by Renée Vellvé and Michael Flitner | 20 Jul 1991

Renée Vellvé and Michael Flitner

On October 3 1990, when West Germany declared "re-unification" with East Germany, the merger included one of history's most spectacular seizures of valuable genetic resources. The East German germplasm collection is one of the best and oldest in all of Europe. Since the annexation, not only the genetic resources but the very future of East German farming is in a state of suspension. Renée Vellvé (GRAIN) and Michael Flitner (BUKO-Agrarkoordination) report.


East Germany has a long and important history in the field of genetic resources, reflecting unmistakable political priorities and high scientific expertise. Genetic resources work in East Germany was heavily inspired by the Russian botanist Vavilov. In the early part of the century, Vavilov and others were discovering the important value of farmers ' plant varieties ("landraces") as contributors of valuable genes for future plant breeding. In fact, it was in Berlin in 1927, at the Fifth International Congress on Genetics, that Vavilov brought forward to the public his ideas on the existence of "centres of origin" of crop plants and the laws of genetic variation, and stressed that the collection and conservation of genetic diversity was crucial to the future of food production.

Vavilov's ideas heavily influenced leading German plant geneticist Erwin Baur, who was appointed director of the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Breeding Research in Müncheberg near Berlin that same year (1927). By the 1930s, Baur and his followers from Germany were out in the fields collecting rich crop diversity in South America, Anatolia, the Hindu-Kush, Tibet and Ethiopia. During the Second World War, collecting missions were undertaken in several occupied European countries, since genetic resources were considered a strategic asset for Nazi Germany's autarchy and expansion plans. Back home, they set up the collections at the Müncheberg Institute and at the University of Halle, and got to work evaluating, conserving and breeding.

In 1943, the Institute for Research on Cultivated Plants was established in Vienna. After the war, it was moved to Gatersleben in Eastern Germany and renamed the Central Institute of Genetic and Cultivated Plant Research (ZIGuK). By comparison, West Germany did not see the need for a national genebank until 1970.

Since the end of the war and especially since the late 1970s, Gatersleben's programme of work has been dynamic and rigorous. Nearly every year, taking Vavilov's rule to the letter, East Germans have gone collecting in some part of the world. Since 1980, 13 countries have been visited, including annual joint expeditions with the Italian Germplasm Institute of Bari in Southern Italy to collect landraces of cereals with promising characteristics. In 1989, ZIGuK collectors picked up over 500 samples of various crops in Cuba, the USSR and Korean peninsula -- areas the West Europeans would have had difficulties entering.

The material has been actively researched, described, evaluated and made available to the East German breeding sector. In fact, many of the ZIGuK staff were members of breeding collectives which meant they had firsthand understanding of breeding needs in the country and could provide useful results. Over the past two decades, 52 cultivars -- of which 20 barley varieties -- have been released from such active work. The East Germans have also been developing cropping systems based on mixtures of varieties rather than pure stands, to minimise disease problems and maintain secure yields. Over 85% of the spring barley -- a major crop for the malting industry -- has been grown this way, sparing East German farmers several hundred tons of fungicides these last years and slowing the breakdown of mildew resistances.

The Institute terminated construction of its long-term genebank (named the N.I. Vavilov-Haus) in 1976. Today it holds 68,000 samples of mainly temperate crops, including some of Europe's largest holdings of barley, oats, wheat, rye, peas, potatoes, tomatoes and beans. About one-third of the entire collection is grown out each year to replenish seed samples, a job the East Germans have been known for carrying out in a spirit of innovation and care in order to maintain the integrity of the different varieties. ZIGuK's work in the field of informatics and documentation has also been commendable. They have played an important role in developing computerised information systems on genetic resources activities in the COMECON network and regularly published Die Kulturpflanze, one of Europe's leading scientific journals on plant genetic resources.

Within the European Cooperative Programmes on Plant Genetic Resources (ECP/GR), spanning East and West, ZIGuK took on responsibility for establishing the European barley core collection, which was to be finalised this year. As well, they developed and maintained the European database on barley, which provides detailed information about 55,000 barley varieties held in 35 genebanks throughout the region. All in all, East Germany has been a serious, sound and open dynamo on the European -- and international -- genebank scene.

The West catches on

In the meantime, what was going on in the West? Nothing too stunning, by comparison. West German work on plant genetic resources was formalised in 1970 when the Federal Agricultural Research Institute in Braunschweig-Völkenrode (FAL) launched the Institute of Crop Science and Seed Research under the leadership of Dieter Bommer. Bommer, who was linked to the rocky launching of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and has been closely involved in the international genetic resources debate at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, has been West Germany's single-handed mover on the genetic resources scene since the 1960s. However, he is probably not to be solely blamed for the ills of the West German genebank, now politely renamed the Braunschweig Genetic Resources Centre (BGRC).

Despite its very wide range of materials, Braunschweig concentrates predominantly on cereals. A centralised and heavily structured institution, BGRC is known for being scientifically systematic but rather closed off from the user community -- as well as its germplasm donors, including German and Ethiopian farmers. It holds over 50,000 accessions from a very broad range of countries and people. Many of the vegetable varieties were collected from local gardeners in a national campaign carried out in the 1970s against the threat of genetic erosion. At least 20% of the barley collection is comprised of Ethiopian farmers ' materials, while the bread wheat landraces come from everywhere between China and Uruguay, with some heavy stops through Bhutan and Congo. Also, West Germany holds 30 ecotypes and wild samples of teff, Ethiopia's most dependable and nutritious cereal. Outside of Ethiopia, IBPGR's databases register only three tiny collections of teff in the world.

Why this Ethiopian connection? Because the West Germans helped build the Ethiopian genebank -- today, one of the best and most competent in the world -- under the banner of "development cooperation", and in great greed for Ethiopia's barley, the basis of the German brewing and other industries. It was a key opportunity to collect Ethiopian materials. In fact, outside of Addis Abeba, Braunschweig has by far the world's largest stock of Ethiopian germplasm -- well over 5,000 varieties of barley, wheat, oat, legumes and vegetables. The next largest Ethiopian gene store outside the territory is in the Ivory Coast's coffee genebank at Abidjan, with nearly 1,500 samples from their East African neighbour. West Germany carries out a similar "bilateral cooperation" project on genetic resources in Costa Rice and is planning one in Kenya.

Take-over or close down?

If you compare the two Germanies in their history and work on genetic resources over the decades, the differences are simply blaring. The West has a standard record at best, with some obvious major problems, while the East has developed an outstanding reputation in the many activities necessary to conserve and use genetic diversity for plant breeding. From collecting to maintenance and use of the materials, Braunschweig has been sluggish, centralised and cut off from the rest of the world, while Gatersleben has consistently moved forward in a responsible, open and dynamic fashion. Different politics, different policies, different priorities and far different results.

Which makes the take-over of last October 3rd so spectacular. In one stroke of the pen, the politicians in Bonn have acquired an excellent germplasm institute as a vital asset for the future and effectively erased nearly 50 years of history. From 52,000 germplasm samples, the "re-unified" Federal Republic now boasts a national store of 124,000 -- the second largest in Europe after the Vavilov Institute's collection in the Soviet Union (370,000 accessions). What they will do with Gatersleben in the future is totally unclear right now, but some worrisome actions have already been taken. The word "central" has been strategically deleted from ZIGuK's name, now the Institute for Genetic and Cultivated Plant Research (IGK), and the funding has been cut, in a move to "rationalise" scientific activities. The publication of the journal Die Kulturpflanze had to be dropped. The contracts of the excellent staff at Gatersleben officially end on the 31st of December this year, meaning that no one knows whether they have a job as of January 1st. As a result of all of this, Gatersleben's work has been profoundly disrupted. Planned collecting missions abroad -- including a mission to Cuba this past spring -- had to be cancelled and the staff are highly worry about their professional insecurity and the future of their prize collections.

Bonn is currently studying the priorities and options for the future of Gatersleben, without unveiling much light on their intentions. But some idea is coming clear about where things might be heading. Probably not towards centralisation, but definitely towards a drastic Westernisation that may ultimately undo so much of the good work done at Gatersleben. The framework is already in place. The East German plant breeding industry has already been handed over to commercial interests of the West, starting with the KWS seed company. The entire scientific research sector has its funding suspended until Bonn comes up with a neat plan on how to restructure it. At the level of the farmers, the right to re-use seed was abolished in East Germany last October 3rd -- while it remains legal in the West! -- and which seeds farmers can plant is now Bonn's affair. Since "re-unification", it is illegal to sell or sow mixtures of varieties on a field, as was commonly done in the past. Now, East German farmers can only grow one single variety per monoculture field, raising the levels of genetic vulnerability and reinforcing the dependence on pesticides.

Options for the future

Against this backdrop, what are the options? There are probably two: the closed and narrow option, or the open and integrated one. The closed and narrow option would amount to "Braunschweig-ing" Gatersleben by imposing dramatic changes in staff, structure, policy, funding and programme. It is clear that the two centres cannot be physically merged -- the world would need another Vavilov for that. However, one could logically serve as a model for the other. The question is which, and Bonn's preference does not seem to be difficult to guess.

The open and integrated option would amount to using this opportunity to rethink and restructure Germany's entire approach to genetic resources conservation, both at home and in the international perspective. Despite its history of efforts in the field, Germany's policy on genetic resources is only poorly elaborated. Last year, a major plan to set-up a national system was unfolded to the public but it leaves a lot to be desired. The proposed system provides little interaction with the breeding community to get more diverse varieties into the farmers ' fields. The farmers themselves are completely left out of the whole scheme. And while it calls for a policy of free access to genetic resources it states nothing about the possible implications of patenting and the position the German government should take.

But perhaps most importantly, it strictly depends on one or two genebanks to conserve and make available crop genetic resources, completely ignoring the valuable work of gardeners, farmers groups and other associations. Despite the lack of support or recognition from the government, the work of the informal sector in Germany is actually quite important. There are several groups saving a broad range of cereals, fruits and vegetables and doing research on sustainable farming systems based on traditional varieties. Many are linked to the ecological agricultural movement and most are working on a voluntary basis.

For example, the Pflanzenzuchtverein Wernstein, a biodynamic plant breeding association led by Peter Raatsie and Martin Bossert near Beyreuth, is conserving and doing research on hundreds of different varieties -- including many cereals, 40 kinds of potatoes and at least 25 types of field beans -- for sustainable farming systems. But they have barely any money for regenerating the seeds to keep them viable and are constantly on the verge of dropping out. The same goes for other biodynamic breeders as well as the VEN information and exchange network, run by Ludwig Watschong. And what to say about Dr. Jürgen Reckin's Ecological Plant Breeding Research Association in East Germany? For years Reckin has been running a voluntary conservation and scientific research operation, with excellent cooperation from the people at Gatersleben.

All of these initiatives are already marginalised and discouraged by the formal system, Gatersleben's history aside. German law, like many others in Western Europe, prohibits the marketing of seeds which do not pass the tough criteria of distinctness, uniformity and stability to be put on the national list. This means that people conserving traditional varieties are left out as they cannot sell seeds and recoup the costs of their work.

Somehow this has to change. The West German genebank has been happy to collect diverse seeds which were saved and used by local people, but they have done little to get them back out of the bank and growing again on the land for local markets. The government has also been happy to set up rigid certification schemes and plant breeders ' rights to regulate the seed industry, but they have done nothing to prevent the genetic erosion that is now plaguing German agriculture. In rye, for example, through the 1980s, the single variety "Halo" accounted for half the acreage planted. In wheat and oats, the top four varieties covered about two-thirds of the area.

With the voluntary associations on the verge of bankruptcy and abandonment, and the stability of Gatersleben on the limb, the time is right to reset the course of conservation in Germany. The score card is staring us in the face. Who will take it seriously enough to have a closer look?

Sources and further reading:

- (Anonymous), "Allemagne: regards à l 'est", in Semences et Progrès, Paris, No. 67, April/May/June 1991, p. 150.

- (Anonymous), "New Challenge for Germany's Oldest Genebank", in Geneflow, IBPGR, Rome, No. 2, September 1990, p. 15.

- Bommer, D.F.R. and Beese, K., "Pflanzengenetische Ressourcen: Ein Konzept zur Erhaltung und Nutzung für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland", in Schriftenreihe des BMELF, Reihe A. Angewandte Wissenschaft Heft 388, Bonn, 1990.

- Hondelmann, W., "Genebank Activities in the Federal Republic of Germany" in Broadening the Genetic Base of Crops, Pudoc, Wageningen, 1979, pp. 117-122.

- Lehmann, C.O., "The Gatersleben Genebank" in Broadening the Genetic Base...., pp. 111-116.

- Lehmann, C.O., "Genetic Resources", in Die Kulturpflanze , Berlin , Vol. 36, 1988, pp. 71.83.

- Stubbe, H., "Geschichte des Instituts für Kulturpflanzenforschung Gatersleben der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1943-1968)", Berlin, 1982.

- Wolfe, M.S. et al., "Sortenmischungen von Braugertse sind gesünder", in Pflanzenschutz-Praxis, 2/1991, pp. 33-35.

Author: Renée Vellvé and Michael Flitner