Oliver Willing is the Managing Director of Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft. He studied philosophy and theology and then completed an agriculture qualification. That may seem like a contradiction. As Managing Director of Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft, he promotes initiatives that strengthen and further develop ecological agriculture – with the seed fund also being part of the Foundation. Agriculture today must meet many challenges: the production of healthy foodstuffs, species-appropriate husbandry, the protection and maintenance of natural spaces, and much more. The ecological agriculture supported by Zukunftsstiftung offers the opportunity to fulfil these requirements – to secure a future for agriculture and for the preservation of creation.
First and foremost, many congratulations on 25 years of the seed fund! What have been your greatest challenges in this time?
Certainly one challenge is increasing the donation volume each year where possible, but as a minimum keeping it at the same level – otherwise projects would need to be stopped. Breeding research and development in particular are dependent on long-term support, as the development of a species takes 10 years, and costs €100,000 per year.
The other challenge, which has confronted us from the outset, is genetic engineering. There are good reasons why organic agriculture rejects genetic engineering. But genetically modified seeds in particular are a kind of Trojan horse here. And new genetic engineering procedures such as CrispR-CAS mean that the legislation around genetic engineering is set to be “deregulated” and the labelling omitted. “Non-labelling” is the sword of Damocles hanging over organic agriculture. Before it arrives we must establish the widest possible basis of species across all cultural types in the organic cultivation nurseries.
Perhaps to some extent diversity is a “core” topic for the seed fund. What can we learn about diversity from seed growers?
In principle, diversity increases resilience, i.e. adaptability even in difficult situations, such as extreme weather scenarios. For this reason, population species are now also being developed; these are species whose species characteristics are not so uniform. And no one can deny that a meadow filled with flowers and herbs enriches the soul.
“Courting the earth” – what great word play! How can we win (back) the earth and what attitude is needed to do it?
I think it’s about each individual’s approach. Humility and attention are undoubtedly better guides than the hubris of domination and a profit-seeking will to manipulate. Perhaps it’s very simple: we just need to get excited about the earth. If we cannot get excited for it, then we also won’t love it. And if I don’t love a partner, an opposite number, then I won’t court them either!
Back to the future. The future of agriculture is small-scale cultivation, and heritage species of fruit and vegetables. But what about the next generation? And what will it take to get young people excited about this work?
Objection, your Honour! It’s not just heritage varieties; there are also new species of fruit and vegetables that have been refined with human oversight. Fundamentally we are in a continuing, shared development process – humans and cultivated plants. In the same way that people develop and new relationships form, cultivated plants must also be developed at the same time.
It’s fantastic that an increasing number of young people are getting excited about ecological cultivation work, particularly because ecological cultivation doesn’t mean “getting a plant ready”, but is actually about getting into dialogue with it. Cultivators who work in this way then also get young people excited about this work. And of course we also need money so that young cultivators can be guaranteed an adequate livelihood.
The seed fund is celebrating its 25th birthday, and Neuguss its 50th. What are the biggest challenges the seed fund can expect in the next 25 years?
There are many challenges. Those named above (under point 1) will continue to be with us. Another challenge is certainly wider cultivation of the species that have already been developed. And in return for high quality (in terms of taste, ingredients, and intrinsic quality), farmers and gardeners also need to receive a higher price, as the yield is somewhat lower.
How is relationship work in the Foundation successful, and what quality has Neuguss contributed to this?
Relationships generally work in combination with freedom. Zukunftsstiftung is part of GLS Treuhand. And Neuguss is closely connected to GLS Treuhand. Ideally, areas of entrepreneurial and charitable activity intersect with one another – as in an infinity sign. From the outside to the inside, from the physical to the intellectual, and back. On this basis Treuhand and Neuguss have effectively created a fertile ground, on which many other charitable enterprises can freely develop. Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft has developed with extraordinary success on this ground and in this environment.
“Just do it” – what would your next project be if you had any amount of freedom to choose it?
There are of course many ideas available. Just one of them is that every school in Germany should collaborate with an organic or school farm. Or at least have a large-scale school garden. Children and adolescents should encounter plants and animals at an early stage, and experience with all their senses where food comes from and the wonders associated with this! That creates a good foundation for a generation that will court the earth.