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Partner Profile: Organic Seed Alliance

OSA's Micaela Colley and farmer-breeder Nash Huber of Nash's Organic Produce in Sequim, WA harvest sweet corn. Photo courtesy Organic Seed Alliance.

OSA’s Micaela Colley and farmer-breeder Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Produce in Sequim, WA harvest sweet corn. Photo courtesy of Organic Seed Alliance.

Seeds are an important natural resource that’s vital to farming, and the Organic Seed Alliance is an organization that “advances the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed.” We talked to Kristina Hubbard, OSA’s Director of Advocacy & Communications, about the wonders of organic seeds and their State of Organic Seed project. (If you’re an organic farmer, take this survey now!)

Tell us a little about the history of OSA.
Organic Seed Alliance’s (OSA) roots go back more than forty years to the Abundant Life Seed Foundation, a non-profit seed business. In 2003, a tragic fire resulted in the loss of Abundant Life’s extensive seed collection, a collection largely maintained by a network of farmers. In the wake of the fire, the board and staff decided to launch OSA as a new non-profit. Rather than focus on a collection of seed, OSA was created to support the entire organic seed movement through research, education, and advocacy. The founders of OSA understood that seed was a vital shared resource, and that building robust organic seed systems was the key to maintaining and improving this resource. Beyond protecting seed as a natural resource, there was also a dire need to protect the base of knowledge necessary for keeping seed diversity alive, especially among farmers. In other words, they saw that we were losing the knowledge and skills necessary for saving and improving seed as quickly (if not more quickly) than the diversity of seed itself.

What makes a seed organic?
To be labeled “organic,” seed must be grown in compliance with the organic standards governed by USDA’s National Organic Program. Certified organic seed cannot contain genetically engineered traits, must be grown in certified organic soil using only inputs (fertilizer and pest controls) allowed in organic agriculture, and packaged in an organically certified facility.

Why are organic seeds important?
Beyond the regulatory requirement for organic farmers to use organic seed, there are a number of benefits to breeding and planting more organic seed. Seed is the critical first link in organic production, and provides farmers the genetic tools to confront day-to-day challenges in the field. These challenges can be quite different from their conventional counterparts, who can use chemical controls not allowed by the National Organic Program. Organic seed is also important to the integrity of the organic label. By integrity, we don’t only mean what’s not allowed in organic production systems — such as pesticide residue or genetically engineered traits — but also what’s desired in the seed being sown, from production traits to nutritional quality, to supporting seed production systems that use our resources sustainably.

First, organic seed provides growers optimum genetics. Seed varieties bred and produced in organic conditions and for organic markets provide organic farmers with more appropriate genetics that are better adapted to their unique production systems. Second, when seed is bred with organic production systems and diverse markets in mind, food processors and retailers benefit from improved traits that organic consumers value, including nutrition, flavor, color, and other quality traits. Third, organic seed production minimizes “upstream pollution.” The lack of organic seed allows for conventional, untreated seed to be used if certain requirements are met, yet a great deal of conventional seed is produced in chemical-intensive systems that are in conflict with organic principles. Lastly, organic seed production can provide economic opportunities to growers who successfully integrate seed production into their systems. The economic benefits range from selling seed commercially to becoming more seed self-sufficient and reducing input costs and risks by having seed adapted to their region.

You talk about the “ethical development of seeds”—what does that mean to you?Farmers operate within a highly consolidated seed industry that puts shareholder profits first, before the health of people,the health of the planet, or the success of organic agriculture. This level of control stifles innovation in plant breeding, and creates barriers to improving access to organic seed. Intellectual property practices (such as restrictive utility patents on seed) stand out as major contributions to consolidation. This consolidation has left us in a situation where much of our commercial seed is now owned and managed in the hands of a few transnational firms. We believe seed is a public resource, and that restrictions on seed saving and sharing are unethical if they unreasonably restrain research and farming practices.

OSA’s mission is to advance the ethical development and stewardship of agricultural seed. All of our work aims to confront the negative consequences of consolidation. By “ethical development and stewardship” we mean that seed demands careful management as a natural resource, much like our water, air, and soil. But seed is a living natural resource, so beyond simply conserving our crop genetic diversity, seed must be managed in a way that allows adaptation to climate change, resource depletion, and our food and nutrition needs. Through collaborative research and education we work with farmers and formal plant breeders to develop new seed varieties (and restore older varieties) to meet these needs while safeguarding diversity for future generations. We also work to train farmers to produce high-quality seeds, increasing the diversity of seed producers and incrementally reversing consolidation. At the same time, our advocacy program promotes policies and practices that protect the diversity and integrity of the systems we aim to foster. Finally, we promote farmers as essential leaders in seed stewardship, making sure their voices are heard at all levels.

Can you talk a little more about regional seed networks, and the role they play in promoting organic seeds?
One challenge farmers face on account of consolidation is fewer options in regionally adapted seed. Over the years we have expanded our services on the ground in the Northwest, California, and the Southeast. This means we are educating more farmers, students, and industry members to increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of organic seed. We are also leading and/or participating in more participatory plant breeding projects than ever before. Our current organic plant breeding projects span 10 states, involve 10 universities, and focus on 13 crops. An important component of these regional networks are variety trials that deliver much-needed data on which varieties perform best in organic systems. Collectively these regional networks represent a national movement of seed stewardship that foster collaborative research and create new markets for seed production and distribution.

What kind of information are you guys looking to get in this survey?
The organic seed sector was almost nonexistent when the National Organic Program was launched in 2002. Though we’ve seen tremendous growth in the organic seed sector, the industry is still working to meet demand. State of Organic Seed is an ongoing project that monitors the status of organic seed systems in the U.S. Our State of Organic Seed report, published in 2011, provides the first comprehensive analysis of the barriers and opportunities in building the availability, quality, and integrity of organic seed. We are currently working on a five-year update to this report, and our farmer seed survey — open through December 3rd — is an essential component to this research.

We want every certified organic crop producer in the U.S. to take this survey. The survey assesses producers’ attitudes and perceptions regarding organic seed, as well as their current use of organic seed and any obstacles that restrict their ability to source organic seed. The survey also asks which crops and traits should be prioritized through organic plant breeding programs. Survey findings will be included in our next report, and will be made public with detailed recommendations for improving access to seed that is optimal for organic agriculture. OSA will then work with organic stakeholders and policy makers to carry out the recommendations. We are confident that with further collaboration and investments, the agricultural and research community can provide for the seed needs of organic producers.

To learn more about Organic Seed Alliance and get involved, visit www.seedalliance.org

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