Organic Broadcaster

Organic Seed Alliance reports on state of organic seed

By Kiki Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance

In 2011, Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) published State of Organic Seed. This was the first comprehensive assessment of organic seed systems in the U.S., and helped the organic community and seed industry understand barriers and opportunities in delivery of appropriate seed for organic production systems. Following the publication of this benchmark study, OSA committed to updating this analysis with new data and recommendations every five years. We will be releasing this first five-year update next month.

The goal of our State of Organic Seed project is to measure the progress we are making in increasing the availability, quality, and integrity of organic seed. This report serves as an important summary of ongoing needs to achieve this goal, and updated recommendations to guide future research, education, and advocacy.

As a fundamental input in agriculture, seed serves as a farmer’s first defense against production challenges in the field. Seed genetics also largely dictate the quality and integrity of our food from appearance to flavor to nutritional content.

We also know that seed is much more than an input. It is a living, natural resource that demands careful management to ensure a secure and healthy food supply.

The dominant seed system currently is controlled by a handful of chemical and biotechnology companies that have no genuine interest in the success of organic agriculture. Three firms (Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta) collectively control more than half of the global seed market. The top two firms have more than 60 percent of the retail market for corn and soybeans. Some of the most anticompetitive mergers in history are happening right now, including a merging of DuPont and Dow Chemical. This level of concentration means less choice and higher prices for farmers.

These dominant companies abuse intellectual property rights. They discourage farmers from participating in research and seed saving. And too often, they put shareholder interests above those of the greater public.

Therefore, when we think about the importance of organic seed, we need to think about developing an alternative system to the highly consolidated seed industry that independent seed companies and farmers currently operate within. The organic community has an opportunity to create a much different path for organic seed.

By establishing a shared vision and roadmap for developing organic seed systems, we can avoid the negative trends seen in the conventional seed sector while delivering high-quality organic seed for all scales, crop types, and regions. This is what our State of Organic Seed report is all about—helping the organic community monitor the progress we are making to achieve this vision.

Need for Organic Seed
Seed labeled as “organic” has a relatively short history. When the National Organic Program was launched in 2002 only a handful of companies sold organic seed. National organic standards require the use of certified organic seed to ensure organic integrity along the entire production chain. But since the supply of organic seed hasn’t caught up to meet demand, there remains a necessary allowance for untreated, non-organic seed when an equivalent organic variety is commercially unavailable. This allowance has proven a barrier to the quick expansion of organic seed availability.

As demand for organic products grows so does demand for organic seed. The organic industry is clearly growing, with sales topping $39 billion in 2014, an 11.3 percent increase compared to 2013. Food purchases represent more than $35 billion of this total.

This makes our work to develop seed systems that respond to the needs of organic farmers and the diverse markets they serve that much more urgent. As our report findings show, most organic farmers still rely on conventionally produced seed for at least part of their operation.

The benefits of expanding organic seed systems go well beyond helping organic farmers simply meet a regulatory requirement. We believe that organic seed systems that respond to farmers’ needs and adhere to the founding principles of the organic movement are paramount to the success and health of agriculture more broadly.

One of the benefits to expanding organic seed systems is increased access to organically bred varieties. It is broadly accepted that organic farming challenges can be quite different from conventional systems, where synthetic chemicals are commonly used to control pests and diseases. Research is mounting that breeding plants in the environment of their intended use is beneficial to growers and the markets they serve.

Furthermore, adaptation is key to achieving resilience in our agricultural systems. Adapting seed to changing climates, resource availability, and environmental conditions is one way to mitigate risks for farmers and the country’s food supply. This resiliency is longer lasting when more organic farmers have the skills to further adapt and improve plant genetics through seed saving and on-farm breeding.

A second benefit is that organic seed systems are good for the environment. The way we farm is having a huge impact on our environment and human health. Conventional seed is typically produced in chemical-intensive systems. Not many farmers, let alone consumers, think about how their seed is produced. When farmers choose organic seed they are choosing to not contribute to this “upstream” pollution caused by conventional seed production.

Third, expanding organic seed systems can increase economic opportunities for farmers who successfully integrate seed production into their operations. The economic benefits include selling organic seed commercially, becoming more seed self-sufficient and reducing input costs, and reducing financial risks by having seed that is better adapted to their farm.

Lastly, as the diversity of organic seed stakeholders expands to include chefs, food companies, and the customers they feed, organic breeders are able to gather feedback to inform their plant breeding priorities. These participatory approaches have already led to the release of new and improved varieties that demonstrate superior flavor, increased nutrition, and other valuable culinary traits that serve both the organic seed and food industries.

Gathering Input
The quantity and quality of organic seed available to farmers is the result of various stakeholders and their actions within a seed system. Therefore, our methods for developing our report findings and recommendations required diverse stakeholder input. We conducted formal surveys of organic farmers, organic seed companies, and organic certifiers to better understand barriers to expanding organic seed systems from a seed sourcing, seed production, and regulation enforcement standpoint. We gathered additional input from stakeholders at listening sessions that we hosted at eight organic farming conferences across the U.S. in 2014 and 2015.

We also conducted a full analysis of research investments over the last five years and surveyed the researchers involved in the funded projects to understand their successes and challenges. We found that public and private investments in organic plant breeding and other organic seed research have increased tremendously. Since 1996, federal and state agencies, and private foundations, have given more than $31 million to organic plant breeding and other organic seed initiatives. Of this $31 million, more than $22 million has been contributed in the last five years alone (2010 – 2014). This progress is encouraging, but organic seed investments still pale in comparison to funding directed toward conventional and biotechnology forms of breeding.

Although the organic seed supply isn’t keeping up with broader organic industry growth, we are making good progress in meeting the diverse and regional seed needs of organic farmers. In this article we provide a sneak peek of our findings that will be released next month, focusing on results from our organic farmer survey. This survey was conducted in 2014 and assessed farmers’ attitudes and perceptions regarding organic seed, as well as current use of organic seed and any obstacles that restrict organic seed sourcing.

The State of Organic Seed report shows that organic farmers are using more organic seed, especially for field, forage, and cover crops. Photo by OSA

Major Highlights
• More respondents are using certified organic seed. This was seen across crop types.
Unfortunately there appears to be a general trend toward less acreage planted to organic seed compared to 2009, but the small sample size of large producers makes it impossible to say this definitively. The takeaway is that more producers are using more organic seed, but the biggest producers still use relatively little, impacting overall acres planted to organic seed.

• Vegetables still lag behind. Much less vegetable acreage is planted to organic seed compared to field, forage, and cover crops.
We found a general trend toward lower organic seed use among large vegetable producers compared to small producers. Nearly half of vegetable growers reported they’ve increased their use of organic seed over the last three years. About one-third of field crop growers and cover crop growers, and one-quarter of forage crop growers, report increased sourcing of organic seed. Still, vegetables lag behind in an important way. Only 18 percent of vegetable growers reported planting 100 percent organic seed. Compare this to 30 percent of respondents who report planting 100 percent organic seed for field, forage, and cover crops.

• We saw a decrease in the number of respondents whose certifiers are requesting they take greater steps to source organic seed (40 percent compared to 61 percent in 2009).
This is a surprising and disappointing finding, but one that theoretically should be relatively easy to remedy through ongoing education of the certification community. This education is important since, as our 2009 and 2014 data both show, farmers use more organic seed when asked by certifiers to take greater steps to source it.

• Respondents are experiencing fewer problems with organic seed compared to five years ago.
Not only are farmers increasing the percentage of organic seed they are using on their farm, but when asked about the problems they’ve experienced that’s kept them from using organic seed (e.g., germination, variety integrity, seed-borne illness) across the board we saw that farmers found these to be less of a problem in 2014 than in 2009. We found no significant differences in issues between crop types.

• The top two reasons reported for not sourcing organic seed include lack of availability for a specific variety and insufficient quantity. This was generally true across crop types and is in line with 2009 findings.
A lack of desirable genetic traits and the price of organic seed were also reasons cited by nearly 40 percent of respondents (even though price isn’t an allowable reason for not sourcing organic seed). Larger operations also indicate that buyer contracts that require specific varieties be grown influence their seed sourcing, as too often the contracted varieties aren’t available in organic form.

• The majority of respondents (78 percent) want seed companies to test and report GMO contamination. Most (61 percent) respondents don’t think current federal regulations that oversee GMO approvals are adequate for protecting their farm products from potential contamination by GE crops.
This finding is especially timely as the USDA is currently in the process of updating its regulations governing GMO approvals and oversight. Protecting the genetic integrity of seed from unwanted contamination remains a top policy priority to ensure organic integrity. OSA found that most organic seed companies are already taking proactive, voluntary steps to deal with the issue of GMO contamination.

• Farmers are strongly interested in purchasing organic seed to encourage organic plant breeding (81 percent of respondents).
A new question in 2014 covered motivations for purchasing organic seed – an example being to fulfill the NOP requirement. We found that farmers overwhelmingly want organic seed suppliers to be using similar systems as theirs.

• The vast majority of respondents think organic seed is important to the integrity of organic food production and that varieties bred for organic production are important to the overall success of organic agriculture (85 percent for both, even higher than our 2009 findings).
This finding demonstrates an improved understanding among farmers responding to our survey that breeding crops in organic systems is important to their success and that of the broader organic industry and label.

• A significant percentage of respondents produce seed for either on-farm use or to sell commercially (63 percent). This indicates important opportunities to fill commercial organic seed production gaps.
More than half of respondents are at least somewhat interested in producing organic seed commercially. The vast majority of respondents (90 percent) are at least somewhat interested in learning more about organic seed production. The lack of training, economic opportunity, and seed processing facilities were the top factors keeping producers from growing organic seed commercially.

• The majority of respondents believe there are crops in need of organic plant breeding.
Most respondents (74 percent, significantly more than in 2009) believe there are crops in need of organic plant breeding. The top field crops in need of breeding are corn, soybeans, and wheat. The top vegetable crops identified are tomatoes, brassicas, and squash. These findings are very similar to 2009, although alfalfa was rated above wheat then.

Future Direction
In summary, OSA found that organic farmers report using more organic seed, and they are more satisfied with the quality of the seed they are using. More organic farmers also believe organic seed is important to the integrity of organic food production and that varieties bred for organic production are important to the overall success of organic agriculture. The majority of farmers responding to our survey are interested in learning how to produce seed commercially, which is an important finding given the shortage of organic seed producers in the U.S. Finally, we are seeing a lot more investments in organic breeding and seed research, including from the food industry, and researchers report more organic varieties are being released on account of these investments.

While we’re making progress in many areas – including areas not discussed in this article – organic farmers are still underserved in seed specifically adapted to their cropping systems, regions, and market niches. Too often farmers rely on non-organic seed that at times was produced in chemical-intensive systems in conflict with organic agriculture.

The good news is that the goal of building seed systems that support the success of organic agriculture is an achievable one – but we all have to do our part. Whether you’re an organic farmer, organic certifier, seed company, university researcher, food company, policy advocate, or other stakeholder, you have a role to play in implementing the many recommendations in our forthcoming State of Organic Seed report.

These recommendations will serve as a roadmap for the broader organic community over the next five years. A snapshot of our priorities include:

• Reinvigorating public plant breeding with an emphasis on developing varieties that fit the social, agronomic, environmental, and market needs of organic agriculture
• Increasing public-private collaboration in research and education
• Developing a better understanding of acceptable organic breeding principles and practices
• Engaging the National Organic Program in policy initiatives that support more clarity and consistency in enforcing the organic seed requirement
• Protecting farmer and breeder rights as intellectual property protections become more restrictive, impacting seed saving and open access to breeding material
• Protecting the genetic integrity of organic seed from GMO contamination
• Addressing the capacity, infrastructure, and seed production needs of companies already supplying or interested in supplying organic seed
• Creating opportunities for organic farmers to work with professional breeders, including variety trial networks and more on-farm participatory plant breeding projects
• Training more organic seed producers and fostering their relationships with seed suppliers

Kiki Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance, is lead author of the State of Organic Seed report. Sign up for OSA’s newsletter at or email for an electronic copy of the report.

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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