IN A TIME OF DARK NEWS ABOUT THE SEED BUSINESS, I’m heartened to see some catalogs on my table giving more real estate to organic seed. But why care? What difference does it make if the tiny seeds I start with were organically grown, as long as when I plant them, I follow environmentally sound cultural practices? If you worry about contributing to pollution that “flows upstream”—and if you want a seed that’s well-adapted to your garden if you adhere to organic methods as I do—it matters more than you’d think. What I’ve been learning:
commercial seed is hungry, thirsty, coddled
UNLIKE MANY VEGETABLE CROPS we grow to eat—which are typically picked young and tender, and therefore grown for a shorter time—the same plant cultivated for a seed harvest must be grown to a much older age, requiring much more water, fertilizer, and chemical controls against pests and diseases.
Seed crops are coddled, and regulations on chemical usage when raising them is also looser than on growing the same vegetable for the food market.
Besides the pollution and waste of resources this results in, it fails to do something else really important: It yields seed strains that “expect “ this kind of pampering—not ones that are well-adapted to organic growing conditions in our home gardens, where we (hopefully!) don’t rush in with a chemical at every turn of events, or prop things up on synthetics instead of diligent care for our soil.
- Read More: Dr. John Navazio of Washington State University and formerly of the Organic Seed Alliance, now of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, explains all of this and more.
progress report: 14,500 organic farmers
THE STATS: “The number of organic farmers has climbed from roughly 3,000 in 1993 to more than 14,500 today,” reports Bob Scowcroft, founding director of Organic Farming Research Foundation, in its Winter 2011 Information Bulletin. “The number of certified organic acres today stands at 4.1 million. Sales of certified organic products are rising as well and now account for roughly 3.7 percent of U.S. food sales. Organic agriculture represents a tremendous economic opportunity for family farmers and ranchers and the communities in which they live.”
Among other hopeful news for the organic movement, including seed production, Scowcroft says:
“This year, through [the OFRF’s] efforts and those of many other organizations and individuals, the USDA will direct $53 million to organic research.”
And there are now even two certified organic meal delivery services, growing awareness and making it possible for discerning cooks to obtain organic ingredients in regions where they aren’t usually available.
It may not sound a lot, but it’s progress.
help to create demand, to create supply
FIRST, THE REALITY CHECK: There is not sufficient organically produced seed of every variety that gardeners, or farmers, might like to grow to say “buy only organic seed always.” But demand can foster supply, so I for one am sending more dollars in the OG seed direction when it’s available—happily paying a premium price for those packets—and being sure to buy the rest from vendors who meet other standards, even if they or their products are not “certified organic.” So, for instance…
if there’s no organic seed, shop like this:
AT A MIMINUM, BUY ONLY FROM COMPANIES that take the Safe Seed Pledge—committing to not knowingly using or selling any genetically modified, or GM, seed. More than 100 companies have signed on; the list is here. Is your favorite seed vendor on it? The pledge was initiated by High Mowing Organic Seeds in 1999. Read it. Some skeptics ask, “But what does the pledge really mean?”–pointing out that the patented transgenic hybrids (often called GMOs), the dominant seed used in agriculture with crops such as corn and soybeans, are not listed for sale in garden catalogs. But here’s why I like seeing the Safe Seed Pledge: I expect a company who takes it will be able and willing and even proud to answer my other questions about where the seeds they sell were farmed, and how. Ask! (I also like seeing a company state that it tests its seed for possible contamination by pollen from genetically engineered crops–which is the way the unwanted genetics could get into a variety that the seller offered, believing it to be pure.)
READ THE FINE PRINT in the catalogs, too. Any reputable vendor should freely express its point of view on GM seed, treated seed (that to which fungicide has been applied–say “no” to that, too, won’t you?) and generally how the seed is grown or sourced. I am suspicious in these times if a catalog or website says nothing on these matters. Fedco Seeds, for instance, reported in 2011 that 28 percent of its seed assortment (accounting for 36 percent of its seed dollar volume) was certified organic, and makes it easy to shop only those products–or the whole mix, explaining how it sources the other portions, too. Wild Garden Seed grows everything it sells, all organically. And so on.
That said: Many growers cannot make the certified-organic claim—whether because they have not yet met government guidelines, the cost of certification is too high, or they ideologically disagree with some aspect of the standards—but nevertheless follow sustainable practices and ethical land stewardship. Like I said, read the fine print–a company should be proud to tell you the care it has gone to to find high-quality product for its customers.
(Note: I included photos of beet greens, top, and corn in this post because those two crops are especially vulnerable to transgenic contamination since the advent of genetic engineering, most recently the Roundup-ready sugar beet, which puts beets and relatives like chard at contamination risk, too.)