By Ariana Reguzzoni – The organic seed supply continues growing stronger, even in tough conditions
This article originally ran in the spring 2018 issue of New Farm Magazine, the magazine of Organic Farmers Association. All OFA members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually. Click here to sign up!
Seeds are the foundation of agriculture and a farm’s most basic input. For generations, farmers provided their own supply, saving them from one season to the next. Isaura Andaluz, a native of New Mexico and a member of the Organic Farmers Association Steering Committee, remembers the days when growers passed their seeds around her community in little handmade cones, preserving the heirloom varieties that were adapted to the unique conditions and tastes there.
Today’s certified-organic farmers are the engines of the more than $40 billion organic product industry in the United States, and they need seed and variety options suited to growing crops without agricultural chemicals. The majority of certified-organic growers must rely on nontreated, non–genetically modified conventional sources to fulfill the demand for their crops. That is gradually changing, but for many growers, obtaining a reliable supply of certified-organic seeds still presents complex choices and challenges.
Certified-organic farmers are required to plant organic seed if it’s commercially available, but “demand in many cases is in excess of supply,” says Jim Gerritsen, the president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
More than 30 percent of certified-organic farmers surveyed in 2014 were starting with a greater proportion of organic seeds than they were three years prior, according to “State of Organic Seed, 2016,” a report published by Organic Seed Alliance. About 27 percent sowed onlyorganic seeds—this was an increase from the 20 percent who reported in OSA’s 2009 survey that they used solely organic.
“A good number of those responding [to the survey] reported they chose organic because they wanted to invest in suppliers that had their interests as organic growers in mind,” says Kristina Hubbard, the director of advocacy and communications for OSA and a member of the Organic Farmers Association Steering Committee.
The OSA report found a lower percentage of organic seed use among larger growers. Hubbard explains that oftentimes a bigger operation can’t find the quantity it needs, or it is producing under contract with a buyer who dictates which variety to grow. In this latter, all-too-common scenario, it is up to the grower to pressure the buyer to use an organic variety. But this kind of persuasion is unlikely to happen because the farmer doesn’t have a lot of power, says Brett Bakker, a recently retired USDA certifying agent in New Mexico who now is an organic seed grower.
All organic farmers need more variety options suited to growing without agricultural chemicals. “[When a seed producer uses] conventional types of crop protectants and fertilizers, it makes it very difficult to get a cultivar that would have natural resistance to diseases,” says Dale Coke, who grows vegetables, beans, and grains on the Central Coast of California.
A significant obstacle to increasing the variety options is that the genetic lines for major crops are often controlled by large corporations that are unwilling to license proprietary varieties in untreated forms. In many instances, “there is only one producer growing a certain variety for the whole industry,” says Tom Stearns, founder and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont. If that variety is protected as intellectual property, then no other breeding company can produce another version of it—for example, an organic one.
Public and private investments in organic plant breeding and seed research have increasedrapidly in recent years. The total rose by $22 million between 2010 and 2014, according to the OSA report, marking a substantial increase from the $9 million invested in the five-year period between 1996 and 2010. This progress is encouraging, especially since a more diverse group of funders are investing in the research, Hubbard notes.
The organic seed industry has been instrumental in encouraging plant breeding and on-farm variety trials to produce cultivars that are better adapted to organic systems, Coke says. In 2011, OSA identified the need for a mechanism for sharing organic variety trial information. Since then, the organization has worked with the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative and other research partners to develop a national database of organic variety trial reports, which can be found at varietytrials.eorganic.info.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prohibited for certified-organic crops. But because the use of GM seeds is so widespread in conventional farming, the likelihood that organic crops will be contaminated by pollen drift from GM plants is high, Gerritsen says.
With no threshold established by the USDA for detection of GMOs in organic agricultural products, seed suppliers must set their own internal thresholds. “Unfortunately in corn, zero percent GMO seed does not guarantee zero percent GMO grain harvested from the farmer’s field. When a farmer’s cornfield goes through its reproductive phase (flowering/pollination) during the summer, it is vulnerable to blow-in pollen from neighboring cornfields that contain GMO varieties,” says Stuart Grim, general manager of Blue River Organic Seed in Ames, Iowa.
To combat this problem in corn, Blue River is breeding varieties using PuraMaize, a natural gene system developed by Tom Hoegemeyer, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Cerrado Natural Systems Group (an independent company not associated with any seed supplier). Hybrid-corn plants that contain the PuraMaize gene complex easily recognize and readily accept pollen from the neighboring plants that also contain the same gene mix, Grim explains. When you look at a fully formed ear of corn and admire the individual kernels of yellow grain, what took place during flowering/pollination is that an individual pollen grain traveled down the silk tube and successfully fertilized the ovule (egg). While a PuraMaize corn plant quickly accepts pollen from other neighboring PuraMaize plants, that same plant does not recognize or readily accept the pollen from a non-PuraMaize plant, thus giving PuraMaize plants built-in protection against foreign pollen.
Solutions such as this are not yet available for other hybrid crops where cross-pollination is an issue, so the onus will remain on organic seed suppliers and farmers to find other ways to protect their varieties and grain. “If GMO producers were responsible for preventing drift, that would change,” Grim says, and the burden would not be on organic growers.
Even when organic farmers can find the seed they need, they are spending more for it than conventional farmers do. The average price premium charged for organic vegetable seed is 65 percent above the cost of conventional, according to the OSA report. Organic farmers typically pay 20 to 50 percent more for field crop seeds than their conventional counterparts do. In some cases, organic is more than twice as expensive.
“The cost of production of organic seed is significantly higher,” Grim explains. “You have a specialty system that’s even more complex than just growing organic corn. There’s an increased cost for labor because you don’t have herbicides to control weeds. And you need specialized equipment for harvesting and processing the seeds without contamination.”
Enforcing the guidelines that require certified-organic growers to use organic seed if commercially available can be complicated, says Bakker, the former certifier. For example, if a grower needs bushels of a certain variety that is available only in packets, is that “commercially available”? Or if the only available organic option is not a strong strain, should farmers be required to buy it?
Organic seed advocates such as OSA do not want to completely end the exemption that allows use of conventional seed. But certifiers, who are audited by the National Organic Program (NOP), must document farmers’ efforts over the years to ensure, for example, they have checked with multiple sources for organic seed.
Bakker would like the NOP to pressure manufacturers, such as corn chip companies, to work with seed companies to provide organic seed options if they want their growers to use a specific variety. Bakker believes that if more large producers, with higher profiles and more customers, start demanding and using organic seed, they would set the standard for the rest of the organic industry and encourage the growth of the market.
This spring, the National Organic Standards Board will consider a proposal from its Crops Subcommittee on “Strengthening the Organic Seed Guidance” under the USDA. One of its main goals is to update the organic seed regulations (which have not been changed since the NOP was established in 2002) by including a requirement that organic operations demonstrate annual improvement in their use of organic seed. Another is to strengthen the NOP’s organic seed policy guidance documentation for certifiers.
No matter what happens at the USDA, Gerritsenpredicts that organic growers will be able to choose from more cultivars that are specifically bred and designed to perform superiorly under organic conditions and produce nutritionally dense crops that meet the market’s expectations.
“Every organic farmer is going to be paying attention,” he says. Planting more organic seeds “is not only a requirement; it will also be to their benefit.” NF
Ariana Reguzzoni is a freelance journalist in Sonoma County, California, where she co-owns a small organic flower farm called Chica Bloom.
While just 27 percent of certified-organic farmers plant only organic seeds, a majority of organic land is sown with them. The following numbers represent the average amount of organic farm acreage planted with organic seeds in each category.
FIELD CROPS: 78%
COVER CROPS: 66%
FORAGE CROPS: 59%
Source: Organic Seed Alliance “State of Organic Seed, 2016”; stateoforganicseed.org
Here’s how you can help encourage a growing organic seed supply.
Support research. The Organic Agriculture Research Act, introduced in 2017 and now under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, would increase funding for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative from $20 million to $50 million annually. A significant portion of OREI funding supports the breeding of new varieties.
Join forces. Get together with other farmers to increase your buying power among seed suppliers and influence them to offer more and better organic choices.
Test yourself. Research varieties best for your farm and share the results with others. Organic Seed Alliance (seedalliance.org) provides information on how to conduct seed trials and offers reports from different regions.
Tell consumers. Let your customers know your products start with organic seeds and why that’s important. Informed consumers can demand high standards.
Be heard. At its spring 2018 meeting, the National Organic Standards Board will consider a proposal on “Strengthening the Organic Seed Guidance.” OFA encourages certified-organic farmers to submit comments in support of the proposal. Comments and requests for a speaking slot at either the meeting or webinars are due by April 4. For details go to ams.usda.gov.