Better organically-bred seeds could revolutionize food system

Wasn’t organic seed just seed plucked from plants grown without chemicals, and if so, what was the big deal? Even though I skew heavily organic in my shopping and eating, it had never occurred to me to object to an organically raised tomato or cabbage grown from the seed of a nonorganically grown plant. I assumed organic cultivation rendered its origins moot.

Over the course of two days of talking to seedheads from across North America, I discovered that there’s more to organic food than what’s aboveground. Organic farmers want organic seed for the same reason they want to grow their crops organically: They prefer seeds not produced with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other tools of industrial agriculture. Federal guidelines set in 2000 require the use of organic seed in organic production, but farmers are allowed to use conventional seed if it is not available commercially. Many certified growers still avail themselves of that loophole—there just aren’t enough good sources of these seeds.

This is one problem Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still, who founded Adaptive Seeds on their five-acre organic farm in Sweet Home, Ore., are addressing. The bigger issue is that there aren’t enough varieties of wheat, lettuce, corn, or anything else, really, bred specifically for organic production.

“The basic adage in plant breeding is that you breed in the environment of intended use,” explained Micaela Colley, OSA’s executive director. Conventional seeds cultivated organically are going against that adage, which places organic farmers at a disadvantage. In other words, crop varieties for conventional agriculture are bred to flourish in fields with intense chemical inputs—not just the vast rows of GMO corn and soybeans, our nation’s biggest crops, but also the smaller fields where tomatoes and spinach and other produce are grown.

Related article:  Does the Union of Concerned Scientists's Doug Gurian-Sherman misrepresent GMOs?

According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 84 percent of Americans say they buy organic at least some of the time. But when varieties aren’t bred for organic cultivation—in which roots need to be vigorous enough to scavenge for nutrients and stalks and stems must soldier on without sprays to protect them from insects, disease, and weeds—they’re likely to produce less. Plants grown organically from conventional seed don’t perform as well as they should be able to, or as well as conventionally grown alternatives. The lack of organic seed and of plant varieties developed for organic production may be one of the reasons that organic fields only occupy 6 percent of American vegetable acreage.

Some non-heirloom hybrids worked decently in an organic system. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1980 decision to allow the patenting of life-forms, among other factors, led to consolidation in the seed industry. Big corporations started buying up small regional companies and increased their focus on splicing together traits to create patentable seeds (many of them with genes from altogether different species, ergo GMOs). Meanwhile, many of the hybrids that organic and other small farmers found most useful were soon forgotten.

Read full, original article: Turns Out, the Future of Food Lies in These Old Seeds

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