(Beyond Pesticides, June 27, 2016) A new report released last¬†week by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) found that the supply of organic seeds is not keeping up with the rising demand for organic products. The organic sector grew 11 percent between 2014 and 2015, with sales last year totaling $43 billion. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)‚Äôs National Organic Program (NOP) does require the use of organic seed when commercially available, but because the organic seed sector was almost nonexistent when the program began, it is still working to meet demand. In cases where organic seeds are not commercial available, organic farmers are allowed to turn to conventional seed alternatives.
According to OSA‚Äôs State of Organic Seed report, funded by the Clif Bar Family Foundation‚Äôs Seed Matters Initiative, the UNFI Foundation, and New Belgium Brewing Company, the biggest organic operations actually use a relatively small amount of organic seed. They found that vegetable farmers that grow on less than ten acres use, on average, 75 percent organic seed, while growers that farm over 480 acres use only 20 percent organic seed. The authors of the report surveyed 1,365 organic farms, 16 seed companies, 46 researchers and 22 accredited organic certifying agencies. OSA did find an increase in the number of farms 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 presently than they did three years ago.
The report outlines some challenges preventing greater adoption of organic seed, such as the price of organic seeds over conventional. Conventional seed is cheaper to produce and buy, according to 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. While price is not an allowable reason for not sourcing organic seed under organic standards, this remains as an obstacle for organic farmers.
Then, there is the issue of coexistence between farmers using genetically engineered (GE) crops and non-GE farmers. Some organic farmers struggle with maintaining organic seed purity due to contamination. GE crops pose a constant threat to the livelihood of organic farmers and undermine the burgeoning growth of the organic industry. A 2014 study released by Food and Water Watch and the Organic Farmers‚Äô Agency for Relationship and Marketing (OFARM), in response to USDA‚Äôs Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) report in 2012, found that one-third of organic farmers have experienced GE contamination on their farm due to the nearby use of GE crops . Over half of these growers have had loads of grain rejected because of unwitting GE contamination. These rejections can lead to big income losses for farmers, with a median cost of approximately $4,500 per year per farmer, according to the survey. Additionally,¬†several farmers report annual losses of over $20,000 due to the need to establish buffer zones, limiting the threat of contamination from their neighbors by taking contiguous farmland out of production.
Beyond Pesticides believes that shifting the responsibility of contamination away from small-scale and organic farmers to the GE patent holder and GE farmers¬†‚Äďa polluter pays principle‚Äď¬†is an important first step in leveling the playing field and achieving the desired level of coexistence between growing operations. A system in which organic farmers are forced to expend resources to protect themselves from the choices of others, while potential trespassers are merely allowed to go about their business regardless of consequences is not equitable coexistence and is not a permanent solution.
OSA released some top recommendations on how to move the organic seed sector forward, and to serve as a road map for organic seed stakeholders over the next five years:
- Invest more public and private dollars in organic seed research. Organic plant breeding and other organic seed research must be a funding priority in agricultural research grants, including government programs and private and non-private foundations.
- Train more organic farmers in seed production. Organic farmers who produce seed, or want to produce seed, need more training, resources, and research to support their success.
- Advocate for organic seed. Educating and working with organic certifiers and NOP to support consistent enforcement of the organic seed requirement. Priorities also include addressing risks to organic seed integrity and innovation, including genetically engineered crops and restrictive intellectual property rights.
Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship, and is working to strengthen organic farming systems by encouraging biodiversity and holistic management practices, and upholding the spirit and values¬†on which the organic law was founded. It is impossible to discuss the ecological and economic benefits of organic agriculture without discussing the devastating effects of conventional agriculture. Good organic practices work to build the soil and maintain an ecological balance that makes chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides unnecessary.
Underpinning the success of organic in the U.S. are small-scale producers who focus on fostering biodiversity, limiting external inputs, improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and using integrated holistic approaches to managing pests, weeds, and disease. Organic agriculture has been proven time again to be equally viable for both farmers and consumers while also providing significant health and environmental effects over conventional industrial agriculture.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.