This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference. We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.
When I entered the “State of Organic Seed” workshop Sunday afternoon of the 2015 Tilth conference I was a total skeptic. My previous learning had focused on the advantages of conventional farming and I had little education in the ways of organic or sustainable farming practices.
That is why when I had the opportunity to attend this conference in Spokane November 15th through the 17th I was both extremely excited but also very nervous. Not only was this my first conference, but it was also a conference with which my views didn’t totally align. As an Agricultural Biotechnology major here at Washington State University I’ve learned a lot about advances in agricultural sciences that have allowed for the use of genetic engineering in plants, otherwise known as GMOs. Up until the conference, I had come to appreciate this technology and believed it was the future of agriculture.
In her presentation, Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications for the Organic Seed Alliance, discussed the current state of organic seed, where help is needed, and what communities can do to encourage organic seed production. Seeds are one of the largest inputs into a farming system. Many farmers, even those that use organic or sustainable farming practices, are unable to use organic seeds for a variety of reasons; these include not having the right variety, not having enough seeds for their land, and many organic plant breeding programs not selecting for a trait farmers need in a plant. Conventional plant breeders often focus on increasing yield, drought sustainability, and germination times. Though important in organic agriculture, organic farmers also have expressed a need for breeders to focus on pest resistance, root depth, and balance in breeding programs.
All this information, and more, will be revealed in the “State of Organic Seed 2016”. This publication due out in February 2016, by the Organic Seed Alliance, is a five-year review outlining the improvements made in organic seed production and the goals of the next five years. It also details policy improvements that community members can advocate for to their representatives. One that I found particularly important and opened my eyes was the regulation of field-testing for genetically modified organisms. Right now there is almost no regulation of field-testing. As Kristina Hubbard says “I believe that regulation in experimental testing of GE [Genetic Engineering] technology is one of the weakest regulated and needs to be improved.” Approval for field-testing of GE products is now on a “notification” basis; if one wants to field test a GE product then the USDA must be notified. This notification only has to have the county where the test is being conducted and the plant being tested. This system means that the USDA has no idea of the exact location of GE testing, farmers have no idea if a plot of land next to them is GE material, and the public cannot know if the organic food they are eating has contamination. The Organic Seed Alliance is advocating for a switch from the “notification system” to a “permit system”. In this system researchers would have to gain a permit from the USDA for open field-testing thus giving more knowledge of the testing and allowing for farmers around the area to be notified if contamination into their crop could occur. I think this legislation is essential for the continuation of GE technology and the integrity of organic crops.
I left the “State of Organic Seed” presentation with more appreciation for the plights of organic farming and the need for change. I am now able to see the advantages of organic agriculture and why, as our population continues to grow, organic and sustainable agriculture practices will have to become more common. I departed the Tilth conference with much knowledge and appreciation for organic farming that I’m excited to use in the future both in my studies and career.