| Posted July 20, 2004:
In a world in which Big Ag and land-grant universities seem ever more
bent on patenting plant genetic material for manipulation and profit,
the Public Seed Initiative (PSI) being spearheaded by Cornell University
is a different breed entirely.
PSI takes germplasm that has been developed at public institutions
and puts it into the hands of seed companies serving regional farmers
in the organic sector. Along with Cornell’s Departments of
Plant Breeding and Horticulture, PSI partners include the Northeast
Organic Farming Association of New York, the USDA Agricultural Research
Service’s Plant Genetic Resource Unit in Geneva, N.Y., and
Oregon Tilth’s Farmer’s Cooperative Genome Project.
According to George Moriarty, research support specialist at Cornell’s
Vegetable Breeding Program, PSI offers up a win-win-win: Breeding
programs otherwise destined to die on the vine see the light of
day, seed companies that might not otherwise have the resources
to gather this type of breeding material acquire it at little or
no cost, and the organic agriculture community—namely farmers
and their customers—benefit as well.
“What we’ve done is take publicly-bred varieties or
breeding lines from as many public breeders that were interested
and trialed them under organic conditions with our cooperators on
the East Coast and West Coast,” says Moriarty. Typically,
he says, these have been hybrid or parent lines that, for one reason
or another, have failed to attract the interest of the big seed
houses and conventional commercial growers.
“We’re trying to see if they fit into organic agriculture
and pretty much offering them to whoever wants them. These are materials
from universities that are finished products or almost finished
products… [and] we’re just trying to see if there is
a niche for them in the organic community.”
As large seed conglomerates focus more and more exclusively on
varieties with mass market appeal, Moriarty and other seed industry
analysts say, the development of varieties with merely regional
potential falls flat—unless, of course, that “region”
happens to be the Salinas Valley or some other major center of conventional
vegetable production. PSI aims to reverse that trend, or at least
to begin the process.
“Our goal here as a publicly-supported university is to support
and provide for agriculture in New York state,” Moriarty explains.
“Agriculture in New York state and in the Northeast in general
has been pretty much marginalized by the big seed companies; they
don’t sell a lot in the Northeast, and they’re not interested
in carrying varieties exclusively bred for the Northeast.”
Rob Johnston, founder and chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds
in Albion, Maine, and a longtime collaborator with Cornell, tips his
hat to the program and says PSI offers opportunities to seed companies
and organic farmers everywhere.
||"If you develop a certain variety in
a certain microclimate, it’s apt to be well developed
to that microclimate, because plant breeding is just an acceleration
of evolution—at its best it is anyway."
“I don’t know
of any other university that has formalized a program to work with
small farms," Johnston says. “I think they realized that
they have a lot of material that, typically, breeders were just using
as parent lines in breeding work, and they thought ‘Well maybe
some of this stuff could be used as finished varieties by seed companies.'”
Johnston, a pioneering breeder and purveyor of organic and conventional
seed to gardeners and truck farmers since the early ’70s,
sees tremendous value in encouraging seed companies to provide regional
varieties adapted to organic conditions, and in teaching these companies
how to develop these varieties properly.
“If you develop a certain variety in a certain microclimate,
it’s apt to be well developed to that microclimate, because
plant breeding is just an acceleration of evolution—at its
best it is anyway,” says Johnston. “A lot of the traits
in crops are very complexly inherited; a lot of different genes
are involved. You can’t just manipulate outside the environment
of intended use…. It’s very hit or miss to breed tomatoes
in Florida for Massachusetts."
“Cornell has a lot of skilled breeders," Johnston continues.
"It’s a good thing they are reaching out to these sort
of undercapitalized seed companies and saying ‘Here’s
a way you can tap into our resources here at Cornell.’”
Bred for organics
Along with growing regions, the organic system as a whole has so
far been largely marginalized by the big seed companies, says Cornell’s
Moriarty. “Part of the group of farmers who have kind of been
left out of all this stuff is organic growers. We have opportunities
to work with groups like the Organic Seed Alliance who are specifically
promoting organic agriculture."
Regional organic farmers want varieties their local customers will
appreciate freshly-picked, Moriarty says, while the big seed companies
tend to focus instead on qualities like shipability and shelf-life.
“They’re looking for something that’s going to look
good,” he said. “They’re not necessarily breeding
for flavor, quality, earliness, or for plants rugged enough to stand
up to a little weed pressure, or for insect or fungal-disease resistance.”
PSI exists for the seed companies that do appreciate these qualities
and that understand their significance, Moriarty says.
“We’re definitely not a seed company,” he says
“We are trialing these varieties and bringing in Tom Stearns
from High Mowing Seeds, Rob Johnston, [Fedco founder] C.R. Lawn…and
other breeders. They’re growing out the material under their
conditions. If they’re interested, we’ll go ahead and
give them a license for production so that they can go ahead and
go commercial with it.
“If these things are going to work in organic agriculture,
we’d just as soon get them into production so there are more
options for organic agriculture rather than having to rely on Seminis
[a large commercial seed breeder] and begging and pleading for untreated
or organically grown seed. We’re developing alliances with
the organic and biodynamic community. Turtle Tree Seeds is interested
in getting biodynamic seed produced for them since they can’t
do it all themselves. They want to get it out to their growers so
they can produce it for them.”
Johnny’s Johnston says it only stands to reason that varieties
selected under organic growing conditions will evolve to be best
suited to those conditions. “Pesticide-free varieties have
to be able to hang in there, otherwise they drop out. Hereditarily,
adaptability increases. You are changing the genetic frequency with
every selection and, if you are a good breeder, you are changing
the frequency favorably."
Following the rules
Another complicating factor in the organic seed business is the
way in which implementation of the USDA National Organic Program
standard is affecting both market demand and market availability
of organically-grown seed. According to the federal organic rule,
certified organic farmers must use organic seed if it is commercially
available in an equivalent variety. But “equivalence”
isn't precisely defined; and since every variety is technically
unique, farmers can usually avoid using organically-grown seed if
they want to.
||"We’re all doing our best to
gain the ability to bring our resources and expertise to the
For the most part, says Johnston, “Our organic farmer clientele
doesn’t want to have organic seed requirements strictly imposed
upon them." Such a regulation would limit their flexibility
in responding to growing conditions or customer demands. While some
farmers buy organically-grown seed on principle, others avoid it
because it usually costs more, Johnston observes.
That situation in turn makes mainstream seed companies reluctant
to commit to the organic market. The language of the organic rule,
Johnston points out, has never been interpreted by organic certifiers
“in a way that provides the seed industry with assurances
that they’ll have a market.” “A lot of the important
varieties in vegetable production are proprietary, and the originator
manages seed production,” he explains. “If we want to
sell broccoli for Sakata"—one of the world's biggest
private seed breeders—"we can assure them we have a market
for [organic seed], but we don’t have the parent line so we
can’t go out and produce it. Sakata is not interested [in
producing organic seed], and you really can’t blame them.
Growers have a big loophole" with the 'equivalence' issue.
Indeed, the debate within the organic movement about whether organic
seed should be held to the same stringent standards that the roots,
shoots, and fruits of those seeds are held to is a complicated maze
of ethics and economics.
From Moriarty’s point of view, PSI has the potential to solve
this conundrum. “To maintain their organic certification,
[organic farmers] have to use organic seed where it’s available,
so getting things adapted to grow under organic conditions is going
to help farmers—having viable, regionally-produced organic
seed instead of something grown in the Salinas Valley under organic
conditions. If we find things under various public breeder programs
that are well adapted, that’s going to help breeders, the
regulatory agencies…and it’s going to help farmers.”
Johnston is hopeful as well. “We’re all doing our best
to gain the ability to bring our resources and expertise to the
table,” he said. More than just helping the little guy, Johnston
says, PSI provides “recognition that decentralization is a
good thing when it comes to product development.”