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Dynamic Conservation and Participatory Plant Breeding in France

In this example from France, four regional projects, all carried out by regional farmers' organizations in cooperation with the National Institute for Agricultural Research (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, INRA), will demonstrate how participatory plant breeding combined with dynamic conservation can create a reward and support system beneficial both to the farmers involved and to the conservation of genetic resources.

These four projects were all initiated by farmers to create varieties more suited to organic agricultural practices than the F1 hybrids of modern agriculture. In collaboration with INRA they succeeded in re-introducing traditional varieties and adapting them to their own needs and to the local environments. From being almost lost and mostly conserved ex situ, these old varieties and land-races are now being conserved on-farm, as well as being developed further.

Reseau Semences Paysannes (RSP), established by a group of farmers in 2003, is a network consisting of about 40 groups and organizations of organic and conventional farmers and gardeners, as well as NGOs and researchers, in various regions of France, but mainly in the south and west. The aim of the network is to promote on-farm dynamic conservation and management of genetic diversity, and to develop, multiply and distribute locally-adapted varieties well suited for low-input farming. It is also seen as important to foster knowledge exchange. The activities of RSP consist in collecting and disseminating existing information, as well as training of participants, evaluations of plants and taking part in research programmes.

Old wheat varieties. Photo: RSPRSP manages a project aimed at dynamic conservation and the breeding of wheat varieties for use in organic farming and traditional baking. Experiences from the cultivation and breeding of old varieties are collected and exchanged for use in modern farming systems. RSP seeks to adapt the old varieties to their needs in terms of the ability of the wheat plants to develop adequate biomass and root systems and adapt to different soils and climatic conditions, as well as the characteristics wanted in relation to suitability for millstone and traditional baking, the colours and aromas of the resultant flour and bread, and nutritional qualities. The project was started under the RSP in 2003, but some members have been cultivating these varieties at least 10 years now. The wheat project is a collaborative effort involving the various members of the RSP network, INRA and private foundations who provide some of the funding. Roughly one hundred farmers from the different regions in which the network operates are currently active in the project. In addition there are an unknown number of less involved farmers who participate in the meetings and use the varieties conserved and developed in the network.

Biocivam 11 is an organization of organic farmers in Languedoc Roussillon, France. Since 2005 it has been running a project on participatory breeding of vegetable species for use in organic farming. INRA has been involved in the project from time to time by helping with the collection of genetic resources. Through this project Biocivam 11 supports a group of organic gardeners producing vegetables for sale, helping them to find varieties adapted to local conditions and the preferences of their customers. So far the project has mainly focused on tomatoes, aubergines, lettuce and melon, but the plan is to expand the testing to include other species as well. To find suitable plants Biocivam 11 looks for varieties in ex situ and in situ collections. Then the chosen plants from these varieties are tested on the farms or in the gardens of organic gardeners. As part of the testing an agronomic follow-up is carried out, as well as gustatory tests. The most interesting and promising varieties are presented in an amateur catalogue, and the seeds are multiplied and conserved by an organic seed producer. A commercial structure, 'Graines del Pais', was set up in 2005 to handle the dissemination of seeds. Although the project focuses on the region of Languedoc Roussillon, it has had a national scope since 2007; and through a partnership with the '4 seasons of gardening' store, amateur gardeners from all over France have been given the opportunity to participate in the tests. In 2008 Biocivam 11 plans to expand its testing to include foreign seed collections as well. While perhaps a dozen producers from the Languedoc Roussillon region are involved in the evaluation work, approximately 100 amateur gardeners from France as a whole contribute to the experiments. About 400 consumers also take part in tests every year to determine the taste potential of the varieties. In addition to the assistance from INRA, Biocivam 11 also receives support from RSP.

Seed Bank 2006. Photo: Bio d'AquitaineBio d'Aquitaine, located in the Aquitaine region of France, is another organization encouraged by INRA researchers. Bio d'Aquitaine is a farmers' organization which among other activities runs an extension service, and in 2001 it started the project 'L' Aquitaine cultive la biodiversitè'. This project also focuses on dynamic conservation and breeding of varieties adapted to organic agriculture. The main objective is to provide farmers with the seeds and knowledge necessary for the cultivation of varieties adapted to an agricultural system requiring fewer chemical inputs. They are engaged in the preservation, multiplication and regeneration of these seeds and in the in situ creation of what they call 'peasant varieties'. Between 200 and 400 farmers are to some extent involved in the project, some of them growing and breeding a collection of varieties in their own fields. By placing farms and farmers at the centre of the management of genetic resources, the project hopes to offer an approach that is adaptive to changing environmental conditions and consumer demands. The focus is on an assortment of different species and varieties, especially maize, sunflower and soybean, and the goal is to introduce varieties with appealing nutritional and gustatory qualities. The work on maize was inspired by participatory breeding and the resultant varieties in Brazil, and the breeding and conservation plan has drawn upon the knowledge of indigenous communities in Central America. In addition to the encouragement from INRA, which has been particularly important in providing recognition to farmer breeding, the project also collaborates with RSP.

Inter Bio Bretagne (IBB), a regional umbrella organization for organic farmers, has been working together with INRA on the fourth project to be highlighted here: participatory cauliflower breeding for organic farming. Situated in the north of Brittany, France, the aim is to get farmers, researchers and other actors to define the goals of organic breeding together and collectively manage the seed production. This project was initiated by INRA and IBB in 2001, as a response to the lack of cauliflower varieties adapted to organic farming. At that time INRA had encouraged some of its researchers to start projects geared towards organic farming, and the cauliflower project was one of the results. Local cauliflowers and cabbages have been at the centre of the project, but other vegetables are being considered according to the needs of the farmers. Currently, some 30 farmers are involved in the participatory breeding of cauliflowers and cabbages, while around 250 organic vegetable farmers benefit from the increased availability of organic seeds resulting from the project. The breeding programme started out at PAIS, the agrobiological experimental station of IBB on the organic site of an agricultural school, where genetic resources from several gene banks were tested and evaluated. As a result of this project, organic farmers and traders have been able to take control of the breeding and seed production of the tested cauliflowers. Managing the seed production collectively makes it possible to obtain the machines needed for harvesting, as well as for the cleaning of seeds, in a financially viable manner, and it makes it easier to organize quality testing.

All these four projects from different regions of France have managed to spread awareness of the demise of genetic diversity and the necessity of continued cultivation and in situ conservation. Through participatory plant breeding, they have helped to re-introduce some of the diversity that had vanished from the fields. Varieties that had disappeared from the countryside and were mostly or only found in ex situ collections are now being cultivated on-farm. This success came about as farmers and their organizations joined forces with the scientists of INRA and bred varieties suited to organic farming and in other ways adapted to the needs of the farmers. Farmers have organized themselves and are collaborating in seed production, and experiences and knowledge are being exchanged. Another successful aspect of these projects has been the marketing of the produce, with the consumers in some cases being involved in the testing to ensure that the products match the preferences of the market.

One factor contributing to the success of these projects has been the strong involvement of groups of organic farmers and what Bio d'Aquitaine terms the 'extraordinary motivation' of all involved stakeholders. Networks and networking have also played a crucial role, and the various organizations are all highly aware of the importance of the coalitions they have created and the cooperation they have achieved. The researchers at INRA have made useful contributions. Moreover, INRA's status as a national institute has helped to provide a degree of legitimacy and security in a situation where the projects, by encouraging dissemination of non-registered varieties, are actually breaking the law. Biocivam 11 also credits some of the success to the limited choice of hybrid varieties, their lack of adaptability to organic modes of production and the poor taste quality of the resulting products.

As mentioned above, these organizations are breaking the law in spreading non-registered varieties. The law prohibiting this has negatively affected all these four projects, making their work difficult. Under French law, which follows EU directives, only varieties that have been registered may be marketed, distributed and sold. But to be registered, the variety needs to meet certain criteria, as to distinctness, uniformity and stability, and the value of use and cultivation. For traditional varieties and land-races this is difficult, as they are normally too genetically heterogeneous and the certification system is fundamentally incompatible with the conservation and use of crop genetic diversity. In addition, registration is expensive, and in many cases not a viable option. There have been attempts at the EU level to solve this problem by drafting regulations for conservation varieties, but without success so far. The lack of recognition of the importance of on-farm conservation is a challenge that the organizations find difficult to overcome.

Projects like these can also be scaled up, and collaboration can be fruitful across state borders. RSP has in cooperation with partners from other countries launched a European extension of their project called 'Let's Liberate Diversity'. This was done to bring their work for the cultivation of a wide selection of varieties and against the detrimental European regulations up to the EU level. In addition, both INRA and RSP are among the partners in the European project 'Farm Seed Opportunities' launched in 2007. Since the laws affecting their work often are EU regulations, it makes sense to collaborate on the European level in addition to operating on a local and regional scale.

For initiatives and organizations wishing to copy the successes of these French projects and to create similar reward and support systems, one central lesson is to facilitate the exchange of knowledge among farmers and between farmers and researchers. It is important to remember that farmers are often talented at breeding their own varieties and in organising their own production, but that researchers can help them to identify useful genetic material with the capacity to adapt to environmental factors. Another lesson is the importance of creating smoothly functioning networks where the inputs and contributions of all stakeholders are taken into consideration and where information exchange and dissemination of knowledge can take place.

It should also be borne in mind that waiting to implement projects like these until favourable legislation is in place might mean a risk of losing more genetic resources. Thus, in other European countries covered by the same legislation, it might be necessary to go forward with projects involving the exchange of non-registered varieties along with lobbying for the laws to be changed. Similar projects might obtain the understanding and support from some government agencies or national research institutes, as the French projects received from INRA. All in all, this case from France shows that benefit sharing can be promoted and support and reward systems created, through participatory plant breeding, on-farm conservation and networking.

(This text is based information from questionnaires completed by representatives from the mentioned organizations)

Pages in this sub-section:
   Creating incentive structures from the ground in the Philippines
   Community seed fairs in Zimbabwe
   Community gene banking and on-farm conservation in India
   Dynamic Conservation and Participatory Plant Breeding in France
   Participatory plant breeding adding value in Nepal
   Capacity-building for seed potato selection in Kenya
   The Peruvian Potato Park
   Rewarding best practices in Norway
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 In this section:
  What is a 'success story' of FR?
  Success stories from the realization of the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed
  Success stories on traditional knowledge related to agro-biodiversity
  Success stories on benefit-sharing measures
  Success stories on participation in decision making
  Common features

Photo: Pratap Shrestha, Nepal