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Many organic brands have taken a proactive role when it comes to regenerative farming methods because it is the right thing to do — for the soil, for the planet and for the nutritional quality of food.
It is now time that brands take an equally proactive role when it comes to organic seeds.
In a worrisome report called State of Organic Seed, 2022, produced by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), it was found that most organic producers still source non-organic seed for part, if not all, of their operation. Additionally, the report found that there has been no meaningful improvement in organic producers using more organic seed.
Despite the fact that the USDA’s National Organic Program requires the use of organic seed, conventional and non-GMO seeds may be used if organic ones are not commercially available.
“We believe the organic seed sector is at a critical juncture,” said Kristina Hubbard, Director of Advocacy & Communications at the Organic Seed Alliance. “We are seeing interest among organic seed companies and organic farmers to produce more organic seed, but their investments are stalled because of the lack of progress in organic producers increasing their use of organic seed. Without regulatory change, we risk decreasing the organic seed supply, which puts at risk the integrity and success of organic agriculture in the United States.”
According to the Organic Seed Alliance, the USDA’s National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) have both done a good job prioritizing organic seed conversations in past NOSB meeting agendas and work plans; resulting in recommendations that (a) require organic operations demonstrate improvements in organic seed sourcing on an annual basis and (b) strengthen the 2013 organic seed guidance document for certifiers.
While smaller scale vegetable producers are increasing their organic seed usage, the largest organic operations still use relatively little organic seed, and there has been a consistent decrease in the percent of organic seed used as vegetable acreage grows. Primary reasons for not using organic seeds include: specific varieties that are unavailable in an organic form, insufficient quantities of seed, a lack of desirable traits, and buyer contracts that dictate a specific variety be grown and too often it isn’t available as organic.
All this being said, increasing organic seed usage is a very delicate balancing act.
We cannot force farmers to plant organic varieties that their buyers do not want or are not optimal. On the other hand, this lack of organic seed usage could create a serious credibility crisis with consumers, nearly all of whom have the expectation that the products they are paying premium prices for are grown with organic seeds.
The key is to encourage measurable improvement in organic seed sourcing.
Yet, with the NOSB having passed recommendations related to this issue, organic certifiers appear not to be doing all that they can to rectify the problem.
The 2022 report noted a marked decrease in the percentage of organic certifiers asking organic farmers to improve their sourcing of organic seed. Only 35% of farmers said their certifiers made such a request, whereas 40% reported this request in the 2016 report and 61% in the 2011 report. The Organic Seed Alliance found that when certifiers request that producers take extra measures to source organic seed, the farmers respond accordingly.
Given that organic certifiers are not making this a priority, organic brands must step in, especially since their reputations are at risk.
These organic companies should be asking their farmers or distributors: Are you using organic seeds? If not, why? Will you continue to improve your sourcing of organic seed? What can we do to help?
At the end of the day, this is a partnership between every entity in the organic value chain — from the grower, to the distributor, to the brand — and there is absolutely no long-term benefit to decreased organic seed usage. Just risks.
Not only is the integrity of the organic marketplace at stake but so is the health of our organic seed supply.
Already, there has been massive consolidation in the seed industry, and the top four chemical companies control 60% of the global seed supply. Compounding matters are all of the patented gene-edited vegetables coming online, which may soon dominate the indoor vertical farming sector.
Bayer, which owns Monsanto, announced last year that it was getting into the organic seed business, and utility patent owners are brazenly claiming ownership to thousands of non-GMO plants and traits, from finished lettuce varieties to phenotypes (“pink tomatoes”) and genetic traits (“heat-tolerance”).
“It is essential that we preserve diversity and allow organic farmers and consumers to share seeds across regions, many of whom are dealing with the same issues, such as drought or temperature changes. We need to put seed sovereignty back into the hands of the people,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director at the Center for Food Safety, whose organization started the Global Seed Network to facilitate small-scale seed sharing and to serve as a free peer-to-peer online platform.
In the same manner that regenerative agriculture has become an imperative for many organic brands, strengthening the organic seed supply and increasing its usage must carry a similar level of importance.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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