Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) envisions an organic food system built on a foundation of organic seed. The purpose of the State of Organic Seed project is to measure progress in achieving this goal. (Download the full 2016 report here, and read updates on the 2021 report here.)
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) requires the use of organic seed when commercially available. However, the organic seed sector was almost nonexistent when the program began and is still working to meet demand. Meanwhile, the organic food industry continues to experience fast growth, with sales toppling $39 billion in 2015 (an 11% increase compared to 2014).
As demand for organic products grows, so does demand for organic seed. As this report shows, there remain gaps in the organic seed supply and challenges to filling these gaps.
Make no mistake: the benefits of organic seed go well beyond helping organic farmers meet a regulatory requirement. Organic seed systems that respond to the needs of farmers broadly benefit the sustainability of our food and agricultural systems. (See Why organic seed?)
The good news is that we’re making progress in developing organic seed systems that have the potential to transform how we farm and what we eat.
We arrived at this conclusion through a number of surveys with targeted stakeholder groups, a detailed analysis of organic seed research investments, and listening sessions at organic farming conferences in 2014 and 2015.
Here’s the good news:
Organic farmers are planting more organic seed
Across all crop types, 27% of organic farmers responding to our survey are already using 100% organic seed (a small improvement over our 20% finding in 2011). Furthermore, more than 30% responding are using more organic seed than they were three years ago. The average percent acreage planted to organic seed by farmers responding to our survey totaled 69% across crop types, representing an 11% increase since our last report. By crop type, this acreage increased in vegetables, field crops, and cover crops, but decreased in forage crops.
Organic farmers are happier with the results of the organic seed they’re using
Farmers report fewer problems with organic seed compared to five years ago (e.g., quality characteristics, such as germination rates, variety integrity, and seed-borne diseases). This finding was consistent across crop types. Approximately three-quarters of organic farmers say they have about the same seed quality issues with organic versus conventional seed.
Organic farmers believe organic seed is important to the integrity of organic food
Our findings show that more organic farmers agree that organic seed is important to organic integrity and that having seed that’s bred under organic conditions is important to their success and that of the broader organic industry. It’s broadly accepted that organic farms provide different growing environments from their conventional counterparts. Organic plant breeding therefore has the potential to provide seed that’s more optimal for organic agriculture.
More organic farmers are saving seed for their farm or to sell
Increasing the availability of organic seed will require training more organic seed producers, which is why it’s encouraging that more than 60% of organic farmers responding to our survey already produce organic seed for on-farm use and/or to sell commercially. Furthermore, more than half of respondents say they’re interested in learning how to produce organic seed for the commercial marketplace.
Organic seed investments have increased tremendously
Public and private investments in organic plant breeding and other organic seed initiatives have increased by $22 million in the last five years alone. Our 2011 report documented a mere $9 million invested between 1996 and 2010.
The largest three sources of funding include USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE), and other federal funding programs. The vast majority of funding (88%) supported organic plant breeding and variety trials as opposed to other areas, such as organic seed production research. By crop type, vegetable projects received nearly three times as much funding as other crops.
Here are the challenges that remain:
Most organic farmers rely on conventional seed
Most organic farmers responding to our survey still rely on conventional seed for at least part of their operation. There are a number of reasons why, including specific varieties that are unavailable in an organic form, insufficient quantities in seed, and a lack of desirable traits. Although price is not an allowable reason for not sourcing organic seed under the organic standards, it remains an important reason for organic farmers (though slightly less of a reason than reported in 2011).
The largest operations still use relatively little organic seed
The largest organic operations still use relatively little organic seed, and this has a big impact on overall acres planted to organic seed. The difference is significant – farmers with less than 10 acres in vegetables on average plant 75% of their acreage to organic seed, whereas farmers with more than 480 acres on average only plant 20% of their acreage to organic seed. One barrier is that some of these larger operations have a growing contract with a buyer. These buyers require a specific variety be grown, and too often that variety is unavailable in an organic form or in the quantity they need.
Organic certifiers could do more to support organic seed
Organic certifiers play an important role in supporting the expansion of organic seed systems by enforcing the organic seed requirement in a measurable and reasonable way. Our findings show an unfortunate marked decrease in the percentage of organic certifiers asking organic farmers to improve their sourcing of organic seed. Only 40% of farmers said their certifiers made such a request whereas more than 60% reported this request in our last report. We found, as we did in 2011, that when certifiers request improvement in sourcing more organic seed, farmers respond by using more organic seed.
There aren’t enough organic seed producers
Producing organic seed takes experience and a special skill set, and organic seed companies report a dearth of skilled and reliable producers. Though it’s encouraging that our findings show an interest among organic farmers to take organic seed trainings, other challenges remain, including access to seed processing facilities and a lack of economic opportunity (at least for some crops). There’s a need to provide more educational trainings and resources to build our organic seed production capacity here in the US.
Organic seed research investments are insufficient
An increase in organic seed research investments is encouraging, to be sure. But these investments still pale in comparison to funding for non-organic research. Research focused on chemical agriculture often doesn’t benefit organic farmers who can’t rely on spray-on solutions for pest and disease challenges. Organic plant breeding, on the other hand, prioritizes key traits important to organic farmers (e.g., disease resistance) that typically also benefit conventional agriculture.
Risks to organic seed integrity remain
Genetic engineering (GE) is an excluded method in the organic standards. Organic farmers who grow crops with a GE counterpart, especially corn, are increasingly challenged by the proliferation of GE traits in their seed and crops. Biotechnology regulations are weak, and don’t require that the owners and users of GE crops implement strategies to mitigate pollen and other means of contamination. Meanwhile, organic farmers are required to take measures to protect their fields from prohibited substances and excluded methods, including GE material. This burden comes at a great cost.
The seed industry continues to consolidate
The seed industry continues to rapidly consolidate. Intellectual property rights (e.g., utility patents) that provide complete control over much of the commercial seed supply are in part to blame, as are regulators who allow anticompetitive mergers. The organic community has an opportunity to create a different path for organic seed: one that emphasizes healthy competition, shared benefits, and the time-honored right to save seed. Seed is a living, natural resource that’s too important to be locked under restrictive intellectual property rights and managed by a handful of chemical companies.
Organic seed systems, like all seed systems, involve the essential practices of breeding, production, and distribution. The quantity and quality of organic seed delivered to farmers is the result of many stakeholders working together. Stakeholders include plant breeders and other agricultural researchers, organic certifiers, seed companies, policy advocates, organic food companies, and the farms planting organic seed, to name just some. No single stakeholder group can address the diverse seed needs of organic farmers alone. When actions are guided by shared values, the progress is faster, more coordinated, and longer lasting.
The top recommendations from each of the three chapters are below. A longer list of recommendations can be found in each of the three chapters of the report and are also summarized in the conclusion. These recommendations serve as a roadmap 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-profit foundations. Funding should be long-term and address the specific needs of organic agriculture by crop type and region. Funding should also support participatory approaches and emphasize the need to deliver finished varieties to the marketplace. Publicly funded organic seed research should be kept in the public domain — free of restrictions that inhibit further research or seed saving.
- 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. Organic seed producers also need more protection from the risks inherent to seed production. The future diversity and quantity of organic seed available depends on expanding our national capacity to produce organic seed.
- Advocate for organic seed
Advocacy is an essential piece of this roadmap. Priorities and actions include educating and working with organic certifiers and the National Organic Program 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.
We can grow a healthier future beginning with organic seed – but not without you. Here’s what you can do.