“Equivalent” in sourcing crop seeds isn’t really equity
Farmers need to plant the exact crops they know and trust,
so theorganic seed rule should remain ambiguous until companies deliver.

By C.R. Lawn

Editor’s NOTE:

Response to Richard Glenister’s letter Organic farmers left holding the bag for substandard seed in response to Jeff Moyer’s column titled Let’s 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 fine wines.

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 different, too.

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 was not.

“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 ( These would benefit the conventional sector as well as the organic.

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.

CR Lawn
Fedco Seeds
PO Box 520
Waterville, ME 04903
(207) 872-8307
Fax (207) 872-8317