Organic Seed Rule

CR Lawn, 2011

Seed is an essential living component of organic systems. The use of organically-grown seed that is adapted to organic systems and free of contaminants is critical to overall organic integrity.

Few in the organic movement would take issue with such noble sentiments. But the dream that organic farmers use only certified organic seeds, while salutary as an end goal, is of no help in navigating the way there.

From the get-go, the Organic Seed Rule has been one of the most controversial features of the NOP, for it had no precedent in the decentralized certification operations that the NOP replaced. In effect, it called for an entire industry to develop out of a vacuum, a pertinent fact in putting the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) impatience at the slow pace of industry development in perspective. In railing at a too-slow increase in organic seed use since implementation of the NOP, OTA failed to appreciate why 11 years transition time has been insufficient to allow production of organic seed to catch up to the demand. Given that it takes a minimum of 7-10 years using classical breeding to develop a new variety or to stabilize an hybrid, and that the organic method rightfully, in my opinion, forbids certain faster breeding techniques, organic seed development represents the ultimate form of slow food.

NOP regulations 205.2 and 205.204 establish a requirement that certified operations use organic seed and planting stock but an exemption if these are “not commercially available in an appropriate form, quality or quantity to fulfill an essential function in organic production. Price cannot be a consideration.” While many in the organic industry lament the lack of clarity inherent in the 'commercial availability' loophole, and wish that the NOP would take steps to close, or at least tighten it, much of their position relies on two premises, both of which are, in my experience, demonstrably false: First, that as long as exemptions are permitted, organic farmers will shirk the organic seed requirement whenever they can. Second, that the organic seed industry will not be willing to invest in capacity absent the assurance of a stronger, more strictly enforced rule.

My experience at Fedco Seeds gives lie to the first contention. I have found that reasonably priced organically grown seed of good quality flies off the shelf. Not only is it purchased by certified organic farmers, who are required to look for it under the NOP rule, but it is also chosen by droves of non-certified farmers and gardeners who are under no such obligation. That's because organic is far more than a market niche, it is a social and ethical movement. Much of the demand for organic seed preceded the Rule. It sprang from grass roots ethical choices made by the pioneering generations of the movement and enthusiastically embraced by the next. To test this contention I conducted a small survey. I found that our customers chose to purchase organic seed 38.1% of the time, even though only 26.5% of our listings were certified organic, and even though organic seed cost 2-3 times as much.

The second contention is harder to refute. However, I can point to numerous capacity building initiatives undertaken by entrepreneurs in the last decade, by us, by our friendly competitors, by our suppliers and by growers, and I believe that these will continue to grow in the decade to come. Given the ever-increasing demand for quality organic seed at a fair price, there are tremendous investment opportunities even with the Rule as it is. To those would-be suppliers who might hesitate, I would advise: don't wait for an iron-clad Rule. High Mowing didn't wait, Family Farmers Seed Co-operative didn't wait, we didn't wait to invest. Our biggest need in the industry is for more quality wholesalers in the States. Assess the market and take the risk. We'll be knocking at your door!

Last year the Organic Seed Alliance, as part of its first State of Organic Seed Report, conducted a survey of 1,027 organic farmers in 45 states, finding that by far the biggest obstacles to greater use of organic seed are the lack of availability for the specific varieties wanted (for 79% a moderate or significant factor) and the lack of sufficient quantity of available seed (50%).

The quality of available organic seed is quite uneven. The best varieties, such as those bred and produced by Frank Morton and Gathering Together Farm, those originating from Cornell University's farmer-breeder collaborations, and some releases from Europe where organics developed much earlier and faster than in the States, were trialed and bred specifically under organic conditions. These are worth every penny of their price and more. However, Fedco's seed receivers can recite a litany of horrors to attest that some organic seed growers need additional technical assistance and seed-cleaning capacity to get up to snuff. In recent years we've invested tens of thousands of dollars to bolster our lot grow-out and trials research and our conditioning capabilities to respond to these glaring needs.

Unfortunately, the OSA chose to downplay seed quality issues in their report, dismissing the significance of the 21% of growers (more for vegetable seed) who reported significant problems, particularly of germination, emergence and trueness to type. The survey results showed a serious asymmetry, with only 3% of seed users having more problems with untreated conventionally-grown seeds compared to 23% having more problems with organic seed. Since growers are paying a premium of anywhere from 1.5 to ten times the price for organic seed compared to conventional, they have a reasonable expectation that its quality should be at least as good.

Which brings us head-to-head with perhaps the most problematic feature of the Rule: price. Fully 41% of organic farmers in the survey admitted taking price into consideration in their seed selection, despite the express prohibition of the Rule. It is from this statistic that the “shirker” argument gains traction. Let's look at this from the farmers' perspective. Farming is one of the highest arts. The ability to observe and choose varieties best suited to one's climate, soil conditions and marketing needs is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the skilled practitioner. Take away the farmer's right to choose and she is little better than a serf.

The best farmers choose whatever varieties will offer the highest value. What factors determine value? Price, satisfaction from the supplier (accessibility, prompt and accurate service), the genetics of the cultivar, its consistency, its quality compared to other strains and similar varieties, its ability to fill the required marketing niche. As the price for achieving certification, organic farmers are expected voluntarily to give up a key factor in determining value, a huge sacrifice. To quote the OSA report “There is a long and unfortunate history in agricultural policy of treating farmers order to benefit consumers, retailers, food companies, processors, financiers and suppliers of agricultural inputs” (read seed companies). If the organic movement is not to repeat this tragedy, how can it reconcile a Rule that asks its farmers to make such a sacrifice with the lofty desiderata of keeping organic agriculture “farmer-driven and farmer oriented?” There are no easy answers.

The Rule as stated presents seed companies like mine with a dilemma as well. Aware that organic farmers are required to source organic seed, we take on an added burden whenever we consider adding an organic cultivar. Because organic farmers are forced to consider it if we offer it, we must make doubly sure that it is of sufficient value to justify the price we'd charge for it. If not, our clear duty to organic growers is to leave it out of our catalog.

At present, certifying agencies are inconsistent in applying the rule for sourcing organic seed, some much more stringent than others, but the trend is toward increasing strictness. Many still maintain a minimum requirement that farmers search at least three sources, one that could be clearly inadequate depending which sources are chosen and how thoroughly they are searched. Others ask for a pattern of continued improvement in the percentage usage of organic seed. Although both the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and OTA, in their 2011 recommendations to the NOP, endorse the percentage usage test, it is at best a crude measurement of compliance, requiring certifying agents to have a significant degree of seed industry knowledge to apply fairly. As a farmer, I could be making progress toward greater organic seed use even while my percentage use is dropping. How could that be? Let's look at Carmen pepper. Johnny's introduced Carmen pepper in 2006 when it won an All-America award. For the past five years it has been available only in conventional seed. 2012 is the first time organic seed will be available. This is typical for the industry; with few exceptions, new cultivars usually show up first as conventional offerings and several years elapse before organic seed is available. Should growers who purchased Carmen the past five years or who want to stay at the cutting edge by trying new varieties that sound superior but are available only in conventional seed be penalized by certifiers? Or let's suppose that I have specialized in heirloom tomatoes. Shopping 2011 catalogs from Seeds of Change, High Mowing, Johnny's and us, I found 63 different organic listings for heirloom tomatoes. My certifier could have reasonably insisted on 100% or near 100% organic seed usage for heirloom tomatoes. However, now my market has changed and it demands shell peas and hybrid watermelons instead of tomatoes. For the latter I could find only three organic options in the four seed catalogs; for the peas, just seven. Unless my certifier is knowledgeable about the seed market, it will unfairly take me to task when my market changes to peas and melons or to hybrid summer or winter squash. In particular, the supply of organically grown hybrid varieties in the States is way underdeveloped, and the price of some of the imports, prohibitive.

Because certifiers clearly need more tools to get up to speed on seeds, and farmers need a more convenient jumping-off place to begin their organic search, I have, after years of holding out, recently come to support the organic industry's longtime push for a national database of organic seed availability, provided it is used as a tool to benefit farmers in making selections rather than as a cudgel to enforce the Rule high-handedly, and provided it observes the following caveats:

  1. Seeds are live products. Their availability is in constant flux, new developments are continuous. The database will be worthwhile only if it is carefully and knowledgeably maintained and kept current.
  2. For that reason it will be costly to keep up and farmers and seed companies should not be asked to bear these costs. Public funding must come from the NOP.
  3. Although I am in favor of requiring organic farmers to search this database as part of their organic sourcing, it is only a starting point. It cannot replace a more detailed search through seed catalogs, and wise farmers searching for value will not use it as a short-cut.
  4. The mere mention of an available variety on this database is insufficient to require a farmer to purchase that variety as such a listing is no guarantee of quality or suitability of purpose. Certifiers may not use this listing to force farmers to purchase specific varieties or deal with seed companies with whom they do not prefer to patronize. OSGATA's recommendation to NOP places primary responsibility on farmers, not certifiers, to determine varietal suitability for a given specific purpose and seed quality sufficiency, recognizing the complex nuances of seed issues.

Well kept, wisely used and fairly applied, such a database can become a valuable tool, not only to farmers to source varieties, not only to certifiers to assess progress in organic seed use, but also to the entire organic industry to identify areas of insufficient supply and develop responses. Applied unfairly, it could become a bureaucratic nightmare for organic farmers. Though it might be our sextant, in navigating to a truly organic shore, it must be supplemented with astute observation and close collaboration between certifiers and farmers, as colleagues working for a common goal, not as cops and clients!

In recommending ANY further hurdles for organic growers, the trends toward increased costs, bureaucracy, and onerous documentation in organic certification give me great pause. In fact, in the fall issue of the Organic Broadcaster, longtime organic inspector and MOSES organic specialist Harriet Behar warned that she is seeing organic producers leave the certified marketplace due to the hassle factor of excess paperwork.

Along these lines, OTA's recommendations to the NOP regarding varietal equivalency present a real can of worms. Equivalency is mentioned in the Rule, but its definition is sufficiently vague to leave open different interpretations. Representing the goals of some of the larger players in the industry, OTA would like to see the NOP enforce equivalency. Depending on specific definitions, equivalency could be used to force growers to use a different variety if they cannot source the one they want. Varietal equivalency, for example, might require growers to use Michelle lettuce if Sierra were unavailable, on the grounds that the varieties are sufficiently similar. Kind equivalency, even broader, could treat such varieties as Italienischer, Plato II, Parris Island Cos and Jericho as interchangeable tall green Romaine lettuces. Not only would this abrogate farmers' fundamental right to choose varieties, but it would also prove a bureaucratic nightmare both for growers and certifiers.

In conducting and observing trials, attending conferences and visiting farmers these past 25 plus years, I have learned that there is no such thing as an equivalent variety. Michelle is not Sierra is not Canasta. Farmers have definite preferences among varieties as among seed companies, preferences that should be honored. Even varieties that seem similar may perform differently in different soil types, microclimates, or under different practices. The differences among varieties can be as subtle as the differences in fine wines.

Not only are there significant differences between similar varieties, but there is also variation among different strains of the same variety. If you don't believe me, try planting arugula, Scarlet Nantes carrots or Cherry Belle radishes from 6 or 8 different seed companies. Put them alongside each other and you will see variation. Varieties are alive, constantly evolving with their environment. Seed companies and their seed stocks are different, too.

Equivalency is American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) sophistry at its worst. Its implementation would turn organic farmers into captives of the seed industry. It is nothing more than a scheme to enrich seed companies at the expense of organic farmers. I cannot imagine why any skilled farmer would ever want his/her choices to be so restricted. Wisely, OSGATA elected to eschew all references to equivalency in its recommendations to the NOP. Equivalency has one further fatal drawback. In a worst case scenario in which the organic industry abandoned zero tolerance of genetically engineered varieties in exchange for a defined acceptable threshold, equivalency could be used as a back-door means of permitting the use of GE-contaminated seeds in organics.

Keep in mind that organic seed is still a nascent industry and needs more time to develop capacity to bring the supply of quality organic seed into line with the rapidly-growing demand, and don't forget how the law of supply and demand works. If farmers are made captives of the Rule, the resultant spike in demand will sharply increase the cost of organic seed. While the seed industry reaps the benefits of this indirect government subsidy, farmers will pay the price, a sad re-enactment of an old and familiar refrain. While I, too, look to the eventual day that our organic farms are 100% organic from seed to table, while I, too, respect those high organic ideals, I also remember from Economics 101 that setting the bar higher in the form of stiffer regulations restricts entry to the market. While all sorts of persuasive public policy benefits are advanced to justify licensing requirements, the hidden motive, to limit market access and keep prices high, is rarely acknowledged. Let us honestly assess where the organic seed industry fits in this model before we raise the bar much higher.

Sailors know that the straightest line is seldom the shortest distance in sailing between two points. Rarely in life as in the water, is the wind right behind our backs. To successfully navigate to our goal on the other shore, often we must tack and tack again.

While acknowledging that the organic Rule has provided an important stimulus in increasing the production and use of organic seed, I would argue that now is not the time to close all loopholes and make it absolute, or even to greatly intensify enforcement efforts at the expense of our farmers. Instead let's focus most of our energies on expanding capacity in ways that will benefit rather than hurt organic farmers. As we build infrastructure, develop and refine skills, we will expand our productive capabilities, opening up ways to increase the quantity and quality of good organic seed. As the supply expands over time to approximate the demand, we will experience more favorable winds, more opportunities to navigate more directly toward that shore of all-organic seed use, without having to jettison many members of our crew. The Organic Seed Alliance report and the OSGATA recommendations are filled with creative ideas for such capacity building that could justify a full-length article of their own.

CR Lawn founded Fedco Seeds in 1978. Full disclosure: CR was on the OSGATA Policy Committee that drafted its latest recommendations to the NOP. Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are neither those of OSGATA nor of Fedco Seeds, Inc. but represent only those of the author.