ray of catalog sun? more organic, non-gmo seeds

young beet greensIN 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.

ears of corn 2

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.)

reference: extra goodies

  1. Kathy M says:

    Very interesting material. I have always bought my seeds from Johnnys in Vermont and have always gotten OG when available but had wondered if it was really necessary as long as I was growing organically . As you said they are more expensive but now I see they are well worth the extra cost. I can always find the best heirloom varieties from Johnnys and the service is so great.

    1. Margaret says:

      Go, Donna! Together with our dollars we can vote against the guys (and I don’t mean that sexist-ly) with the big bucks, right?

  2. linda says:

    I’m with you on this Margaret! I’ve been buying more organic seed every year. This year my veggies will all be grown from organic purchased, saved, or swapped seeds. We can all vote with our dollars and our forks.

  3. Mike says:

    Margaret, very interesting article. If everyone limits their selection to only organic, are we not limiting the diversity that is available to us? Is the correct term GMO? Aren’t hybrids genetically modified? Isn’t the correct term genetically engineered? Can seed companies even buy genetically engineered seed? It is my understanding that only the companies that develop these GEO’s are the only ones that sell them? Please take a moment to check out Bill McDorman’s (Seeds Trust) YouTube video on Organics is the Question…not the Answer!


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mike. Thanks for the video, which I agree with — I think it’s important to ask for safer seed but that doesn’t just mean organic, so I am going with vendors who practice sound land stewardship and have committed to the Safe Seed Pledge, as explained.

      I am no scientist, but: GM (genetically modified) or the synonym GMO (genetically modified organism) have been genetically engineered, yes. Hybrids are deliberate crosses of two genetically distinct but pretty closely related parents (to breed in vigor or disease resistance or height/compact size or later harvest or whatever trait you’re seeking). Typically the two plants are from the same species.

      Creating hybrids isn’t genetic modification (though nowadays some hybrids crops, like agricultural corn and beets, are being genetically modified, too — and I guess in the science community they prefer to call the offspring transgenic, an even clearer term than GM/GMO). Hybrids are not inherently bad — except that they cannot reproduce offspring that resemble the parents, so you need a new seed supply every year.

      Transgenic crops are the result of biotechnology — I guess we laypersons think of that as “gene splicing” — the insertion in the lab of genes from a more distantly related organism. So while hybrids have been made for a long time (think Gregor Mendel’s pea experiments in the 1860s onward) and can even be done in the garden by hand, genetic engineering is a different process. Individual genes are removed from the cell nucleus of one organism and spliced into the chromosomes of another…manipulating genes.

      Anyhow, I am no scientist, but this is my understanding — and I will shut up now. :) Hope to see you soon again!

      Welcome, Virginia, all the way from Australia. I agree with you — eventually we can help support growth in the organic industry over all with our purchases now and every year. The future of the entire organic industry starts with organic seed, after all… Don’t be a stranger. See you soon!

      1. gene deerman says:

        hello and thank you for posting on GE seeds and the many challenges involved in sustaining seed diversity. I own all your books, listen to your podcast, and loved hearing you on other garden podcasts, too. I hope I can suggest an update to this post because I think you also recognize that The Safe Seed Pledge is an empty statement because it’s illegal to sell GE seeds to home gardeners. (Patents and intellectual property rights) Commercial growers sign legal agreements prohibiting them from saving and selling these seeds. You have discussed the Open Source Seed Initiative on your podcast and (maybe on your blog too?). The OSSI offers another way: partnering seed growers with seed companies with a commitment and promise to keep seeds in the public domain. I wonder if you might update this post with something about the OSSI? To clarify for readers that there’s a substantive pledge out there that signals a true commitment to biodiversity. Thank you!

  4. Catherine says:

    Margaret, I have organic gardened for over thirty five years… and for 28 have had a sweet sign outside my place advertising my wares… eggs, Jersey milk, fresh organic produce in season. I am on a well traveled road to a Methodist Retreat and 17,000 to 20,000 people drive by each year. I have had five (yes five) customers in all these years! Often I heard people whisper farm produced eggs ‘are dirty’…go figure that one! Any progress for organic is progress IMO. Nice post…

  5. Kristie says:

    Thank you for sharing a very powerful article with us. Very inspirational indeed! I wanted to quote Bill McDorman in a recent article published in Acres U.S.A. regarding his thoughts on certified organic seed and the implications of only purchasing organic seed at this time.

    To quote Bill: “Organic seed is becoming just another industrial market niche. One-size-fits all, hybrid organic seeds produced by the multinational giants are now beginning to flood the market. At this critical stage, we have lost entirely too much of the world’s agricultural genetic diversity. Asking organic farmers to focus on certified organic seed is problematic (and perhaps, catastrophic) since most
    of the world’s remaining diversity is not yet certified. We want — and greatly need — an organic agriculture, but we absolutely need the abundant diversity to sustain it”.

    To read the article you can view it here: http://www.acresusa.com/toolbox/reprints/Jan11_Seeds_McDormanThomas.pdf

    In summary, preserving regional diversity with OP seed ( certified organic or not!) is the best thing we can do! And of course, grow it organically and sustainably!

    Thank you again for raising awareness on a very critical issue~

  6. Good information and yes, we need non GMO organic seed. I have a temptress pile of catalogs in front of me that are all heirloom and mostly organic. A necessity for the health of our children (and us), our wildlife, and our precious watershed.

    Every drop of pesticide, herbicide hurts.

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

    Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter

  7. jonquil says:

    I just ordered tomato seeds from tomatofest.com, located in California, which seems to be a very good source of a wide variety of organic heirloom tomato seeds. I found them while searching for a few uncommon varieties that I want to grow this year – they offered every one on my list! Thought you might want to check them out (if you don’t already know them).


  8. Ellen Sousa says:

    Thanks for posting the link to various catalogs of suppliers of non-GMO and organic seeds. This year I’ve decided only to source my seeds from New England suppliers (adapted to our climate), and only open-pollinated heirloom-type varieties. Disappointing that there are only 2 New England companies on the list but hopefully this is the beginning of a powerful new buying movement…thanks for spreading the word!

  9. Anna says:

    I agree with Bill McDorman — it’s important to go beyond organic seeds, and ask for and purchase heirloom seeds to protect genetic diversity! If we don’t want a future limited to only the franken-foods and seeds produced by Monsanto, then we need to protect as great a variety of seeds, that cannot be trademarked, as we possibly can. I purchase nearly all of my seeds from Seed Savers now, and focus less on which seeds are organic, but on which seeds have a history in my region, offer diversity of flavors, colors and textures beyond which can be found in the grocery store or flower shop, and are able to reproduce naturally.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thank you, Anna, and welcome. I am a longtime fan of heirlooms, and have been a fan of Seed Savers from the start. I felt in this post that merging the topics of GMO/organic AND the topic of open-pollinated/hybrid just got too big. But I am with you! Thanks for this.

  10. Ryan Miller says:

    Margaret, bravo for encouraging people to use organic seed and avoid GMO seed! I especially liked the realistic stance you took in your podcast about getting organic seed when it was available, but not to limit yourself to purely organic seed. As one of your commentors here wondered, if we only bought organic seed which has limited availability, we’d be decreasing the demand for more varieties of seed, which is also important.

    However, I am dismayed by your treatment of the GMO issue, especially in your podcast. I am paraphrasing you here: “We all know that GMO is bad right? I mean, who wants franken-seeds?” Some people may have a gut negative reaction to the idea of genetically modified seed, but that gut reaction is not rational. There are a lot of reasons that GMO seeds and crops are bad, but it has more to do with what is being genetically modified and how the seeds and crops are used. There is nothing inherently bad about genetic modification.

  11. david says:

    Thank you for bringing a extremely important facts, awareness to all. The true quality of all life has is to live simple with an attitude that promotes sustainablity, food and its purity is life giving. Support those people, products (with caution, read the ingredients) that promote these ideas.
    Thanks Margaret for your efforts!

    1. Margaret says:

      You are welcome, David; nice to “meet” you. I am reading more and more each day on these topics — confusing times we live in! See you soon.

  12. Deborah says:

    The best discussion of the GMO problem that I have read is in Barbara Kingsolver’s book of essays titled Small Wonders. Her essay “A Fist in the Eye of God” talks about the miracle of diversity in seeds, describing the biological variations found in any species, that allow it to adapt to changing local conditions (and we need that ability to adapt more than ever now with climate change).
    We will lose that biological inheritance if we go down the corporate-controlled path of genetic engineering. Not only is there the risk of other seeds being contaminated by pollen from GMO crops, as is happening with corn, but also just the fact that we will lose varieties without GMO if noone is growing them. Seed “banks” only work if someone plants and grows the varieties each year and saves the seeds. Also, the corporate “ownership” of plants is a scary trend. Do you really want to put the control of seeds into the hands of the corporate world? Remember how Monsanto sued nearby farmers whose corn was inadvertently pollinated by Monsanto’s GMO corn? It’s a scary world they are proposing. Read Kingsolver, who is much more elequent on this topic.

  13. Broken Barn Industries says:

    Margaret, I just don’t have the energy to spare right now to fight Monsanto in any “big” way but for what it’s worth, I’m thumbs-upping all your posts about this crucial issue via stumble. Hopefully that’ll drive more traffic to these posts and increase awareness. Thank you for devoting so much time and effort to writing about it.

  14. Rita says:

    It’s just all so scary. The very idea of “Round Up-ready beet seeds.” Aaargh!

    It’s definitely organic seeds from now own. We have a “greenhouse” set up in the basement and can’t wait to transplant heirloom tomatoes and other fresh and yummy veggies. Again, thanks, Margaret.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.