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.
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Posted April 12, 2007: Farming is one of
the highest arts. The ability to observe and choose varieties
best adapted to one's climate, soil conditions and marketing
needs is a distinguishing characteristic of the skilled practitioner.
Take away the farmer's right to choose and he/she is little
better than a serf.
The organic seed rule talks about equivalent varieties. As
I've observed trials, traveled to conferences and talked to
farmers, I have learned that there is no such thing as an
equivalent variety. In the world of lettuces, ‘Michelle’
is not ‘Sierra’ is not ‘Canasta.’
Farmers have definite preferences among varieties as among
seed companies, preferences which should be honored. Local
conditions favor these differences, as subtle as they may
be. They are as legitimate as the nuances of differences in
Not only is there significant variation between similar varieties,
there is variation within varieties. If you don't believe
me, try planting arugula, ‘Scarlet Nantes’ carrots
or ‘Cherry Belle’ radish from six or eight different
seed companies. Put them alongside each other and you will
see variation. Varieties are alive, constantly evolving with
their environment. Seed companies and their seed stocks are
As absurd as varietal equivalency is, kind equivalency would
be even more ridiculous. If ‘Michelle’ and ‘Sierra’
can be distinguished by savvy growers, consider the differences
between ‘Italienischer,’ ‘Plato II,’
‘Parris Island Cos’ and ‘Jericho.’
As they are all tall green romaines, kind equivalency would
treat them as the same. If even a few green romaines were
available organically, you would have to use one of them under
that definition of the rule, even if the one you preferred
“Kind equivalency” is ASTA sophistry at its best
(that’s the American Seed Trade Association, the same
folks who have consistently supported seed patenting and transgenic
seeds). Kind equivalency is nothing more than a scheme to
enrich seed companies at the expense of organic farmers. I
cannot imagine why any skilled farmer would ever want his/her
choices to be so restricted.
I am CR Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds. Admittedly, Fedco is
a small company with some special market niches, but in my
experience, reasonably priced organically grown seed of good
quality fairly flies off the shelf. Not only is it purchased
by certified organic farmers, who are required to look for
it under the NOP rule, but it is also chosen by droves of
non-certified farmers and gardeners who are under no obligation
to do so. That's because organic is far more than a market
niche, it is a social and ethical movement. Much of the demand
for organic seed preceded the rule. It sprang from grassroots
ethical choices made by the pioneering generations of the
movement and enthusiastically embraced by the next.
The seed rule, unfortunately, has no such grassroots origins.
It came into being not from a groundswell of demand from organic
farmers or from the work and experience of regional certifiers,
but rather from a desire of a few of the bigger players to
harmonize US organic rules with those of Europe. There was
no rule requiring the use of organic seeds anywhere in the
states prior to the NOP. Small surprise, then, that farmers
have had to deal with short supplies, uneven quality and high
prices in the initial years of the rule. The market needs
time to adjust, particularly in a field like seeds, where
research and development takes time. Good seed is a true embodiment
of the slow-food principle!
So should organic farmers have an obligation to use solely
organic seed? Only to the extent that choosing the available
organic seed will improve their economic viability and sustain
their operations. If limited variety options, poor seed quality
or high prices make some organic seed a poor economic choice,
then they should make the best decision for their businesses
and eschew it.
It is the seed companies, not the farmers, who should have
the obligation. If we want farmers to buy organic seed, then
we are obliged to offer them sufficient value in our products
to make the sale. That's how the market works.
Why should farmers bear all the risks and suppliers none?
Given the current state of the market, an absolute seed rule
would be nothing but a subsidy out of the pockets of farmers
and into the pockets of their suppliers. Farmers, being a
captive audience through such a rule, would pay through the
nose for their seed. To paraphrase our beloved former president,
it's simple supply and demand, stupid.
That's why I have little sympathy when some big seed companies
bellyache that organic farmers are taking advantage of so-called
loopholes in the rule. If these companies want to share in
the growing market for organic seed, they need to make some
investments and take some risks, just as the farmers did when
they switched from conventional to organic. If they don't
want to take the risks, other entrepreneurs will seize the
opportunities and fill the vacuum. That's how the market works.
Until the market is given a lot more time to adjust, the
seed rule is fine as it is. Its ambiguities accurately reflect
the complexities of the issues and the many different points
of view on them. The farmer's ability to navigate it—to
balance ethical and economic considerations to come to the
right decisions for his/her operation—is another of
the skills that make farming such a high craft.
Those looking for black-and-white rules rather than subtle
nuances might want to consider a different profession (radio
talk show host, fundamentalist preacher and political blogger
are three that come readily to mind). A flexible rule is always
to be preferred. Local certifiers will always be in a far
better position to interpret the rule and fairly assess compliance
than distant bureaucracies.
The market could be helped along by adequate public funding
for organic research, classical plant breeding and the gene-bank
system, and greater public support for university-farmer partnerships
in participatory plant breeding (such as those conducted by
Cornell University [See our article The
Public's Right to Grow for more on the program]) and for
courses in selection, breeding and seed production such as
those presented by the Organic Seed Alliance (www.seedalliance.org).
These would benefit the conventional sector as well as the
Meanwhile, I hope organic farmers will be smart enough to
resist the siren songs of those who are ever-ready to regulate
them for their own good.
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