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The need to breed crop varieties suitable for organic farming.
It is estimated that more than 95% of organic production is based on crop varieties that were bred for the conventional high-input sector. Recent studies have shown that such varieties lack important traits required under organic and low-input production conditions. This is primarily due to selection in conventional breeding programmes being carried out in the background of high inorganic fertilizer and crop protection inputs. Also, some of the traits (e.g., semi-dwarf genes) that were introduced to address problems like lodging in cereals in high-input systems were shown to have negative side-effects (reduced resistance to diseases such as Septoria, lower protein content and poorer nutrient-use efficiency) on the performance of varieties under organic and low-input agronomic conditions.
The characteristics of organic agricultural systems are their biodiversity at soil, crop, field, whole rotation or polyculture, and landscape level and the greater focus on integration of crop and livestock production systems on the farm compared with conventional farming systems. The high biodiversity of organic farms provides many ecological services that enhance farm resilience to a large extent. Integrating biodiversity gains due to agronomic practices with genetic diversity at crop level provides an insurance with respect to the impact of biotic and abiotic stress factors on crop yield and quality. The development of genetic diversity focused crop breeding approaches may therefore be essential to improve yields and quality parameters in foods from organic and low-input farming systems, especially in the context of the challenges expected due to global climate change.
The greatest difference between organic and conventional systems relates to soil management practices used and to processes in the rhizosphere. Organic systems often rely on organic matter based fertilizer inputs and mineralization-driven N and P supplies to crops. Macronutrient availability patterns during the growing period therefore differ significantly from those in conventional systems. Organic crops often experience limited macronutrient (N and P) availability especially during periods when soil temperatures and water availability reduce mineralization capacity by the soil biota.