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An internal conflict on organic seeds resolved

Posted by Sajal Sthapit | January 14, 2019

This year CSANR sponsored travel for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference in Spokane, WA. We are posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.  To view student posts from this year and prior years, visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/tag/tilth/

Sajal's headshot
Sajal Sthapit. Photo: Laxmi Lama

It was my second time attending the Tilth conference. The diversity of talks and panels at the Tilth conference last year help me broaden my understanding of sustainable agriculture and it was no different this time. I am grateful for the CSANR sponsorship that made my participation possible.

I especially enjoyed the Saturday morning session on organic seed production and the organic seed chain. Aaron Varadi of the Organic Farm School presented on his work as a certified organic seed producer and shared practical tips for other farmers interested in organic seed production. Next, Kikki Hubbard (Organic Seed Alliance), Jacob Slosberg (Osborne Quality Seeds) and Shaina Bronstein (Vitalis Organic Seeds) hosted a panel discussion on organic seed chains.

The National Organic Program in 2002 set the requirement for organic growers to use organically produced seeds where available. Going into this session, I was conflicted about this requirement. On the one hand, I recognized the need to create a market for organic seeds and incentives for organic seed production and organic plant breeding. Currently, organic growers have no options but to grow varieties that were tested and selected in conventional production environments. Researchers, such as Kevin Murphy (Sustainable Seed Systems Lab, Washington State University) have argued that part of the yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture can be met by breeding crop varieties specifically for organic systems.

On the other hand, I was worried that an organic seed requirement would reduce the amount of varietal diversity grown on organic farms as growers will be limited to growing organic seeds only. In the panel too, many farmers admitted that they had their favorite varieties for which it was not yet possible to find organic seeds.

Article 205.204 in the National Organic Program does define exceptions to the organic seed requirement. For instance, non-organic seed can be used if an organic equivalent is not available. In practice, a farmer only needs to document checking three organic sources and not finding the variety before using non-organic seeds. Many proponents of organic farming consider these exceptions to be loopholes that need to be removed. I, on the other hand, felt that these exceptions are necessary to provide farmers with the options of growing a diversity of varieties. This session was able to change my mind.

The State of Organic Seeds, 2016 report found that the proportion of organic seed used in an operation were highest on small farms (<10 acres) and the proportion declined drastically as the farms got bigger than 160 acres. According to Julianne Kellogg, a WSDA certifier, small farms also find it logistically easier to grow more organic seeds. As small farms tend to grow more varieties, with each non-organic variety grown they need to keep records of contacting three sources for organic alternatives. At the other end, bigger operations typically had a contractual requirement of specific varieties or simply had seed requirements that were too large to be met with organic seeds alone.

The evidence shows that the more diverse smaller farms are already switching to more organic seeds and are committed to it. In general, they report being happier with organic seeds than conventional. Hence, my imagined conflict between greater diversity on farm versus the requirement of organic seed use was not really an issue. In fact, a stronger organic seed market would be needed to make it possible for larger organic farming operations to switch to organic seeds.

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