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Are You Planting Organic Seed?
This article was first printed in the March/April 2010 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Which of these statements about organic corn and soybean seed seems true?
There are some in the organic community, including farmers, end-users, certifiers, and others, who believe that these statements are largely true. As proof they may cite poor germinating soybean seed, corn hybrids with poor yields or other examples of poor performing organic seed.
Having spent 10 years working with organic seed corn and soybeans I would suggest that these statements are more often false than true.
The availability of good quality, non-GMO genetics has certainly declined over the last 10 years. Many independent breeding efforts have been dissolved, bought out, or simply went out of business. Of the breeding programs remaining, an increasing amount of their resources and effort have been devoted to the development of GMO inbreds, varieties and hybrids.
As a result, the over-all volume of non-GMO genetics has certainly declined. This fact, however, does not necessarily mean that the remaining pool of non-GMO genetics is of inferior quality. Proof can be seen by looking at the performance of organic corn and soybean genetics already in use by organic farmers. Organic seed providers have their own data, but their data is supported by trials at public institutions and state trials, in states as diverse as North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Some have expressed concern as to if there is sufficient quantity of organic seed corn and soybeans. While some field crops have little or no organic seed supplies, that is certainly not the case with corn and soybeans. Popular soybean varieties and corn hybrids may sell out, but several organic seed companies have supplies of good hybrids and varieties well into planting season. In fact, several organic seed companies are troubled by an over-supply of organic seed corn.
Organic farmers have several competing companies to choose from. Some organic seed suppliers operate on a regional basis, and some on a national basis. Some suppliers offer significant field services after the sale, while others offer little service after the sale.
Organic seed corn and soybeans are often higher in price than conventional seed, but in many cases the difference may be as little as 10 – 25%. Organic farmers who shop around can find “specials” offered by organic seed suppliers, and buy good organic seed corn for less than conventional seed. Even when organic farmers pay a top price for organic seed corn and soybeans, it is quite probable that an organic farmer will pay a lower percentage of their crop income for seed than will a conventional farmer buying conventional seed.
If all of the organic farmers in the U.S. were to plant organic seed corn and soybeans, would there be enough organic seed available? The answer is yes, and it could happen rather quickly. It would only take an additional 25 to 30,000 units (what unit are we talking about?) to supply all the U.S. organic corn acres with organic seed. Most organic seed providers today are not at their production capacity, and many have organic seed producers who would gladly increase their acres.
Concern over GMO contamination seems to have grown recently. While this concern is understandable, the solutions are not readily apparent. Various proposals have been put forward to eliminate or reduce GMO contamination. Some have focused on the seedstock used. While some soybean and corn seedstock may be contaminated, the reality is that contamination is often very low (i.e. less than 0.10%). Seedstock developers and providers do make mistakes. However, it is in their self-interest to keep their seedstock free of over-types, GMO or otherwise, and many providers do a good job.
Some GMO contamination solutions have concerned seed production practices. Suggestions have included greater isolation distances, and additional testing of seed before it is offered for retail sale. While these suggestions are useful, they can not completely overcome the huge cloud of GMO pollen that results from 80+% of conventional acres being planted to GMO corn. Organic farmers can avoid significant amounts of GMO pollen by planting later and increasing isolation distances but these steps will not guarantee a GMO free crop. Even if organic seed growers use non-GMO seedstock and good organic production practices they cannot be expected to produce a seed crop totally free of GMO contamination.
Probably the best hope for a workable solution to the GMO issue is the continued development of one or more of the “GMO-blocking” tools. These tools can “block” GMO pollen from contaminating an organic field and will allow the organic farmer to grow an organic grain crop with assurance that any GMO contamination will be very minimal. At least one supplier will have some organic seed incorporating a “GMO blocking” tool for retail sale in the next 2 to 3 years.