When Kip Bichsel of Love Farm Organics in Forest Grove, Oregon started growing organic vegetables over a decade ago, there was almost no organic seed in the market. Availability has improved every year, but he estimates that even today, 40 percent of the seed the farm buys is not organic. And, for some crops—notably broccoli and cabbage—“it has been really hard to find available organic seed bio-adapted to our specific land needs,” he says.
A new report out today from the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) underscores Bichsel’s experience. It found that the supply of organic seed isn’t keeping pace with the rising demand for organic products, which grew 11 percent between 2014 and 2015, and last year saw sales totaling $43 billion.
As long as the crops are grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and live up to the other myriad organic standards, do the seeds really need to be raised organically, too? Farmers like Bichsel think so because, they say, all seed isn’t the same.
The vast majority of commercial seed is bred to rely on high fertilizer inputs. But for organic growers, who rely on the slow release of nutrients from organic soil amendments, that can be “disastrous,” says Bichsel. “Our operations need plants bred to be efficient nutrient absorbers and resistant to disease,” he says.
However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—the current arbiter of the organic standards—allows some leeway given the lack of supply. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, “Organic seeds must be used unless they are not commercially available” and farmers must show that they have tried to procure organic seed before turning to conventional, non-GMO alternatives.
According to the OSA’s State of Organic Seed report, which was funded by the Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters Initiative, the UNFI Foundation, and New Belgium Brewing Company, those rules may not be enforced consistently.
In fact, the biggest organic operations use relatively little organic seed, which has a big impact on overall acres planted with it. For example, vegetable growers farming fewer than 10 acres report using, on average, 75 percent organic seed, while the growers with over 480 acres in production that responded to the survey used only 20 percent.
To assess the usage of and demand for organic seed, the report’s authors surveyed of 1,365 organic farms (including Love Farm Organics), 16 seed companies, 46 researchers, and 22 accredited organic certifying agencies.
OSA found an increase in the number of farmers using 100 percent organic seed—from 20 percent to 27 percent. And, across all crop types, more than 30 percent of farmers use more organic seed today than they did three years ago. But, like Bichsel, most organic growers must still rely on conventionally produced seed, at least to some degree.
It often comes down to economics, says Mac Ehrhardt, owner of Albert Lea Seed, an independent producer of organic seed in Minnesota. “Conventional seed is a lot cheaper to produce than organic seed,” he says. Consequently, it’s also cheaper to buy.
Based on data from 473 vegetable varieties from 21 companies, provided by the seed-buying search engine Pick A Carrot, organic seed costs, on average, 65 percent more than conventional seed.
In addition to inconsistent enforcement of the organic seed requirement from certifiers, the report outlines additional challenges preventing greater adoption of organic seed including a lack of experienced producers, and strict intellectual property rights.
“We need more skilled organic seed growers,” says report co-author Kristina Hubbard, OSA director of advocacy and communications. Unfortunately, there is less public funding to train seed breeders. “We’re losing capacity at land grant universities for public plant breeding generally—yet they are best-positioned to support the ongoing success of organic seed-growing systems, especially those that may be less lucrative but essential to the success of the fastest growing component of agriculture in the U.S.,” says Hubbard.
While the public and private investments in organic plant breeding increased from $9 to $31 million in the last five years, more funding is needed to help meet growing demand, says Matthew Dillon, director of the Seed Matters initiative. “We can’t depend on the public sector to do everything,” he adds. “We need more companies to get involved as well.”
The difficulty maintaining organic seed purity in the field due to contamination from drifting pollen from genetically engineered (or GMO) crops is another ongoing concern. In fact it is prompting efforts to create a seed standard that doesn’t prove burdensome to seed suppliers. Not surprisingly, it’s a complicated issue. Tightening GMO standards on organic seed could result in fewer choices for organic farmers, says Ehrhardt. The most notorious example is corn. If organic corn standards allow no GMO traits—which is almost impossible to achieve given how corn pollen drifts—farmers will only have a few conventional hybrid varieties available to plant. “We want more, not fewer, choices,” he adds.
On the bright side, Ehrhardt is heartened to see a budding band of community-driven organic seed breeders popping up in pockets around the U.S. “I’m seeing more and more young people interested in farming and organic crop breeding, which is exciting,” he says. And, the survey found, the majority of farmers are interested in learning how to produce seed commercially—if they can overcome the lack of training, economic opportunities, and seed processing facilities.
In addition to increasing funding for plant breeding research, moving forward, the Organic Seed Alliance hopes to see organic variety trial networks expand across the nation, as well as more fair intellectual property models. The group also hopes to explore policy incentives to encourage more participation in the organic seed industry.
Bichsel is encouraged. “There’s still a long way to go, but things are headed in the right direction,” he says.