The Public’s Right to Grow
Cornell’s Public Seed Initiative seeks to ensure development of regional varieties well-suited to organic conditions

By Dan Sullivan

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.”

"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."
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.

“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 table."

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.

For More Information...
Public Seed Initiative

Organic Seed Alliance

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.”