2005:Since the National Organic Program (NOP) was implemented
in October 2002, organic farmers have been required to use certified
organic seeds when planting organic crops and cover crops. This
was big news to many organic farmers, since previously they were
only required to attempt to use untreated seeds.
There are four types of seeds for organic farmers to be aware of:
- Certified organic seeds:
Labeled as “certified organic” or “organic”
these seeds are grown in accordance with the NOP. The certifying
agent should be listed on the label.
- Untreated seeds:
These seeds are grown conventionally, but have not been treated
with any prohibited substances.
- Treated seeds: These
seeds are grown conventionally and are treated with prohibited
substances, such as Captan or Apron or other fungicides or insecticides
used on many seeds that are planted in cold soil. The EPA classifies
Captan as a probable human carcinogen. Treated seeds must
not be used by organic farmers!
- GMO seeds: These
include crops that have been genetically engineered to include
genes from viruses, bacteria, plants, and animals to make them
herbicide tolerant or to contain toxins that kill pests. GMO
seeds are prohibited for organic production!
Technically (see §NOP 205.204), organic farmers must use organically
grown seeds, annual seedlings and planting stock. In the event that
a seed variety is not commercially available organically, an organic
farmer may use untreated seeds. If untreated seeds are not commercially
available, an organic farmer may use seeds and planting stock treated
with a substance included on the National List §205.601. Currently,
there are no synthetic seed treatments on the National List.
Just to make things a bit more confusing, some natural seed treatments
are allowed. Examples of allowed natural seed treatments are bacterial
(non-GMO) inoculants for legumes and clay pelleting for small seeds
such as carrots. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) Brand
Names List (January 2005 issue, page 13) lists 6 allowed seed treatments
by brand name.
So where can you find certified organic seeds? A number of seed
companies have moved into this niche market. Many certifying agents
provide a list of organic seed companies upon request.
There is also a wealth of seed information on the web. Many organizations
including certifiers have posted their lists on their websites.
For example, the Midwest Organic Services Association, a Wisconsin
based certifier, lists 45 seed suppliers, offering corn, soybean,
alfalfas, clover and a variety of vegetables. ATTRA also provides
a list of organic seed suppliers on their website, www.attra.ncat.org.
To go directly to the seed list, click http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/altseed.html.
You can also find lists of organic seed suppliers through OMRI at
The “Save Our Seed Project” is producing organic and
heirloom seeds in the southeast region of the United States and
includes a list of their available seeds at http://www.savingourseed.org/.
Or for more information on growing organic seeds try http://www.seedalliance.org/.
Most of the seed companies on the lists mentioned above are not
exclusively organic, so you need to read the description or understand
the catalog symbols in order to be sure you are ordering organic
There may be instances where the specific seed you want is not
available as certified organic. The NOP allows you to use untreated
seed if organic seed is not available in the form, quality, quantity
or equivalent variety you need.
In our certified organic vegetable operation, about half of the
seeds we use are available as certified organic. We grow cabbages.
We have always planted a variety called Stonehead because it matures
early prior to the arrival of the cabbage moth. This variety allows
us to harvest cabbages without using any allowed insecticides, such
as Bt. Early maturation is a quality of this particular
variety of seed. Stonehead cabbage was simply not available as organic
seed this year. So I bought conventionally-grown, untreated Stonehead
seeds, with records to show I searched 3 seed companies supplying
organic vegetable seeds. I wrote down on my seed log why this particular
variety is important to me. I am also trying a different variety
of cabbage that is available organically as a trial.
Check with your certifying agent for seed supplier lists and their
recordkeeping requirements when using untreated seed. They may require
a non-GMO statement from your seed supplier if the seed you use
is non-organic. I use seed suppliers that provide a non-GMO pledge
in their catalog. Called the Safe Seed Pledge, you and
your certifying agent can be assured that the seed company does
not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.
Keep samples of your seed labels and/or seed packaging. These provide
verification that your seeds are certified organic or untreated.
Inspectors may also want to review your seed invoices.
Under no circumstances should you use seeds treated with prohibited
substances. Fields where treated seeds are used will be disqualified
for organic certification for 36 months following the planting of
To recap – organic, always; untreated, if you must; treated,
proceed with extreme caution, some natural treatments are allowed
but as a general rule stay away. Tune in next month when we’ll
investigate soil erosion on the organic farm.