Response to Richard
Glenister’s letter Organic
farmers left holding the bag for substandard seed
in response to Jeff Moyer’s column titled
get real, and all commit to using organic seed.
boost corn genetics
Improving genetic seed quality for organic growing
conditions is a major plea by farmers to the seed
companies that produce certified organic seed.
A recent development shows a possible breakthrough
that may yield genetic enhancements for corn that
will be uniquely suited for organics.
Blue River Organic Seed www.blueriverorgseed.com
will incorporate pioneering corn research by Dr.
Mary Eubanks of Duke University. She has developed
an array of dent corn characteristics through
a patented use of a cross between two wild grasses
– teosinte and gamagrass – which are
related to corn. Her research shows the common
assumption that modern corn evolved only from
teosinte may be incomplete.
Her wild grass hybrid has allowed her to move
valuable genes from gamma grass into dent corn
through natural cross-pollination between plants,
according to Maury Johnson, founder of Blue River
Targeted improvements include significantly improved
drought tolerance, tolerance to various insect
pests (including rootworm and corn borer), better
performance under lower levels of nitrogen and
in low-pH soils, higher protein content and improved
tolerance to aflatoxins.
Johnson said hybrids from this project should
be available for strip testing in 2009 and in
commercial sales in 2010.
The company’s agreement with Eubanks is
not exclusive but is currently the only license
she has granted for her patented research. Blue
River Organic Seed of Kelly, Iowa, markets nationally
under the name Blue River Hybrids.
Posted March 15, 2007: I would like to address
Richard Glenister's very well-written and important contribution
to the dialogue on the use of organic seed. As someone who
has worked in the world of organic seed for going on a decade,
I would like to affirm some of Richard's concerns as well
as suggest directions for going forward. First, some background:
I am the founder and current executive director of Organic
Seed Alliance (OSA). I will soon step down from this role
and transition to advocacy director, a position we are creating
to focus more attention to issues and successes in the world
of seed. The alliance is a public nonprofit whose mission
is to support the ethical stewardship and development of seed.
OSA is funded primarily through USDA grants, private foundations
and individual donations from the public at large.
We work in partnership with organic farmers, university educators
and researchers, as well as the seed industry. While we partner
with the seed industry, we are not an industry association,
and less than 2 percent of our budget comes from industry
donations (mostly from booths at our seed conference). We
do not sell seed or have income linked to sales of organic
seed. We do not always agree with the industry, but we see
its players as important, vital and well-meaning partners
in creating healthy and ecologically, socially and economically
sound seed systems.
While there are the obvious large gene giants out there that
are wreaking havoc, there are also dozens of small regional
companies that care greatly about the success of farmers.
Some of these companies are 100-percent organic, while others
are just putting their toes in the water. Both types are important
to the success of improving our seed.
The OSA believes the current seed exceptions within the NOP
rule are necessary given the current state of organic seeds
– the lack of commercial availability, lack of diversity
of varieties, and quality issues. Forcing farmers to use the
limited organic seed that is presently available would result
in severe shortages and would deprive producers of the best
available genetics and quality for their production systems.
The loss of choice of genetics is particularly an issue in
minor regional crops such as overwintering brassicas in the
Northwest, or short-season crops as was exemplified by Richard's
However, the exception creates the potential of an endless
loophole, as well as an inconsistency in the enforcement of
standards. A producer would never be required to transition
to organic seed if they are using a variety that is proprietary
and if the seed company producing this variety chooses to
not offer it organically. This exception could go on without
end, damaging the credibility of organic standards.
Companies left in a quandary
In terms of the rule’s effect on seed quality, the
current exception leaves the seed industry straddling a fence
on this question whether to invest or not invest R&D dollars
in organic seed development and production. Unsure of the
return on their investment, companies are not fully addressing
quality and quantity issues as directly as they could be,
and so the cycle continues. Without investment, how can regional
varieties be developed that meet the needs of farmers like
Richard? How can small companies invest in quality controls
to prevent sales of low-germ seed? How can organic farmers
learn the intricacies of producing good organic seed?
More importantly, an endless allowance to use conventional
seed would fail to fulfill the spirit of organics. The production
of conventional seed requires heavy application of chemical
pesticides (being a non-food crop, the allowances are much
higher, and the rate and amount of use are rarely fully reported),
including methyl bromide. In the spirit of the movement, organics
needs to be concerned about the ecological effects of all
inputs – the upstream and downstream costs.
Seed production is fairly centralized, and as such so are
the ecological costs. In areas such as the Willamette and
Skagit valleys of Oregon and Washington, where we produce
a high percentage of the world's dry-seeded specialty seed,
the costs translate into compromised water and soil systems
that impact the entire biotic web. If you don't bury your
head in the sand to ignore it, what organic farmer wouldn't
want to use organic seed for this reason alone?
But there is a better reason for supporting investment in
and usage of organic seed than regulation, or even preventing
localized ecological contamination. Organic agriculture as
a whole will find even greater success as we develop truly
“organic cultivars” – organic not just because
the seed was produced on organic ground and sold by a company
certified to handle organic inputs – but cultivars that
have been adapted for low inputs, exhibit elasticity in the
face of environmental extremes and that enhance the health
of local food systems by extending seasons, that increase
crop quality and that have improved nutritional capacity.
This will not occur without an organic seed partnership between
public and private interests, a healthy partnership in which
the organic community invests in seed systems that:
- maintain farmer's rights to save seed
- involve farmers in the breeding and genetic screening
- encourage rural development that includes the return
of responsive, regional, organic seed companies.
Time to focus on seed
It is time for those of us concerned with organic agriculture
to focus on the seed issue. Investments need to be made in
creating a healthy organic seed infrastructure. Research into
organic seed treatment and seed diseases, varietal evaluations,
collection of data on the quantities of seed needed for organic
agriculture and surveys into producers' needs are but a few
of the steps necessary to build an organic seed system.
Demanding – and I mean demanding – our federal
and state representatives to fund organic research in a manner
that is equitable is also paramount. They need to understand
that we need immediate funding that at a minimum is at a level
equal to our percent of the market, and that ideally would
be higher than our percentage. Research projects what future
needs are, and projecting that organic agriculture will continue
to grow does not require Nostradamus. Now is the time to lobby
for this increase – we have a more open ear in Washington,
D.C., than ever before.
From a regulatory approach, the Organic Seed Alliance recommends
that a stakeholder task force be formed to work with the National
Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program.
The task force would create a list of the issues that are
hindering the use of organic seed, categorize these issues
and articulate categorical approaches to move forward. Categories
might include varietal equivalence, seed transmitted diseases,
appropriate breeding techniques and others.
As an example, specifics under a category might include “Use
of silver thiosulphate in hybrid parent lines” under
appropriate breeding. After articulating the categories and
specifics, the committee would create a timeline (in contrast
to a deadline, a timeline having check points with definitive
steps along the way with no set endpoint) for implementation
of the rule as it pertains to seeds, to the fullest spirit
of the law.
OSA believes that the committee should be composed of organic
farmers, representatives of certifying agencies, university
researchers, organic seed companies and others involved in
the development of organic agriculture. The organic seed movement,
much like the greater organic movement, has a long and rich
history. It is only natural that the regulatory bodies look
to those who have invested in and had success with organic
seed production as counsel on this issue. This issue needs
serious deliberation, not a denial or a deadline approach.
The success of organic farmers and seed companies and the
credibility of organic agriculture as a whole is at stake.
Regardless of the approach, we at OSA believe that education
is a key component. Organic producers need to have strong
crop-evaluation skills to determine equivalent genetics. Those
in seed production need to understand the best practices for
yielding quality, disease-free seed. Public breeders need
to increase their understanding or breeding for regional needs
in minor crops – areas where large private breeding
firms will not meet the needs of organic producers. Seed purchasers
(both farmers and catalogs) need to have easy access to sourcing
the product they need.
OSA is committed to this work, as exemplified by our Organic
Seed Growers Conference (our last conference focused on seed
quality as its theme), field days, workshops, educational
publications, breeding work and our advocacy outreach to work
with public and private interests in furthering healthy seed
I congratulate and thank Richard for taking the time to express
his concerns. He speaks for many. He also has obviously not
given up and become cynical – if he had he wouldn't
have bothered to write or to contact Cornell with his breeding
needs. And this, too, is the spirit of organics – not
simply to criticize the status quo in agriculture, but to
work to make it better.
I applaud Richard, and the myriad of farmers like him working
under this principle of betterment.