Salvatore Ceccarelli and Stefania Grando
The spread, cultivation, and transformation of evolutionary populations in Italy, especially those of soft and durum wheat, have gone beyond all expectations, giving rise to different names for both seed and processed products, but also to information that is not always precise about their origin and history without often grasping the peculiar characteristics of their seed.
The two of us (Salvatore Ceccarelli and Stefania Grando) have arrived at the idea of evolutionary populations after more than 20 years of barley genetic improvement at ICARDA (the acronym for International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) based in Aleppo, Syria.
The main entrance of ICARDA’s headquarter
In that center, which is part of CGIAR (www.cgiar.org), a global partnership for a safe food future, which includes 15 international centers around the world, and is financed with public and private donations, we were responsible for the genetic improvement of barley at the global level, namely for all developing countries where barley is grown. In the vast majority of these countries, barley is a typical crop of the most marginal areas and of the poorest farmers.
Barley fields in Ethiopia’s highlands just before harvesting
After years of conventional plant breeding conducted in the ICARDA research stations (three in Syria and two in Lebanon), between 1990 and 1995, we realized that to benefit the farmers in the marginal areas, where often barley is the only possible crop, it was necessary to transfer most of the selection work outside the research stations and to do it in collaboration with the farmers.
In 1995, we began to take the first steps towards participatory plant breeding[i]: from the initial 9 villages in Syria, participatory plant breeding became the main mode of collaboration with countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen and Iran, and the main topic of training courses in many other countries including Colombia, South Africa, and Australia. Meanwhile, in Syria, the program gradually reached 24 villages in that part of Syria that lies in the Fertile Crescent, namely, the one that goes from the southern border with Jordan to the north-eastern border with Iraq.
The participatory plant-breeding program in Iran
It was at the end of 2007 (in the meantime Stefania had become the manager of the barley program) that we realized that, because of the continuous decline of funds and of the open opposition of a number of Research Institutes, participatory plant breeding was not sustainable. In fact, the Institution, one of the key partners, could terminate its collaboration at any time. Therefore, we thought of evolutionary plant breeding as a strategy to manage agrobiodiversity so flexible that it can be used by farmers not only in collaboration with institutions but also, if needed, independently[i].
In 2008 and 2009, we implemented the idea with the constitution of the three evolutionary populations of bread wheat, durum wheat, and barley, which are now grown throughout all Italy. In October 2008, we asked our technicians to mix the seeds of the second generation of 1600 barley crosses obtained by crossing varieties from all over the world, including old local varieties and the barley wild progenitor.
We obtained about 160 kilos of the seed of our first evolutionary population.
The seed was sent to five farmers in Syria and to our partners in Algeria, Eritrea, Jordan, and Iran, recommending that in each country the seed be divided between five different farmers. The aim was to allow farmers in some of the countries that had collaborated with us in the participatory pant breeding programs, to use the skills they had acquired and fine-tuned during those programs, to manage independently the diversity present within evolutionary populations.
We kept some seed for ourselves and plant it in the ICARDA main research station to show it to any interested visitors. This population also attracted the attention of our two colleagues who were in charge of bread wheat and durum wheat breeding. The extraordinary diversity of the evolutionary population of barley intrigued them, and although they did not want to modify their plant breeding programs, they said they were willing to give us some seed of their early generations breeding material. We sent our technicians to their technicians, and we found ourselves with the seeds of the second generation of 700 durum wheat crosses and with the seeds of the second, third and fourth generation of 2000 bread wheat crosses. Even these two populations harbored a lot of diversity not only for the high number of crosses but also because, as in the case of the barley evolutionary population, the varieties used for crosses came from all over the world. The two populations of wheat were sent to Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, as well as distributed to some farmers in Syria.
The years from 2007 to 2010 were difficult and, in the last months of 2010, after helping to write part of the European project (SOLIBAM), Stefania applied for a new job. After about 30 years in that country, we left Syria at the end of June 2011 and moved to France.
The evolutionary populations arrive in Italy
ICARDA participated in the SOLIBAM project together with many European partners including the Italian Association for Organic Agriculture (AIAB), and some partners in Africa including the University of Mekelle in Ethiopia. Due to her new job, Stefania was unable to continue to be part of the SOLIBAM project, while Salvatore was able to do so as an ICARDA consultant.
It was through contacts between Salvatore and Riccardo Bocci, who represented AIAB in the project that a small quantity of seed of the three populations arrived in Italy. That of barley was given to three farmers, one in Molise, one in Tuscany and one in Friuli -Venice Giulia; that of bread wheat to three farmers, one in Sicily, one in Puglia and one in Tuscany; that of durum wheat to two farmers, one in Sicily and one in Puglia.
Because of their origin, and given the very long scientific path that generated them, these three populations are called ICARDA Evolutionary Populations.
The ICARDA evolutionary population of bread wheat
Once they arrived in Italy, the three populations began to spread, albeit at different speeds: that of bread wheat spread much faster than the other two.
This diffusion process was facilitated by a series of activities promoted by the association Semi Rurali Network (https://www.semirurali.net/) in the context of European projects. During this diffusion process, the extraordinary ability of the evolutionary populations to gradually change adapting to the different climatic conditions, to the different soils but also to the different cultivation techniques that they encountered as they spread in different locations of different regions, became gradually apparent[i].
They became more and more the ideal way to decline the expression “to each soil its own seed”.
Alongside this ability to adapt to the most diverse conditions in which they are grown, thanks to the diversity they harbor, evolutionary populations also provide stable production from one year to the next, control diseases, insects and weeds much better than uniform varieties, making it superfluous the use of pesticides. This was not surprising given the large body of scientific evidence on the advantages of populations.
Therefore, they reduce production costs and become the ideal crops for organic and biodynamic agriculture.
They are what Stefania defines as intelligent crops because they are good for the planet since they contribute to cut emissions, but also, as we discovered later, to those who grow them and to those who consume their products.
Thanks to this continuous process, each of those three bags of seed of the ICARDA Evolutionary Populations arrived from Syria, has given rise and continues to give rise to many different evolutionary populations not only in different locations but also year after year in the same locations with a dynamism that makes it impossible any form of control and appropriation.
This dynamism is of particular interest as a response to climate change, which is a much more complex problem that most people think because with temperature and rainfall also insects, including pollinators, diseases and weeds vary, largely in a continuous, unpredictable and different way from place to place.
To such a complex and constantly evolving problem, evolutionary populations offer a response that is also constantly evolving.
A consequence of this process is that every farmer becomes the owner of his own seed, not so much for ideological reasons but for biological reasons because there can be no better seed than that the one which continuously adapts better and better to its soil and its way of practicing agriculture. However, to avoid that all this turns into an individual appropriation, it is necessary to grasp fully the peculiar characteristics of the seed of an evolutionary population.
What is – or what is not – the seed of an evolutionary population?
The seed of an evolutionary population, like one of the three populations we are talking about, because of the way in which the populations were developed, does not fall into any of the categories of seed that farmers, traders, processors, and consumers are used to.
It is certainly not, as previously said, the seed of modern varieties, which are genetically uniform. It is not even seed of “ancient grains” (to use a fashionable but inappropriate term, now entered into current use) because in reality there is a bit of everything inside; and in the specific case we are talking about, it is not even seed that comes from the ICARDA germplasm bank, as sometimes said.
Perhaps it is good, after saying what it is not, to try to say what the seed of an evolutionary population is all about, by taking a step back to show how breeders usually obtain the varieties that are most commonly grown.
A cycle of a plant-breeding program
As shown in the figure, a plant breeding program is a circular process made up of successive cycles, each of which starts with the creation of variability (generally through crosses), which is then used in the second phase (Selection of new varieties) which lasts 7 -8 years. During this second phase, which takes place in one or more research stations, the researcher chooses from all that variability (thousands of plots in the field), year after year, the best plants. All that variability is gradually reduced ending up with one or a few new varieties, each tracing back in the case of wheat or barley to a single plant. The varieties are registered into the variety catalog, and their certified seed is what the farmer finds on the market. Farmers do not participate in this process and therefore only they know what is written in the brochure accompanying the sale of the seed they buy every year.
Generally, the variety or the varieties that represent the final product of a cycle are used as parents to create new variability and start a new cycle.
This is how Nazareno Strampelli obtained many of his varieties, which today go under the name of “ancient grains”. Other ancient grains were obtained nearly 100 years ago by selecting the best ears or the best plants within the variability that was found in the wheat and barley handed down by the farmers of the past.
Contrary to all this, the seed of an evolutionary population is what is obtained at the beginning of the process (Creation of variability) and which, instead of being kept inside a research station to follow the path just described, ends up directly in farmers’ hands. Sown and harvested year after year it evolves as we have described before, being made up of thousands of genetically different seeds, gradually adapting to the conditions of each farmer, taking different forms from year to year in the same place and, going from one farmer to another, from one place to another.
Therefore, each farmer who cultivates one of the three evolutionary populations uses a seed that has a common origin but a different path: how to tell all this to the neighbor that that seed would like to grow or to those who eat the products that are obtained from that seed?
From seed to table: how to call the products?
Over time we found – the first was some Iranian bakers – that the products of the ICARDA evolutionary populations are highly appreciated by consumers with the result that the products, especially of the evolutionary populations of bread and durum wheat, have spread all over Italy.
Some products from the bread and durum wheat evolutionary populations
On the labels that accompany the products (mostly bread and pasta, but also pizza, croissant, cakes and different types of biscuits) that are obtained from these two populations, we have always suggested (when requested) to refrain from referring to specific people. We suggest remembering Aleppo, the name of the city where the ICARDA was based and where all this started, and which is almost exactly in the center of the Fertile Crescent.
Some producers have started to use the word Miscuglio (mixture), which, although not precise from a scientific point of view, according to communication experts has a greater attraction especially combined with Aleppo in Aleppo mixture or Aleppo evolutionary mixture.
The origin and the history can be combined, as some already do, by describing on a label a bread or pasta or other products – someone also makes the breadsticks – as “A mixture of Aleppo evolved (and here they add the specific location or area where the population evolved) starting from the Evolutionary Population (here the type of wheat is specified) ICARDA.
Below is an example of the label on the pasta produced by a Cooperative of the Marche Region, which grows and transforms the three evolutionary populations.
The label of pasta made from the ICARDA Evolutionary Population of durum wheat
You will notice in the center of the label the reproduction of a watercolor made by Daniela Ceccarelli, depicting the Aleppo’s Citadel during a sandstorm.
The origin of the evolutionary population is written on the back in the narrative section of the label together with the path taken in Italy recognizing the role of AIAB and Semi-Rural Network in their introduction and diffusion; where it evolved by acquiring a territorial identity; how it was grown and how the product was obtained (milling, type of yeast, type of oven, drawing, drying, etc.), depending on whether it is bread or pasta.
This allows telling the consumer, as mentioned earlier, a common origin and a different path.
The legal aspects
Until a few years ago it was not possible to legally market seeds not belonging to a uniform, stable and distinct variety; therefore, it was not legal to market seeds from populations. This is still true of most species.
On March 18, 2014, the European Commission issued an “Implementing decision” with which it organized a “temporary experiment at Union level for the purpose of assessing whether the production, with a view to marketing and marketing, under certain conditions, of seed from populations belonging to the species Oats, Wheat, Barley, and Corn, may constitute an improved alternative to the exclusion of the marketing of seed not complying with the requirements…..”
The complete “implementing decision” is available at:
The experiment was supposed to end on 31 December 2018, but in October 2018 was extended to 28 February 2021, also thanks to the report presented by the Semi-Rural Network on the spread of ICARDA Evolutionary populations in Italy.
In 2021, the new European regulation on organic agriculture will come into force, which will allow the cultivation of “heterogeneous material”, hence of populations, for all crops.
Based on the decision of the European Commission of 2017, Rete Semi Rurali in 2017 presented an “Application for authorization to participate, on the basis of the Implementing Decision of the European Commission of 18 March 2014 (ref.2014 / 150 / EU), in the temporary experiment with 2 populations of bread wheat. Other populations were registered in 2018.
Rete Semi Rurali has also developed a label with details of the rights/duties of those who buy and use it, specifying, an aspect of fundamental importance, that it is an open-source seed (https://osseeds.org/).
[i] Ceccarelli, S. and Grando, S. (2019) From Participatory to Evolutionary Plant breeding. In Ola Tveitereid Westengen and Tone Winge (eds) Farmers and Plant Breeding: Current Approaches and Perspectives, Routledge London, pp 231 – 243
[i] Ceccarelli, S. and Grando, S., 1997. Increasing the Efficiency of Breeding through Farmer Participation. In Ethics and Equity in conservation and use of genetic resources for sustainable food security, pp 116-121, Proceeding of a workshop to develop guidelines for the CGIAR, 21 25 April 1997, Foz de Iguacu, Brazil. IPGRI, Rome, Italy.IPGRI