Apr 3, 2020
The Need for Seed: Regulations shape organic seed industry
Regulation, or the lack thereof, has allowed the organic seed industry to grow into what it is today. At the same time, many growers also are producing seed, even breeding new varieties specially adapted to local climates.
Where we’re at
As this issue went to press, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) were collecting data from organic growers on their needs and top challenges. The data will be used to better focus future research on organic agriculture.
The results of the current survey won’t be published until 2021, but the need for organic seed is likely to remain a top concern. As OSA’s Kiki Hubbard said in an announcement of the survey, “Organic farmers need seeds that are developed to thrive without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and adapted to their local climate and soil conditions.”
Five years ago, OSA’s State of Organic Seed found that the organic seed industry had increased investments, more varieties, and more trained organic seed professionals. Growers were using more organic seeds than they had been even three years previous. But gaps remained, with large organic farms providing relatively little organic seed, according to the 2016 report.
For the Organic Trade Association’s Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs Gwendolyn Wyard, much of the organic program’s growth and challenges for organic seed have been tempered by federal policy.
She points specifically to the so-called “commercial availability clause,” that allows growers to use untreated, non-organic seeds when organic seeds aren’t available in the quality, quantity or form needed. That clause, she said, was addressing a classic “chicken or the egg” problem in the early years of the National Organic Program (NOP).
“Organic is new, and you need to grow the produce, or whatever the product is, in order to produce the seed,” she said. “You have to grow it organically to produce the organic seed, while there wasn’t a lot of organic acreage going through the 1990s. There’s still not a lot of organic acreage, as a matter of fact, compared to conventional across the United States. And so, this commercial availability clause is put into the organic regulation so we can grow up and get to a point where there would be enough commercial seed available for everybody in every form, in all the quality and in all the quantity needed.”
But Wyard said at the same time it’s created a way to avoid using organically-certified seed.
The regulation of organic seed use remains a policy problem, with many potential pitfalls to rigid enforcement.
“You don’t want to push too hard as you’re trying to make sure you’re developing robust, organic seed that is fully functional and thriving for all of the different varieties and all of the different crops,” Wyard said. “You don’t want to force a grower to use organic seed that is inferior.”
That’s why, she said, it’s difficult for organic certifiers to challenge growers on their seed choice. It’s easy for a grower to say that a certain type of seed isn’t of the right quality or type.
“It leaves quite a bit of room for an organic farmer, if they want to, to game the system,” she said. “We’d like to think people aren’t going to game the system, but we know they do game the system.”
After years of discussion and proposals in comments, the National Organics Standards Board in 2018 did pass a formal recommendation to the NOP to strengthen its organic seed guidance. Now, the industry waits for the NOP to begin its formal rulemaking, which is also a lengthy process.
In the meantime, there are discussions of other ways to reform the industry – Wyard said one idea is getting organic industry heavyweights to pledge support for organic seed.
“You can only use regulation to do so much,” she said. “Everybody has a part, and sometimes the private sector can get further faster than regulation can.”
If everyone has a place in the organic seed movement, organic growers themselves might consider breeding new varieties and producing organic seed.
At the Organic Grower Summit in Monterey, California in December, OSA Research and Education Assistant Director Jared Zystro, spoke about the merits of grower-developed varieties.
“Modern plant breeding – so much of plant breeding focuses on developing varieties that yield very well or produce high-quality products that are uniform, that is shippable,” he said. “The breeding process itself often occurs in fairly ideal conditions where there are minimal stresses – there’s ample nutrients, ample water.”
In contrast, Zystro said, organic growers often need plants that can handle stress – plants that excel at scavenging water, building soil, or forming good links with beneficial microorganisms living in the dirt. And they might even need something different than what’s currently on the market.
He gave an example of a grower who developed a zucchini plant with a superior root system able to find the water table on his farm that was out of the reach of other varieties.
“What he ended up with was a variety that, if you grew it in really high-input, high water conditions, it would be very, very bushy,” Zystro said. “It wouldn’t produce a lot of fruit. But in his dry farm conditions, that were low-input and had this water table being down low but available, they did quite well and they fruited quite well.
“Being able to select in stressful conditions, he was creating better root systems even though he couldn’t see it.”
Many other growers are searching for varieties adapted to stressors of their locales. At the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO December in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mike Levine and Erica Kempter of Nature & Nurture seeds spoke about their work to grow their seeds for sale from their 80-acre farm.
Kempter said she’s working to refine a good strain of cherry tomatoes using open-pollination rather than hybridization. They also have re-discovered “Grand Rapids Lettuce,” a regional variety developed in the late 1800s to handle the cold, and they’re refining that variety.
“We’re continuing to select it for cold hardiness,” she said.