Join the Twitter #organic debate on seed varieties

16 May 2013

Many readers will be familiar with the weekly farming debate on Twitter called #agrichatuk that takes place each Thursday night, between 8 and 10 pm. It is gaining in popularity with more than 100 twitter users joining in the chatter.

The Soil Association is keen to establish an #organicdebate on issues that affect organic farmers and growers. In the current edition of Organic Farming Magazine there was a debate on the future of seed varieties. We invited Peter Brinch and Michael Michaud to respond to the question, 'How can we best increase access to a range of seed varieties to improve the resilience of organic systems?'. Their responses are reproduced below.

f you would like to add your comment to the debate, please join on us Twitter on Monday 20 May at 2pm. If you type #organicdebate into the search box on Twitter you will see all the tweets containing this hashtag.

We will introduce the debate at 2 pm and then open the floor to others to comment. Just remember to include #organic debate in your tweet so we can all read your comment. All are welcome to join in, farmers, growers and consumers.

The question for discussion: How can we best increase access to a range of seed varieties to improve the resilience of organic systems?

For many years efforts have been made to increase the range and availability of organic seed. Organic standards mandate that organic seed must be used when appropriate varieties are available, and we have worked with seed breeders to increase their organic ranges. Despite these efforts most investment in research and breeding tends to go into F1 hybrid varieties bred for non-organic systems. This leads to a limited range of seeds suited to organic systems, with some growers still receiving derogations to use non-organic seed each year. Because of the relative sizes of the organic and non-organic seed markets, these investment priorities are unlikely to change soon, posing a problem to organic growers and limiting their choice of variety. In this debate we have asked two experts with a long experience of seed production to give their views on the question of how we can both increase access to a greater variety of seed, while ensuring the resilience and integrity of organic systems. If you would like to continue this debate and have your say, join us (@soilassociation) on Twitter at 2pm, Monday 20 May 2013 The question for discussion: How can we best increase access to a range of seed varieties to improve the resilience of organic systems? Use the hashtag #organicdebate in your tweets

Peter Brinch established the Open Pollinated Seeds initiative in 2010 to promote the use of open pollinated seeds.

“Open pollinated varieties offer more resilience and you can save seed”

Seed saving is an age-old practice and skill intimately tied up with crop growing in many countries and which is still practised all over the world. Yet there has been a gradual decline in range and quality of Open Pollinated (OP) vegetable varieties as the focus of most new breeding work is on F1 varieties. This is a particular problem for organic growers as most new varieties are bred for high input systems.
For many growers, OPs offer more resilience, and the ability to save your own seed, leaving them less at the mercy of variety availability and increasing seed prices. Self-sufficient and resilient farm systems are generally more diverse and the market is mostly farm shops, farmers markets and box schemes. This means production is not necessarily so dependent on crop uniformity because extended harvesting periods may be an advantage. Therefore open pollinated types fit very well in these situations.

There are many organic growers that are keen to increase their use of OPs, and one interesting way of doing this is to take OP varieties currently available as non-organic seed (with the appropriate permission) and produce seed from for the benefit of all organic growers. We are currently running a field lab, that has been designed to take some non-organic OP varieties and trial them in organic systems with a view to either creating a demand for them organically or saving them on farm for use in subsequent years. The immediate aim is to get a good assessment of varieties for organic, biodynamic and other low input systems over the 2013 growing season. While longer term some growers are interested in improving their skills at seed saving and even breeding new strains.

Michael Michaud runs Sea Spring Seeds with his wife Joy, selling vegetable seeds and chilli plants
“Employing non-organic seed is the only viable option”

The EU organic regulation requires the use of organically-certified seed. Despite its good intentions, the regulation has reduced the choice of varieties available to farmers and growers, and derogations to allow non-organic seed have been granted extensively.
For whatever reasons, commercial seed companies have produced organic seed of a relatively small number of varieties, and there is little reason to expect the situation to change. At the same time, it’s naïve to think that this limited selection is suitable for all farms and market gardens, and more diversity and choice are needed if production is to be improved.  Though anathema to many in the organic business, the only way to achieve the necessary diversity is through the use of seed produced conventionally. The selection is much bigger, and only by their use will producers find varieties best-adapted to their own holdings.  Granted, there are environmental costs of producing non-organic seed, but these costs must be put in context – a small area of land is used to produce enough seed to grow large areas of organic crops, making the cost relatively small compared to the benefit. Like using non-organic medicines in livestock, this is one of those compromises that is made more palatable by its necessity.

Good quality seed is essential for a successful farming enterprise, and using farm-saved seed that’s organically produced is not the answer – seed-borne diseases are a real threat, and crossing between varieties, especially in vegetables, is always a risk. Furthermore, the seeds of hybrids can’t be saved since the resulting plants won’t be true to type. Post-harvest handling, too, can be problematic because the seed must be properly dried and stored, a process better handled by the experts.

In the final analysis, organic farming and growing needs good quality seed from a wide selection of varieties suited to different growing conditions. Unfortunately, organic seed – however it is produced – cannot fulfil that role, and employing non-organic seed is the only viable option

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