Frequently Asked Questions
- What does OSA do? Why does OSA do it?
- What makes a seed organic?
- Why is there a limited supply of organic seed?
- Why is it important to have organic seed bred for organic agriculture?
- Does Organic Seed Alliance sell seed?
- Where can I buy organic seed? Can you help me find organic seed?
- What seed companies are owned by Monsanto?
- What are GMOs/GE crops/biotech crops?
- What crops are genetically modified (biotech, transgenic, genetically engineered)? Or how do I know if my seeds are genetically modified?
- How does Organic Seed Alliance’s approach to plant breeding differ from conventional or biotech?
- Why do we need to breed new varieties? Can’t we just use old heirlooms?
- What is a variety?
- What is a family?
- What is a gene?
- What is germplasm?
- What’s a hybrid?
- What is an inbred?
- What is a population?
- What is a breeding line?
- What does "cross-pollination" mean?
- What does "open-pollinated" mean?
- What does "self-pollination" mean?
- What does "genetic variability" mean?
- Do you have seed saving classes for gardeners?
- I am a farmer concerned about GMO contamination in my seed supply. How do I protect myself?
- I’m concerned about the increasing approvals of GE products by USDA. Can I still trust products labeled as “organic”?
- I represent an organization that gives seed saving and/or production workshops; can I hand out OSA’s Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers?
- How do I get updates from OSA about your blog, newsletter, or events?
- How can I get involved with OSA?
- Does OSA need/accept donations? To what purpose would my donation be used?
To be labeled “organic,” seed must be grown in compliance with USDA’s National Organic Program (organic standards). Certified organic seed cannot contain genetically engineered traits, must be grown in certified organic soil using only inputs (e.g., fertilizer and pest controls) allowed in organic agriculture, and packaged in a certified facility.
Responses to a nationwide survey conducted by OSA in 2010 indicate the organic sector is underserved in genetics specifically adapted to organic cropping systems, regions, and market niches. For varieties in organic seed that are available, many farmers are challenged by a lack of sufficient quantity and scarcity of information on variety performances under organic conditions.
Organic seed availability is low because there is little investment in these programs. This is in part due to consolidation in the seed industry, where few regional private seed companies are interested in meeting the diverse needs of organic farmers. Market consolidation has also concentrated ownership of plant genetic resources, locking these genetics up with restrictive patents that inhibit access by farmers and breeders who wish to protect and expand genetic diversity. Diminished funding for our public plant breeding programs has also contributed to the problem. As industry investments in public research increase, research priorities narrow to focus on proprietary and profitable products that benefit larger industries, like agricultural biotechnology.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to protect our genetic resources for future generations while ensuring farmers have adequate seed choices to feed their communities today. Expanding knowledge and skills for developing alternative seed production and distribution networks at the community level is one solution that lays the foundation for long-term, transformative change. Furthermore, encouraging seed systems in concert with organic agriculture is one of the best ways to support the ongoing growth and success of farming systems that support agricultural biodiversity and healthy water, soil, and people, while rejecting toxic chemicals and the consolidation of seed ownership.
The National Organic Program (organic standards) requires certified farmers to use organic seed. Since there exists a lack of organically produced seed, farmers are allowed to use conventional seed if certain requirements are met. Conventional seed production uses highly toxic chemicals, so their use in organic farming is in conflict with the principles of organic agriculture. Increasing organic seed production and use would lead to more organic acres.
But beyond the standard requiring organic seed, there are many benefits to building organic seed systems. For starters, seed varieties bred under organic conditions provide organic farmers with the optimum genetics for their production systems. And organically bred seed provides food processors, companies and retailers with improved traits that organic consumers value, including nutrition, flavor, color, and other quality traits.
There is potential for much greater benefits. The challenges of resource depletion, climate change, and population growth require ongoing improvements in agriculture, including innovation in plant breeding to deliver beneficial traits that address these issues. Organic farming and organic seed systems are particularly suited to address these challenges in a scientifically integrated, socially ethical, and environmentally responsible manner. While the agricultural biotechnology sector invests in propaganda campaigns to promote traits such as herbicide tolerance as “sustainable,” we in the organic community have an opportunity to go beyond rhetoric and marketing to provide future generations with improved food, health, and environmental security. Organic research and breeding are in their infancy. With further investments we will see exponential improvements that recognize local ecological systems and address food consumer needs, such as regionally adapted seed varieties that are suitable to a range of growing seasons, resist important crop diseases, and have enhanced flavor and nutrition.
Organic Seed Finder.
We recommend you contact the seed companies you are interested in purchasing from directly and ask questions about their holdings/owners.
With all of the controversy surrounding genetically engineered crops, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), many people want to know exactly what makes a crop genetically engineered. One of the best definitions that currently exists is from the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets international food standards. We’ll start by giving this definition, and then explain what it means.
“‘Modern Biotechnology’ means the application of: i) In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or ii) Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombinant barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection."
- Codex Alimentarius
The first part of this definition fits what is generally considered genetic engineering. In this process first DNA is identified that codes for a trait of interest, such as herbicide tolerance. This DNA, called recombinant DNA, has almost always been found somewhere in nature: sometimes in a related species, sometimes in some entirely different kingdom, such as bacteria. Most recently, scientists are beginning to develop entirely new genes in the laboratory. Once this recombinant DNA is isolated, it is combined with other pieces of DNA that facilitate the process of getting the DNA to insert into the target organism and express the traits of interest. Genetic engineers then attempt to insert this whole package, called a construct, into the target organism. The process of getting the DNA into the organism is called transformation. It is generally done either by using bacteria which infect the plant and insert the DNA, or by coating particles of heavy metal with the DNA and blasting the particles into the plant.
The second part of the Codex definition broadens what is considered “biotechnology” to beyond the process of genetic engineering described above. It includes technology known as “protoplast fusion” or “somatic fusion,” where plant cells from related species are cultured together in a way to produce hybrids between the species.
What crops are genetically modified (biotech, transgenic, genetically engineered)? Or how do I know if my seeds are genetically modified?
The vast majority of corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Some GE alfalfa and sugar beets are also grown, as are some GE summer squash. GE papayas are grown in Hawaii. As you can see, the huge variety of vegetables we enjoy do not have GE counterparts.
Certified organic seed cannot contain GE material. If you buy seed, choose certified organic when the varieties available suit your garden and farm needs.
Organic Seed Alliance is not engaged in any breeding that uses the techniques of genetic engineering or modern biotechnology (see the FAQ “What are GMOs/GE crops/biotech crops?”). We employ traditional breeding techniques, including population improvement, controlled pollination, and family selection. We use many of the same techniques that conventional breeders use in public breeding programs and in the seed industry. However, our breeding program is based on principles not generally seen in conventional breeding programs. We use participatory plant breeding to produce genetically diverse varieties adapted to organic agriculture.
Participatory plant breeding: In our participatory breeding work, there is a true and equal partnership between a farmer and a plant breeder. The farmer understands how the crop responds to the challenges of their environment and the agronomic traits needed to excel under those conditions. They also know what horticultural traits are essential for their markets. The classical plant breeder knows how to isolate those traits and how to test the new crosses “on farm,” relying on the farmer’s expertise to select the best material as the farmer gets to intimately know the material over the course of the season.
Genetically diverse varieties: We strive to produce varieties that have the broad genetic elasticity necessary for continual adaptation to shifting climatic, environmental, and energy constraints. This diversity allows them to be selected for local environments. They will stand up over time, thrive under organic conditions, and be worked with and handed down by farmers and gardeners for many generations to come as “heirlooms of tomorrow”.
Adapted to organic agriculture: Due to the lack of plant varieties that have been developed or screened in organic (or other low-input) systems, most organic producers rely on conventionally-bred varieties that have been selected to perform well under high-input chemical systems. Fundamental to the success of organic agriculture is the use of plant varieties that are most suitable to organic production challenges and methods. OSA’s breeding objectives support sustainable and organic agriculture, recognize local ecological systems and address food consumer needs. These breeding objectives include:
- Insect and disease resistance
- Weed management or competition
- Optimization of plant nutrient systems
- Minimize soil impact
- Support of whole-farm ecology
- Minimize off-farm impacts
- Heat or drought tolerance
- Adaptability to soil quality
- Pollution tolerance
- Improved nutrition for consumers
- Development of crops for low resource populations
- Improved crop yields in organic systems
- Promotion of the economics of sustainability by preserving and developing key crop varieties that fill niches not met by industrial agricultural paradigm
We cannot forget that all of the heirloom crop varieties developed during the history of agriculture were produced from selections of existing crops that didn't meet all the needs of our plant breeding ancestors. All good farmers who survived and flourished were plant and animal breeders. They used observational skills to determine and select the best adapted, yielding, tasting and most disease-resistant plants.
These ancestors were never fully satisfied with the crops they used. They always wanted to improve the "farmer varieties" (sometimes called landraces) since it could mean the difference between life and death for their families and communities. Modern organic farmers who are choosing to produce, select, and breed crop varieties to flourish in their regional agro-ecosystems are rubbing shoulders with the best farmer breeders of the past who domesticated and continually improved our crop genetic resources.
There will always be a need to adapt new varieties to current challenges, such as climate chaos. Plant breeding should not be viewed as "messing" with nature. The principles of evolution show us that there is always variation, conditions always change (selection pressure), and nothing stays the same as it responds to the selection pressure ("survival of the fittest"). Nothing is static in nature. Selection pressure and change over time are inevitable and what we advocate for is a co-evolutionary model for making the varieties we use a part of the evolving agricultural system that we are pioneering.
A variety is a group of plants of a particular species that shares a set of characteristics or traits that differentiates it from other varieties of the same crop. These characteristics must be distinct and relatively uniform across all of the plants of the variety. Variety is a synonym for cultivar.
A family is a group of genetically related plants. Often the nature of the relationship is specified.
A gene is a unit of inheritance that controls, in whole or in part, a given trait. Genes are located at fixed loci in a series of alternative forms called alleles.
Germplasm is a collection of genetic resources in a species.
The word “hybrid” is often a source of confusion for gardeners and seed savers. A large part of the confusion results from the fact that there are many meanings for hybrid. Here are some of the different uses for the word “hybrid”:
- A cross of two homozygous (highly inbred) parents within the same species. This is almost always what you are getting when you buy “F1 hybrid” seed from a seed catalog. The “F1” is breeders’ shorthand for the first generation of offspring after a cross is made. Many people believe that F1 hybrid plants will not produce viable seed. In fact, this type of hybrid is almost always fertile. However, if the parents which produced the cross were very different looking, the seed you save from F1 hybrids will produce a wide array of different looking plants – great if you want to start a breeding project, not so great if you want to grow plants that look the same as they did the year before.
- A cross of two different species. These are known as “interspecific hybrids”. Often, the offspring of these crosses are sterile. The most commonly known example would be a mule, which is a sterile cross of a horse and a donkey. However, many times these crosses can produce fertile offspring, such many hybrids within the Brassica genus. For example, Brassica napus (rutabaga, etc) is derived from a cross of Brassica oleracea (cabbage, etc) and Brassica rapa (turnip, etc).
- In the most general terms, a hybrid is formed whenever two non-identical parents cross. For example, you and I are hybrids of our parents. In a diverse open-pollinated population of plants going to seed, many, many hybrids are formed between all the different plants in the field.
When you see the word “hybrid”, it is worth stopping and asking yourself which of these meanings is being used. Once you know what type of hybrid is being described, you will have a much better idea of what you can do with it in your garden.
A plant that results from repeated self fertilization of the parent plants for several generations. Seed of inbred plants used in plant breeding are referred to as an inbred line.
A population is a community of individuals within a species that can intermate. A population shares a common gene pool.
A breeding line is a group of genetically uniform inbred plants developed by selection out of a diverse population. If a breeding line is deemed superior during the evaluation and selection process it may released as a finished variety or it may be used in a cross to develop a hybrid or a new breeding population.
Cross pollination is the pollination (and, as a general rule, fertilization) of an ovule of one plant by the sperm of another plant. Cross-pollinating plants rely on cross-pollination for a significant amount of their mating.
Open-pollinated refers more narrowly to a cross-pollinated crop allowed to intermate freely during seed production; or, more broadly, a non-hybrid crop variety.
Self-pollination is the pollination (and, as a general rule, fertilization) of an ovule of one plant by the sperm of the same plant. Self-pollinating plants rely on self-pollination for a significant amount of their mating.
Genetic variability is the range and distribution of alleles that are contained in a population. Genetic variability is important because it determines the ability of the population to be improved and to adapt to variable environments. Genetic variability can exist in a population as heterozygosity and as heterogeneity.
events page for upcoming workshops in your area. We also offer our Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers for free download.
Organic farmers depend on organic and other non-GE seed varieties to meet organic standards and consumer demand. Seed contamination places an unfair burden on organic farmers by hindering their ability to find GE-free seed. The organic community is responding to the challenges contamination poses in a number of ways, including best practices in seed production; testing and labeling; and litigation and legislation. Here are a few resources:
- OSA’s State of Organic Seed report
- National Organic Coalition’s position paper: Seven Steps to Fair Farming (opens to PDF)
- You can view a 2011 webinar entitled: GMO Contamination: What’s an Organic Farmer to do?. This webinar provides tips for mitigating gene flow, testing your seed, and more.
I’m concerned about the increasing approvals of GE products by USDA. Can I still trust products labeled as “organic”?OSA believes strongly that the National Organic Program (USDA organic seal) is the strongest food production standard available today. We believe it is important that proponents of organic agriculture stand behind the label. Remember that the label represents much more than the prohibition of GE seed in production systems. Purchasing organic supports farming systems that build soil health, enhance flavor and nutrition of food, protect biological diversity, are resilient in the face of climate change, among the many other benefits. We do believe contamination by GE seeds and crops is a very real threat to non-GE farmers and are working on contamination prevention initiatives with partner organizations.
I represent an organization that gives seed saving and/or production workshops; can I hand out OSA’s Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers?All OSA publications are available for free download from our website. We ask that individuals download directly from our website rather than handing out hard copy or electronic forms of our publications en mass. We do this to keep track of interest and need of our publications based on download numbers -- so as to continue to serve farmers, gardeners, and the like with our educational outreach materials.
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“OSA is a convener, partner, and leader in creating the alternative -- a regionally based seed system by us and for us. Collaboration in their spinach breeding work has given me hands-on experience through which I've gained both skills and confidence as a seed grower.”
Common Ground Farm