mental and physical effects of food» is part of the «effect sensory system» established by Dr. Uwe Geier.

According to the German Society for Nutrition, nutrition has a major influence on the growth, development and well-being of infants, as well as on neuromotor development. The German Healthcare Foundation recommends a nutrient-rich diet containing the major building blocks of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and the minor building blocks such as vitamins and minerals. The main focus here is on an optimized mixed diet. Bread, for example, should contain at least 50 percent whole grains. By sowing seeds together, for example, children can be made aware that food does not just come from the supermarket, but that their food goes through a long chain of production.

After all, every bite starts with a seed. And our body feeds on the world. We take something in, break it down and gain strength from it. What we eat affects and shapes us all. Most of us have long been living in a highly modern food system. Food is not only highly processed, but also industrially produced from the plant or animal. We can only look forward to a climate-neutral future if we make decisions about soil, fertilization and seeds in which time and quality are invested and nature is valued. Seed-based cultivation is a costly but, as in the case of the rye described here, high-quality alternative. In this way, vegetable cultivation for climate protection could perhaps become a reality after all!


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