Is it time to close the loophole allowing conventional seed in organic food production?

Published: December 29, 2018
New rule proposed by National Organic Standards Board would require farmers to show continuous improvement in sourcing and using organic seed

Since the National Organic Program (NOP) was launched in 2002, organic farmers have been able to plant non-organic, untreated seeds “when an equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available.”

This loophole allowing conventional seed to be used to produce organic food may soon be starting to close as the National Organic Standards Board has recommended that organic farmers must show improvement every year in “searching, sourcing, and use of organic seed” with the goal of “achieving full compliance in the use of organic seed/planting stock.”

NOP rule on organic seed is “double edged sword”

The NOP rule allowing the use of conventional seed was necessary because at the time there was little or no organic seed for farmers to plant, according to Kristina, “Kiki,” Hubbard, advocacy & communications director at the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA).

“In 2002, there was hardly any certified organic seed available in the marketplace, which is why that exemption is still in place to allow farmers to use untreated conventional seed when an equivalent organic variety wasn’t available,” she says. “No one wants to force organic farmers to use seed that isn’t optimal for their production system.”

But at the same time, the organic industry wanted to encourage organic farmers to identify seed varieties that are as good as or better than the conventional seeds they had been using. As a result, the current NOP rule on organic seed has been a “double edged sword,” according to John Navazio, a plant breeder at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

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“The rule was necessary because you don’t want to cut the organic farmer off from a good seed variety that meets their needs,” he says. “But the rule has always hindered the development of organic seed and takes away the incentive for producers to buy organic seed.”

In 2016, OSA published a “State of Organic Seed” report, which found that organic farmers have made progress in planting organic seed. A survey of organic farmers found that, across all crop types, 27 percent were using 100 percent organic seed and that 30 percent were using more organic seed than they had three years earlier.

“Am I supporting organic seed or seed from Pioneer and Monsanto?”

Several seed suppliers say they have seen progress and more emphasis on the use of organic seed.

“A lot of our customers are die-hard, passionate organic growers. They don’t necessarily need the rule to force them to buy organic seed,” says Tom Stearns, president of High Mowing Seeds, an organic seed supplier.

“There has become a greater emphasis for organic grain farmers to use certified organic seed instead of untreated non-GMO seed,” says Dave Ross, sales and operations manager, Great Harvest Organics, which sells organic field crop seeds such as corn and soybeans.

Further Ross says “there are good quantities of seed from certified organic seed companies.”

But Ross says it’s unethical for farmers to continue buying conventional seed when organic varieties are available. “These (conventional) seed companies don’t contribute to the organic market.”

He says organic certifiers, who enforce the seed rule, bear some responsibility. “They need to ask: ‘Am I supporting organic seed or seed from Pioneer and Monsanto?’ ”

With more seed companies offering more and better quality organic seed varieties, the NOSB introduced a rule change this past October that requires farmers to demonstrate continuous improvement in sourcing organic seed. While the current rule requires that organic farmers contact at least three sources or companies to check on the availability of organic seed, the new proposal would increase that to five. Also, if sufficient progress isn’t demonstrated, an organic certifier could require that farmers take additional steps to procure organic seed, or even issue a non-compliance to farmers for repeated lack of progress in sourcing organic seed.

Hubbard says the rule change has received broad support. “This is a reasonable approach to encouraging more organic seed usage, and a good way to strengthen integrity in organic seed. It would signal to the rest of the organic community that seed is important.”

Stearns also sees positives with the new rule. I think some of the proposals are good ones with the right amount of strengthening the rule without accidentally forcing organic seed down the throat of growers if it’s not the right variety.”

Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seeds, which sells a variety of organic seeds, says the proposed rule change is already having an impact.

“Organic farmers are feeling the need to plant organic seed whenever they can instead of untreated conventional seed. It puts good demand on certified organic seed.”

New rule could help grow the organic seed industry

Organic certifiers will have to enforce the new rules but according to OSA’s report certifiers have been inconsistent in enforcing the current seed rule. In 2016, less than half, 44 percent, of organic certifiers encouraged farmers to take extra measures to source organic seed.

“The organic certifying community needs to take organic seed more seriously because more seed is available, and it is necessary to building the organic industry,” Hubbard says.

Stearns says there needs to be clarity around the concept of continuous improvement in the new rule so that certifiers interpret the rule consistently.

He also hopes the new rule helps to grow the organic seed industry, which is still small.

“We want to provide the right kind of support of the broader industry so that the organic seed industry can get out of its infancy. There are a half dozen (organic seed companies) sticking our necks out making investments, and we need more players. There hasn’t been any really new companies getting involved in organic seed from a breeding perspective in 10 years but the opportunity is huge.”

The new seed rule must be adopted by the NOP to become law. Hubbard is confident it will be.

But Ehrhardt isn’t as optimistic. “Whether NOP does anything with that I don’t know,” he says.

Beyond boosting the organic seed industry, adoption of more organic seed will provide other benefits, according to Hubbard.

“We are ensuring the integrity of organic products beginning with seed, and that will spur more investment in plant breeding so there are varieties for organic growers that are adapted to their regions and climates and have traits that customers want,” she says.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, 2019