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Challenges for plant breeding. Impact of the structural change in plant breeding on genetic diversity, diversity of varieties and performance of domestic agriculture

  • Project team:

    Arnold Sauter (Project Manager), Monika Zulawski

  • Thematic area:

    Agriculture and food

  • Topic initiative:

    Committee on Food and Agriculture

  • Analytical approach:

    TA project

  • Startdate:


  • Enddate:



Subject and aim of the study

Plant breeding considerably contributes to maintaining and increasing agricultural productivity. Moreover, it plays a major role for adapting to climate change and for using production resources more efficiently. Plant breeding requires intensive research and depends on interaction of public and private research.

At the international level, plant breeding is subject to a substantial structural change. Many breeding companies have been taken over by multinational agrochemicals companies. Meanwhile, the ten largest companies account for more than 60 % of the global seed market. This concentration process is closely linked to the development and application of modern biotechnologies. The very high R&D costs associated with genetic engineering have meant that only a few multinational companies with the necessary financial strength are active here. The global structural change in the breeding industry is also noticeable in Germany, but German plant breeding is still dominated by medium-sized companies and comprises around 60 companies with their own breeding programs.

In 2016, more than 3,200 varieties (arable crops and vegetables) were approved in Germany. However, the genetic diversity of many crop plant species has declined in recent decades, and quite a few species have been displaced from cultivation. Plant breeding affects agricultural biodiversity in different ways, depending on how many different varieties are developed and offered, their characteristics, and the agricultural systems in which they are grown. In principle, plant breeding can contribute to both the loss and the enhancement and expansion of biodiversity in agriculture. In either case, breeding relies on the presence of and access to diverse plant genetic resources as source material.

The objective of the study, which was commissioned by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment at the suggestion of the Committee on Food and Agriculture, was to provide an overview of the potentials and tasks, strengths and weaknesses of German (conventional and organic) plant breeding vis-à-vis the challenges of resource-conserving, sustainable agriculture in the face of climate change, the needs of a further growing world population, and the biomass requirements of a future bioeconomy.

Contents of the report and concluding remark

Plant Breeding, Variety Development and the Legal Framework

In Chapter 2, the objectives and methods of plant (breeding) research, the phases of variety development and the resulting variety types, as well as the legal regulations for plant variety protection and seed approval are dealt with in compact form. The rather complicated international legal framework is presented in somewhat more detail, on the one hand for plant breeding with regard to the relationship between patent and plant variety protection, and on the other hand for access to and handling of genetic resources.

Seed market, research players, crop types

Chapter 3 describes the global as well as the European seed market and presents the private, public and non-profit actors in German plant breeding and their business models. With regard to important crop categories (vegetables, cereals, oilseeds and other biomass crops) and for organic farming, a closer look is taken at breeding objectives, breeding companies and initiatives, and the number of varieties available.

Biodiversity in agriculture: status quo and development trends

Chapter 4 summarises the state of knowledge on the status quo and development trends of biodiversity in German agriculture. After an introduction to the mechanisms of emergence and loss of agrobiodiversity (ABD), its extent is discussed at the level of production (eco)systems, crop species, and varietal diversity, including genetic diversity. Possibilities for promoting ABD through plant breeding as well as activities and assessments of stakeholders in the field of conservation and promotion of ABD are presented.

Options for action to strengthen diverse plant breeding that promotes diversity.

In chapter 5, important influencing factors and resulting challenges for (German) plant breeding, which arise from current scientific-technological developments, influences of changes in demand linked input markets, environmental and energy policy as well as by the legal framework for the use and protection of genetic resources and plant varieties, are identified. Finally, political and societal options for action to strengthen a diverse and diversity-promoting plant breeding are presented in three fields of action:

  • Further development of the promotion, orientation and forms of cooperation in plant breeding (research).
  • Preservation, development and increase of ABD
  • Design of the legal framework

Concluding remarks: On the importance of plant breeding as a central element of a future-oriented, sustainable agriculture

The analysis and presentation of plant breeding in Germany presented in TAB Working Report No. 197 show a thoroughly diverse landscape of actors, with challenges and development opportunities with regard to breeding research and variety development that promotes diversity even more than before.

Plant breeding is a central element and thus a prerequisite for sustainable agriculture in the future. In 2023, its development will continue to be one of the major political and social tasks of the future in a complex field of tension between various controversies, which are themselves a reaction to ecological, economic, social and (animal) ethical challenges. On the one hand, it is necessary to try to develop an overall concept for a sustainable agriculture that is fit for the future; on the other hand, it will also remain unavoidable to achieve improvements in partial areas.

The topic or the objective of a diversity-based and -oriented plant breeding seems to be particularly suitable to lead a constructive, integrative dialogue of understanding in a larger framework and to avoid or overcome trench warfare, as it still dominates in topics otherwise especially relevant for plant breeding, such as genetically modified plants and plant protection products:

  • All stakeholders involved are aware of the importance of (agro)biological diversity in terms of variety diversity, species in cultivation and management practices.
  • It is true that in the general public the importance and achievements of plant breeding are little perceived and probably often underestimated. Only individual facets are very much a topic of public discussion and are sometimes heavily criticised, in particular the use of genetic engineering methods and the associated issues of patenting and global concentration in the seed sector.
  • Nevertheless, it seems possible and necessary to avoid further unconstructive polarization and instead to involve all or at least a very large number of stakeholders, especially with regard to the promotion of diverse plant breeding. Favorably, the promotion of agrobiodiversity is not an either-or question - partial and incremental measures and improvements also make sense.
  • Even if too much consensus should certainly not be expected, it should be possible to reach a broad consensus on important sub-questions, e.g. on intensifying research funding for varieties for organic farming, partly because one of the sustainability targets includes 20% organic farming.
  • In addition, it seems necessary to shape the further development of sustainable agriculture as a discussion and search process for society as a whole, since broad public participation has not yet taken place.

Publication (only in German)

In the Bundestag

(only in German)