THE BLOG

The Difference Organic Seeds Can Make

09/23/2014 12:39 EDT | Updated 11/23/2014 05:59 EST
FotografiaBasica via Getty Images

In honor of Organic Week, I think it's only natural to write a blog post on the importance of organic seed.

When most people hear the word "organic," they tend to think about food and environment, but organic seeds are a large part of those things too.

Why does seed matter?

Seed matters because it is the beginning of much of what we wear, what we eat, and what we use in our everyday lives. Modern agriculture has pushed farming into higher yields but unfortunately, has been detrimental to our environment and plant biodiversity.

Seed Matters says it best:

"It's time we sow more good. The last several decades of industrial agriculture have developed seed that is suited to intensive chemical agriculture. While this has sometimes resulted in higher yields, it has come with very real costs. Unintended consequences include air and water pollution, increased pesticide use, greater dependence on fossil fuels, degraded soil health, and the loss of biological and genetic diversity. These are facts."

So what can we do? The answer would be to sow more organic seeds, but it's not so simple.

The availability of organic seed is limited, mostly due to a lack of funding. In fact, 95 per cent of organic farmers worldwide depend on seed bred for conventional, high-input chemical agriculture. This imbalance has given the conventional seed research a distinct funding edge over the organics.

To put things in perspective, in a three year period, plant biotechnology research received $54 million in public funding while only $775,000 went to organic seed research -- that's a disparity of almost 70 to 1.

What's different about organic seeds?

Organic seeds come from organic plants.

I know this sounds like common sense, but think of it this way. To produce seed, a plant must complete a whole cycle in its life, during which time it is in the ground for longer than a plant harvested for food would be. While waiting to go to seed, a conventional plant will be subjected to synthetic pesticides for that much longer. An organic plant is not sprayed with synthetic pesticides, which means that even if it's in the ground for the extra few weeks, it remains free of toxic chemicals -- and so does the land around it.

Organic seeds are bred to withstand harsher conditions.

Because organic growers are not permitted to use synthetic pesticides on their plants, the plants naturally become adapted to withstand pests and other natural enemies such as harsh weather. They have to, in order to defend themselves. When organic seed is used, the plants have that intrinsic strength.

Organic seeds have the 'optimal genetics' that organic farmers, and consumers, want.

In other words, the flavor, colour, nutrition, and natural defenses are bred into the seed. Think about heirloom tomatoes. Those are tomatoes that haven't been genetically modified, but have been grown with saved seed that has proven to yield tastier fruit than conventional tomatoes.

Organic seeds help preserve plant genetic diversity.

Organic farmers can plant the same seeds year after year, and conventional farmers cannot. This means that organic farmers can select the strongest, best seeds and use those to ensure that they make up a large share of the crop.

As our climate, environment, and farming practices change, it's important to respond to these evolving needs with an ability to sustain farming systems. This includes having a diversity of seed to be able to withstand these changes, as a smaller genetic base threatens conventional crop through increased disease and pest vulnerability.

One example is that of Goss's wilt, a disease which can reduce corn yields by up to 50 per cent. This devastating disease can be controlled by crop rotation, which conventional farmers don't typically practice, and also by planting seed with genetic resistance. Resistance won't give the plant immunity, but can reduce yield losses.

Seed Saving

Seed saving is a large part of conserving cultural and indigenous seed varieties, and is mostly illegal in conventional farming due to seed patents that prohibit saving seed. The importance of seed saving is outlined in this article:

"Seed saving is central to the ideals of sustainability and food security, especially in times of concern about climate change and food safety. Only open pollinated, heirloom seeds (landraces) have the ability to adapt to changing climate conditions in the time frame that they happen. We are likely to see climate changes that manifest as dry spells and drought; late and early frosts; hailstorms and floods; insect and other attacks on crops; etc. The variability inherent in landraces will provide the basis for the continued selection of crops that are most able to adapt to these changes."

As you can see, organic seeds are an important part of organic agriculture. Supporting organic agriculture is one way that we can help farmers continue to produce and cultivate organic seed.

For more information, check out Seed Matters.

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