Organic Seed Growers Conference 2020 - Benjamin Clark
As farmers, we think everyday about where and how food is grown. We manage the complexities of food production so that the rest of the population need not concern themselves with where their next meal is coming from. The small percentage of individuals dedicated to production agriculture are shouldering a burden for the rest of society that often goes ignored, overlooked, and undervalued. Now, more than ever, there is a growing awareness of the fragility and risk we take by concentrating this enormous responsibility to so few people. However, even among farmers, an ever smaller population are concerning themselves with where next years seed is coming from. Many farmers look to the catalogs for next years genetics, and are excited by the newest variety or cultivar, but very few are participating in the process of breeding, selecting, and producing our seed-the foundation of our agricultural society. Fortunately, there are many individuals who are passionately obsessed with next years seed, and the following years of seed after that as well-quite a lot of them got together at this years Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, OR to educate each other and newcomers like myself on what is happening in the organic seed world.
The OSGC is a bi-annual event that is organized by the Organic Seed Alliance, and this year was held at the Oregon State University campus. Breeders, researchers, growers, buyers, and advocates for ethical seed stewardship from around the world all convened on the second week of February under a rainy Corvallis sky. Over the course of the event, an inspiring conversation took shape that outlined the challenges, successes, and obstacles that OSA and every farmer faces in regards to how we manage our seed-especially organic farmers. Several MOA members were in attendance, and a significant amount of Montanans were present to lend their voice to discussions-including a panel discussion with MOA board member Judy Osowitz sharing from her experience growing vegetable and flower seed in the difficult, short seasons that Montana farmers are so familiar with.
Growing seed is the natural by-product of growing food-much of what we eat in the plant world is either the vessel that carries a seed to soil, or the seed of the plant itself. Our relationship with these plant species has irrevocably changed the surface of this planet, as well as the fundamental makeup of our own genes. It is incredibly important that we continue to steward these genetic resources, however our modern industrial society has done a poor job when it comes to preserving the diversity and health of the genetics we rely on. Under the purview of modern science and market forces, the trend in plant breeding has spiraled towards uniformity and overproduction. This has come at a huge cost to biodiversity-in the year 1999 the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that over 75% of plant genetic diversity had been lost since the year 1900. Currently, about three quarters of all food consumed by humans comes from just twelve plants, and five animal species. It takes a few moments of reflection to let the severity of our situation sink in-never before have so many people depended so entirely on such a small number of species. How did we let this happen? As a people, we’ve forgotten about next years’ seed. Except, perhaps, for those people gathered at the OSGC 2020.
Organic growers and producers are used to thinking differently when it comes to food, focusing less on quantity and more on quality in many cases, and organic seed breeders are of the same mind. The attitude of the breeders and seeders at OSGC was clearly focused on maximizing potential, not profits. One of the huge takeaways from the conference was an emphasis on the ethics of seed breeding-in other words, making sure that the genetic potential unlocked by the genius of a breeder stayed unlocked. Breeding seed for organic systems is difficult, with much more demand being asked of the end product-drought tolerance, cold tolerance, flavor, vigor, reliability, pest and disease resistance, and much more. These plants need to be able to thrive in organic conditions, meaning that their growers can’t rely on a spray, or an application of product X to achieve maximum yield and minimal growth issues. These seeds need to live in the real world, and so for breeders that means they need to be bred in the real world as well-and that world can be messy. Overcoming all these challenges takes skill and experience, and deserves to be well rewarded, but overwhelmingly the consensus was that no genetic expression, no matter how cleverly developed, could be owned. Organizations like the OSSI (Open Source Seed Initiative) as well as the Experimental Farm Network presented their case for keeping seed collaborative. The thread of this ethic wove its way throughout the conference-sharing methods, techniques and seeds themselves without reservation, and with no strings attached. It is clear that as the organic sector grows, we do not want to repeat the mistakes of multi-national seed companies, and through patenting or restrictive contracting render organic farmers helpless to an elite, profiteering industry the way in which many conventional farmers are. These plants come to us from the wild and while we’ve tamed them in many ways we do not own them but simply work alongside them-supporting their species as they support ours.
Delving into the details of each and every workshop hosted at OSGC would take quite some time, but certain highlights stand out and are worth mentioning. Keynote speaker Ricardo Salvador, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, gave a riveting lecture on the history of agriculture in our country. Dissecting in brief the absolute reliance on slave labor, the violent wresting of land from indigenous peoples, and the ever growing gap in wealth and power between land owners and those who work the land, Ricardo stated an eloquent exhortation for the need of the future of agriculture in America to not resemble the past. Perspective and context are incredibly important for us to understand who we are, were we are going, and what we want our collective future to be. Organic growers and seed producers are dedicated to leaving behind a legacy of health, equality, and diversity. Salvador’s address to those in attendance struck a deep chord of sorrow for the many wrongdoings of the past, but also renewed the commitment to a future of justice for the people and land-founded on the justice of seed.
In addition to many focused workshops on the techniques of seed production, harvest, and cleaning, there were several policy focused discussions that were significant in several ways. OSA has been actively engaged in the direction of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) recommendations for the USDA’s National Organic Program. In brief, the NOSB is responsible for making recommendations to the USDA for changes and updates to the NOP rules, which are then enforced by the organic certification organizations that regulate farmers, processors, and marketers. Certified organic seed has been living in a grey area for while due to the “seed loophole”. What this means in the everyday sense is that a certified organic farmer can maintain their certification without actually growing seed that is certified organic. Usually, a farmer sources “untreated” seed and then grows it on their organic farm, resulting in a certified organic crop. Most organic certification organizations do not force farmers to buy organic seed, mainly due to the fact that organic seed is largely unavailable. However this poses a whole “chicken and the egg” scenario, where one can ask whether the reason more organic seed isn’t available is due to that very lack of enforcement. The answer to that is tricky. Breeding organic seed takes time and effort that other kinds of breeding dosen’t-because organic breeding methods are also controlled by the NOP. There are methods of seed breeding that are excluded from being considered organic, and many for good reason. Transgenic breeding (think GMO) is agreed upon as an excluded method-in no way does using fish genes to alter corn behavior seem to align with the principles of the organic movement. Other breeding strategies are allowed under NOP guidelines that use many modern techniques, but some breeding methods just haven’t been decided on yet.
Several workshops at the OSGC focused on these issues and the emotions present in these discussions highlighted just how important these discussions really are. Certain technologies can help organic seed breeders make exponential progress in addressing the challenges that organic growers need. However, without NOP approval, these organic seed companies can’t move forward with full confidence that their work won’t at some point be nullified by the policy decisions around these methods. On the other hand, many farmers and advocates are worried that the more new technologies the NOP greenlights, the steeper and more slippery the slope towards conventional practice organic farming gets. The discussion boiled down to a conflict between organic producers concerns about diluting the “soul of organic” and the scientific understanding necessary to discern whether these methods of genetic manipulation are in line with organic values. Basically, farmers and growers simply don’t know enough about genetics to make head or tail of these issues. Phrases like “protoplast fusion” and “double haploid replication” are inaccessible without some very thoughtful context and explanation. Luckily, at OSGC, the thoughtful explanations were easy to come by as breeders presented to a room full of concerned growers about the details on these “grey area” methods. The details are complicated, and perhaps more will be written by MOA about these methods in the future, but the takeaway from these workshops was simple: growers, farmers, and eaters need to educate themselves on these methods and come to some conclusions. You can’t effectively vote on an issue you don’t understand. The risks around this lack of understanding are huge and can not be underestimated-if we as a community don’t understand and decide what we allow in organic seed breeding, we may very well “shoot ourselves in the foot” as the saying goes by handicapping the progress of producing vigorous seed in quantities large enough to meet the ever growing demand for organic produce. This is especially true with grains, as the quantity needed for organic grain growers isn’t measured in seed packets, but semi-trucks (a concept more Montana farmers are familiar with than, say, Massachusetts farmers). It simply makes no sense for a growing organic grain market to depend on conventionally developed and produced seed, but as of this writing the development of organic grains for seed is minimal at best, and even if there was enough organic seed for a farmer to plant a thousand acres of, the price would probably be higher than the price of the land itself-or at least far more than any farmer could reasonably afford. OSA is working towards writing their own recommendations to the NOSB about these methods, and whether they should be included, or excluded, but more participation from the organic community is needed-albeit, only if it is educated participation, and hence, the workshops!
By the end of the weekend at OSGC, heads were spinning with new ideas and understanding, and the passion for this important work of stewarding genetics was palpable. It is worth noting that not just American growers were present, this was a truly global gathering with people from several European and Asian countries in attendance as well. One fascinating presentation on the development of landraces of bread wheat in France highlighted this global presence. Young and aspiring seed farmers were there to learn from the wisdom of those with a bit more practice, and representatives from every step of the seed supply chain were present to network, buy seed, sell seed, and trade. The event culminated with the swapping of seeds that was an exuberant release at the end of the long week-growers traded heirloom and open pollinated varieties of vegetable, flowers, and fruits that they themselves had been stewarding and developing. This cross-pollination of handing seed packets to each other while snacking on the experimental kitchen productions of OSU students and imbibing craft beers and wines truly showcased what these people were gathered here to do-promote and spread diversity while forging the bonds of community.
As an organic association, MOA and its members have much to gain by continuing to participate and attend these bi-annual conferences. OSA is a strong organization with a clear and direct purpose that aligns well with the work that MOA is engaged with. It was exciting to meet many growers and farmers from Montana and nearby regions, and as organic farming and ranching in Montana continues to expand, meeting the needs of organic growers with organic seed will continue to be a priority. Already there has been great work in Montana to meet those needs, such as the creation. of the seed growers co-op Triple Divide Seeds. My hope is that more growers involved with MOA will seek to educate themselves on the important issues that organic seed production highlights, especially in genetic policy, and that we will continue to support the production and expansion of organic seed across our landscapes.
A seed is truly a miracle, full with the potential for life, but for that life to be realized it must be tended and cared for. I saw amazing potential in every workshop and discussion at the OSGC, learned an immense amount in a very short time, and met genuine, kind, and wonderful farmers and breeders. While traveling home from Corvallis, I reflected that my wish for all of us-throughout society-is to care more deeply than ever about next years seed-to make sure it isn’t our last, but our best.
Benjamin Clark is a Quivira Coalition New Agrarian and an apprentice at Vilicus Farms, Havre, MT.