New Report Highlights Need for Organic Seed Breeding

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This blog was written by Caitlin Joseph, who is currently serving as a joint researcher for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and OFRF. 

The fresh produce from your local grocery store or farmers’ market may be certified organic, but anywhere from 25-80 percent of it might not have started out that way. A recent report from the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) reveals that the organic seed industry is far from keeping pace with the growth in demand for organic products. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), organic’s market share grew by eleven percent (or $43 billion) between 2014 and 2015.

Historically, land grant universities (state-run education institutions that are supported in part with federal funds in order to promote educational opportunities in agriculture research and science) worked closely with farmers in their region to develop crop seeds and animal breeds tailored to meet local growing conditions. Because the land grant universities were public, access to these “seeds and breeds” was also publicly available.

Today however, the advent of genomics and other more expensive breeding technologies has led to the patenting and consolidation of crop seed stocks by an increasingly small number of private seed companies. As a result, farmers today lack access to seed stocks uniquely tailored to their climate and growing needs. This is particularly a problem for organic farmers, who ­– according to the OSA report – use 75 percent organic seed on average for operations under 10 acres, but only 20 percent organic seed on average for operations over 480 acres.

The State of Organic Seed
In 2011, OSA published the first comprehensive assessment of organic seed systems in the U.S., and committed to provide updates every five years. This June, the group published its first update – State of Organic Seed, 2016. The report outlines progress in, challenges to, and potential for increasing the availability, quality, and integrity of organic seed in a rapidly expanding organic market.

Organic Farmers Still Rely on Non-Organic Seed, but Progress Is Being Made
The National Organic Program (NOP), which dictates the regulations around certified organic production, stipulates that farmers must use organic seed, but can be exempt if organic seed is not commercially available. This is a necessary provision, as the current supply of organic seed severely lags behind market demand. The OSA report underscores this point, revealing that most organic farmers still rely on at least some conventional seed in their operations.

Source: “State of Organic Seed, 2016”.

Progress has been made, however, in increasing the availability and quality of organic seed. Compared to five years ago, farmers reported fewer problems with seed germination, crop variety integrity, and seed-borne diseases across crop types. More farmers also indicated their recognition of the importance of organic seed in ensuring the integrity of organic products and the broader success of the organic industry.

Source: “State of Organic Seed, 2016”.

Encouragingly, the report also found that organic seed supply is growing – albeit slowly. The number of organic seed companies has increased in the last five years, and the OSA survey revealed a revenue growth rate of 6-20 percent among such companies. Purchases of organic seed are also increasing among farmers, as is interest in learning how to save and produce organic seed. Coupled with the revelation that a significant percentage of farmers are still saving their own seed, this suggests that there is ample opportunity for farmers to fill gaps in commercial supplies themselves.

Public and Private Investment in Research Still Below Need
Investments in public sector organic plant breeding have increased sharply in recent years, with a $22 million dollar rise in just the last five years. Federal grant programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)  Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program have been the largest sources of funding for such research. OSA’s report highlighted in particular the importance of SARE grants, which provide much-needed funding for smaller scale, farmer-driven research.

NSAC has long advocated for increased resources for SARE. For over 25 years, SARE has been at the forefront of research and extension activities that develop profitable and environmentally sound farming systems. Although the program saw significant gains in annually appropriated funds in recent years (SARE received $24.7 million in fiscal year 2016, a 9 percent increase and highest funding level to date), it is still not funded at even half of its authorized amount.  NSAC urges Congress to match the Administration’s budget request to fund SARE at $30 million in fiscal year 2017, which would bring the funding to just half of the authorized spending level.

Currently, the largest growth in agricultural research funding is happening within USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which is an important source of research funding for public plant breeding, but which has not to date funded a large number of organic research projects.

Source: “State of Organic Seed, 2016”.

Consolidation Trend Shows No Signs of Stopping 
Since 2011, mergers and acquisitions between major players in the seed industry have increased, particularly in the vegetable seed sector. According to the OSA report, between 2008 and 2013 the top eight firms in the industry acquired more than 70 companies. An expansion of intellectual property rights also helped top crop developers concentrate seed stocks and corner the seed market, resulting in reduced choice and higher prices for farmers.

OSA Recommendations
The OSA report makes the following recommendations:

• Increase public and private investment in organic seed research and plant breeding.

• Develop fair intellectual property rights that allow for returns on investment without hindering the rights of farmers and breeders.

• Improve development and promotion of financial risk management opportunities for organic seed producers. Whole Farm Revenue Protection provides better insurance options for diversified growers, such as seed producers, and growers should be made aware of these options. USDA should also continue expanding protections for more organic commodities.

• Improve NOP guidance on organic seed requirement enforcement and provide a clearer framework for continuous improvement in organic seed utilization. The purpose of the current exemption for organic seed is to provide time for the supply of organic seed to catch up to meet growers’ needs. The OSA report highlights that lack of enforcement and clarity around non-compliance of this requirement. Coupled with a lack of encouragement for growers to participate in organic seed development, this has left growth in the organic seed industry in the lurch.

• Develop stronger GMO regulation and contamination testing.

• Address consolidation challenges in the seed industry through blockage of anti-competitive seed company mergers.

To craft this year’s update, OSA sought input from farmers, organic certifiers, seed companies, researchers, and other stakeholders through multiple surveys and listening sessions. This work reflects the collaborative approach that the effort to increase organic seed has fostered, not only among farmers and researchers, but also between chefs, retailers, food companies, and grassroots advocates.

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Photo Credit: USDA
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program, Agricultural Marketing Specialist Lee Cliburn prepares seedlings for the People’s Garden Initiative.