NSAC's Blog

Organic Food Starts with Organic Seeds!

November 21, 2014

This post is the second post in a blog series devoted to exploring the importance of seeds to sustainable food and farming systems.  Since everything starts with seeds, this series will focus on the importance of public seed research to sustainable agriculture, including organic farmers and local and regional food producers, as well as to climate change, biodiversity, and farmer choice.  To read the first post in this series, click here.

Written by Kristina Hubbard, Advocacy and Communications Director, Organic Seed Alliance

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, whether you’re looking for organically grown squash or green beans, there’s an important piece of the organic supply chain that is responsible for bringing that product to your grocery store, farmers’ market, or CSA box.

Organic seeds!

And federal research policy plays a big role in the number and quality of organic varieties that are developed each year to meet the needs of organic farmers and the communities they serve.

Just as consumers have an important role to play in supporting a more sustainable farming system with the purchasing decisions they make (such as whether or not to buy organic or local or grassfed), so do the farmers growing our food – including the decision of which seeds they sow on their farms.

The food we eat every day ultimately begins with seed, and with the people who steward this living, natural resource: plant breeders, including farmers, who take advantage of the best research to ensure the people growing our food have the seed they need to be successful.  When they do, we all benefit.

Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley in a field of 'Who Gets Kissed?' sweet corn

Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley in a field of ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn

Organic Sweet Corn, Anyone?

Take sweet corn, a summertime favorite.  Much of the sweet corn seed planted in the U.S. was developed – and is owned – by the biggest players in the business: Syngenta and Monsanto.  Their control reflects the highly consolidated seed industry, one that puts shareholder profits before the independence of farmers.

Seven years ago, Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley joined an organic plant-breeding project with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Organic Seed Alliance.  He wanted to develop sweet corn that addressed specific challenges he faced as an organic grower in the upper Midwest.  Specifically, he couldn’t find sweet corn varieties on the market that tolerated cool, wet soils typical of spring in Minnesota.  Conventional farmers are able to manage this problem through fungicide seed treatments, but as an organic farmer, Martin didn’t have this option.

Plant breeder Bill Tracy of the University of Wisconsin - Madison with an ear of 'Who Gets Kissed?' sweet corn

Plant breeder Bill Tracy of the University of Wisconsin – Madison with an ear of ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn

So how could an innovative farmer and steward of the land find a way to meet the growing demand for organic food?  He realized that by partnering with the right professionals he could think beyond the sweet corn varieties offered through seed catalogues and  participate, as a farmer-breeder, in actually developing a new organic variety that was adapted to his regional climate and specific market needs.

The result of this collaboration is a new sweet corn variety called ‘Who Gets Kissed?’  It’s the first release (available now) in a series of open-pollinated sweet corn varieties developed in partnership between the University of Wisconsin, Organic Seed Alliance, and organic farmers.  And because these varieties are open-pollinated (the seed saved from these varieties are easier to save and maintain unlike hybrids), and not protected by restrictive intellectual property protections, farmers are encouraged to take this variety and select, save, and re-plant the best seed from their harvests.  In doing so, they will be adapting the variety to their own regional climates, farming practices, and market needs.

Seeds are Key in Meeting Demand for Organic Food

For decades, the chemical and biotechnology industry has been tightening its grip on seed, and farmers now face fewer options in what was once a public resource.  The need to support public plant breeding projects that take a collaborative – or “participatory” – approach like ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ that bring together farmers and researchers has never been so great.

The need is especially great for the organic market, where sales of organic food continue to grow each year, totaling more than $32 billion in 2013.  Despite this growth, the supply of seed appropriate for organic agriculture has not kept pace with the surge in demand for domestically produced organic food.

In fact, when the National Organic Program (NOP) launched in 2002, there was virtually no organic seed industry in the United States.  Only a handful of companies sold certified organic seed, including several outside of the US.  Since then, there has been tremendous progress in improving the availability, quality, and integrity of organic seed, and yet the gap between demand for organic food and supply still remains large.

Organic Seed Alliance documents this progress through our ongoing State of Organic Seed project.  According to the 2011 report, which includes data from a national organic seed survey, farmers say they are increasing the amount of organic seed they use, despite ongoing challenges, such as availability in their preferred varieties.  Still, only 20 percent of farmers who responded to the survey said they use 100 percent organic seed on their farm (Organic Seed Alliance is in the process of updating this survey now – and you can help).

In general, Organic Seed Alliance found that organic growers are underserved in seed specifically adapted to their regional climates and cropping systems.

Need for More Public Research on Organic Seeds

There is no silver bullet to improving seed options for organic farmers.  The roadmap described in the State of Organic Seed and the recent Seeds and Breeds Summit Proceedings reports are both wide-ranging in scope and require collaboration at each step of the way.  But the most urgent need identified is research.

Unfortunately, in the private sector, a handful of chemical and biotechnology firms dominate the seed trade.  These firms have little interest in the success of organic agriculture, and their seed products reflect this truth.  Very few seed companies are investing in organic plant breeding today, and more are urgently needed if our farmers are going to be able to succeed in meeting the growing demand for organic food.

Furthermore, with consolidation in the number of companies dominating the domestic seed market has come a narrowing of seed options that don’t adequately cover the ever-changing needs of farmers at a regional level: changing climates, emerging disease pressures, and varying soil and water conditions, to name a few.

The state of the private sector makes it all the more important for our public plant breeding programs (those housed at public universities and federal research facilities) to direct more attention and investments to organic plant breeding and regional cultivar (aka “plant variety”) development more broadly.

While some public programs are doing just that thanks to federal organic research grants and investments from the organic food industry, these investments fall far short in addressing the crisis we face as a nation in delivering farmers public seed options that keep up with their changing needs.  To be sure, this concern is shared beyond the organic community.  Farmers of all conventions lament insufficient choice in seed that’s appropriate for their region and production system, and that is held in the public domain – meaning seed that can be saved, improved upon, and shared.

Currently, organic plant breeding relies heavily on federal funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).  While extremely valuable for advancing organic plant breeding, the reliance on one program – especially a program that funds organic research broadly, not just plant breeding – means these cutting-edge breeding projects are vulnerable.

Next Steps for Organic Breeding Research?

Public plant breeding funding was discussed at length at the 2014 Summit on Seeds & Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture held in Washington, DC earlier this year.  Participants concluded that there is a need for a new federal program that funds public cultivar development to fill existing gaps in plant breeding, including organic.  The main objective of this program would be to deliver regionally adapted plant varieties held in the public domain, and projects that involved farmers as equal partners in breeding would be encouraged.

The proceedings that were published from this monumental summit included several other recommendations that support the development of organic seed systems, some of which include:

  1. Creating new, innovative partnerships and models to address regional and participatory approaches to public cultivar development

Participatory plant breeding projects, such as ‘Who Gets Kissed?’, help reduce farmer reliance on a handful of seed firms that don’t support organic agriculture and farmer seed stewardship.  These projects increase genetic diversity in our seed supply and expand choice in regionally adapted seed.  We need regional plant breeding projects because farmers constantly face changing disease, insect, and weed pressures that vary by location.  Climate, growing seasons, soil, and water availability also differ dramatically region to region.  The best way to meet the seed needs of farmers is to adapt plants to the environment where they will be grown, which is why we must expand innovative participatory plant breeding projects across the U.S.

  1. Addressing the negative impacts of the concentrated ownership of seeds

This can be done by empowering farmers to save their own seeds, encouraging more independent regional seed companies, increasing farmer and researcher access to seed varieties and confronting the negative impacts of utility patents and restrictive licenses.

Seed is a limited natural resource that must be managed in a way that enhances its long-term viability.  Confronting utility patents and other restrictive forms of intellectual property is therefore essential to establishing a more equitable exchange of seed and challenging the negative impacts of seed concentration.  Public research should serve the public good, and it should remain in the public domain.  This requires establishing and promoting intellectual property tools and models that adhere to the principles of fairness, shared benefit, and open access.

For example, ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn will not be patented or protected in a way that restricts seed saving and further research on the variety.  Instead, the variety will be released under a licensing agreement that adheres to the principles of fairness and open access.  Farmers are free to save seed and breeders are free to breed with the new variety.  High Mowing Organic Seeds is commercializing the variety to ensure it is broadly accessible to organic sweet corn growers.  A percentage of seed sales will be returned to the breeding team, including Martin, Organic Seed Alliance’s farmer partner, to support ongoing innovation in organic plant breeding.  This collaboration serves as an example for other breeding programs and cultivar releases as a model for economically supporting organic plant breeding while keeping the seed in the public domain.

  1. Building greater public awareness of the importance of public cultivar development

We can do this best by expanding our regional communities of seed advocates and identifying on-the-ground regional priorities and challenges to ensure that our solutions meet the needs of stakeholders in each region – including farmers, consumers, local food advocates, citizens concerned about the impacts of climate change, and state and federal policymakers.

This spring, Organic Seed Alliance will host a summit in Washington State to identify the plant breeding needs of the Northwest.  Plant breeders, seed companies, farmers, and other stakeholders will identify gaps and solutions related to the region’s seed system.  Solutions will focus on how best to deliver more regionally appropriate cultivars as part of a robust seed system that is responsive to area growers and markets, with an emphasis on organic agriculture.

The hope for this summit is that it will be replicated in other regions across the U.S. and that these regional forums will spark a national conversation about the state of our country’s seed supply and the need for increased investments in public breeding to ensure continued seed availability that meets the challenges that future generations of farmers will continue to face.

Stay tuned for the next post in our series on the importance of seeds to building a more sustainable food and farming system!

Categories: Organic, Research, Education & Extension

Comments are closed.