We’re proud to announce our first five-year update on the status of organic seed in the US. The report, State of Organic Seed, 2016, is part of an ongoing project to measure progress in meeting the organic seed needs of farmers.
Organic farmers produce food differently, and that means they need different seed for the crops they grow: seed developed to thrive without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and adapted to their local climate and soil conditions.
“Organic seed adapted to our region is of highest importance to our success as an organic farm,” says Richard Moyer of Moyer Family Farm. “Our growing conditions in the Southern Appalachians are very different than other parts of the country and even other parts of the Southeast in terms of humidity, variable temperatures, and the crops we can produce.”
Organic seed is also a regulatory requirement. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) requires the use of organic seed when commercially available. As demand for organic food grows – sales in 2015 reached $39 billion – so does demand for organic seed. State of Organic Seed, 2016 shows that supply gaps remain, as most organic farmers still rely on seed that isn’t organic.
But the situation is improving. OSA arrived at this and other conclusions through a number of surveys targeting stakeholder groups, a detailed analysis of organic seed research investments, and listening sessions at organic farming conferences in 2014 and 2015.
The report describes progress in a number of areas. There have been increased investments in organic plant breeding that’s resulting in more organic varieties and more trained organic seed professionals. More than 70% of these investments occurred in the last five years alone.
OSA surveyed organic crop farmers across the US and found that they’re using more organic seed than they were three years ago. Organic farmers also report being happier with the quality of the organic seed they’re using. And the vast majority of respondents believe organic seed is important to the integrity of organic food.
Many challenges remain, however. The largest organic farms still use relatively little organic seed, and OSA’s data suggest that organic certifiers’ enforcement of the organic seed requirement is weaker compared to five years ago. While organic seed research investments have increased, they still pale in comparison to funding directed toward seed developed for conventional systems.
Organic farmers also report ongoing challenges with genetically engineered (GE) crops that harm the integrity of their products, since GE is an excluded method in the organic standards.
Another challenge is broader seed industry consolidation, which affects all farmers.
“The conventional seed industry may soon witness two of the biggest mergers in history,” says OSA’s Kristina Hubbard, co-author of the report. “Consolidation – and the restrictive intellectual property rights that incentivize this level of market re-structuring – is an injustice to American farmers who experience less choice and pay higher prices for seed.”
“But the problem also provides an opportunity,” Hubbard adds. “The organic community can create a path for organic seed that provides an alternative to the dominant system.”
A number of smaller organic seed companies have emerged in response to consolidation. Some organic farmers have also been motivated to take seed into their own hands.
“As an organic grower I started growing my own seed because we were experiencing loss of seed choices as a result of consolidation in the seed industry,” says Dale Coke of Coke Farms in Aromas, California. Coke has been farming for more than three decades and grows vegetables, grain, fruit, and seed crops on 450 acres. “Now we also grow seed to ensure we have options that are organic, and to help address gaps in organic seed availability.”
Growing interest in organic seed production is encouraging. State of Organic Seed identifies a lack of organic seed producers as a major barrier to expanding the organic seed supply. More than half of organic farmers responding to OSA’s survey say they’re interested in seed production trainings.
The report also highlights the critical role of farmers in organic plant breeding. More organic farmers are developing new organic varieties on their farm, at times in collaboration with formal plant breeders at land grant universities and non-profit organizations.
“The combined efforts of plant breeders and farmers has resulted in more organic seed that’s capable of meeting our ever changing needs as a farm,” says Jim McGreevy of Cloudview EcoFarms in Royal City, Washington. “When more farmers serve as breeders in their fields, we’ll see a new era for both organic agriculture and seed everywhere.”
The report provides more than 30 recommendations to serve as a roadmap for organic seed.
“One of the biggest challenge we face as an organic community is executing the many pieces of this roadmap simultaneously,” Hubbard says. “No single stakeholder group can deliver more organic seed alone. Each part of an organic seed system relies on the other parts to be successful.”
Major priorities in the roadmap include:
- Invest more public and private dollars in organic seed research Funding for organic plant breeding should be long-term and address the needs of organic agriculture by crop type and region. Funding should also emphasize participatory approaches, seed production challenges, and the need to deliver finished varieties. Public seed research should be kept in the public domain, free of restrictions on research and seed saving.
- Train more organic farmers in seed production Organic farmers who produce seed, or want to produce seed, need more training, resources, and research to support their success. The future diversity and quantity of organic seed available depends on expanding our national capacity to produce more organic seed.
- Advocate for organic seed Priorities and actions include educating and working with organic certifiers and the NOP to ensure consistent enforcement of the organic seed requirement. Priorities also include addressing risks to organic seed integrity.
State of Organic Seed, 2016 was supported by the Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters initiative, the UNFI Foundation, and New Belgium Brewing Company.
Read the full report at www.stateoforganicseed.org.
Kristina (Kiki) Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance, (406) 544-8946, firstname.lastname@example.org
Farmer contacts for media:
Richard Moyer, Moyer Family Farm, Castlewood, Virginia (276) 762-5533
Dale Coke, Coke Farm, Aromas, California (831) 623-2100 x 205
Jim McGreevy, Cloudview EcoFarms, Royal City, Washington (360) 510-4708