Organic Research: Innovations and investments key to sector’s bright outlook

Organic lettuce that can fight mildew and aphids, organic strawberry nursery stock with the potential to transform the organic berry sector, new varieties of organic food-grade barley able to be grown in the Pacific Northwest, an organic open-pollinated sweet corn whose seed can be saved for the following year, and educational grants and endowments to invest in organic’s future. These are just a few examples of organic research innovations that are shaping today’s organic industry and ensuring a solid and healthy future for tomorrow.

As U.S. organic product sales continue to grow by double-digits annually, the prospects for organic are bright, but how rosy the future will be hinges in great part on innovations and investments in organic research today and the years to come.

Seed Matters Organic Seed Student“Research is a key driver of innovation in the agricultural sector. It’s where we find new crop varieties that yield greater amounts of nutritious food, and where we find breakthroughs in pest control, soil enrichment, and water conservation. These innovations also yield direct economic benefits to farmers, rural communities and consumers. In organic research, we also find the roots of connecting healthy people to a healthy planet,” says Matthew Dillon of Clif Bar & Company. 

The organic farmer—and the organic community in general—is used to figuring things out on their own and forging their path. Self-reliance, creativity, and an unquenchable  desire to learn in order to solve the problems at hand without compromising the environment are vital to succeed in organic farming when the vast majority of the nation’s agricultural research is focused on conventional agriculture.

Organic producers often lack improved tools for managing nutrients, weeds and insect pests. Not enough crop varieties are bred under organic conditions. How to integrate livestock on organic farms and develop productive, healthy herds and flocks also warrant increased research.

As in conventional farming, organic farming faces real and imminent threats from invasive species, and both systems are confronted with the need for maintaining yields while reducing nutrient runoff. Organic farmers, however, face a more difficult challenge in developing effective protocols without the use of synthetic chemicals. Not only do organic farmers have to find the right combinations of techniques and substances, the pools of available organically approved inputs and supplies of organic feed and soil amendments are limited.

But in the organic spirit of innovation and collaboration, organic retailers are partnering with farmers, organic researchers are working together, and organic companies, scientists and non-profits are joining forces to innovate and enable exciting research projects that promise to make the bright outlook for organic a reality. 

More organic berries, heartier organic lettuce 

Organic Strawberry

The hard work of two companies is enhancing the outlook for our fruit bowls and salad plates.  

Driscoll’s this summer announced it has successfully propagated organic strawberry nursery stock, and aims to ramp this up to provide all of its independent organic strawberry growers with organic plants. Moreover, it intends to expand this program so that in the not-too-distant future, it will have organic nursery stock for growers of organic blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. 

“We are committed to fully deliver on the spirit of the organic program across all our berries, and see this process as a journey to an exciting future,” says Soren Bjorn, Executive Vice President at Driscoll’s who is responsible for the company’s North and South American operations.

U.S. organic berry growers historically have not been required to use organic cultivars to start their crops. National Organic Program (NOP) regulations provide an exception if organic nursery stock or seed is not commercially available. Although this has been the case for berry starter plants up until now, that could change.

“When cultivars are commercially available, there no longer will be an exception,” explains Bjorn. He predicts it will take a multi-year process to get the 8 to 9 nursery sites in California and 2 more in Mexico certified organic for fruit production.

“We have more than 100 growers of organic strawberries in the United States and Mexico. We have shown that we can successfully raise strawberry cultivars organically, and now we are ramping up commercially, and plan to do the same for our other berries,” says Bjorn.

Notable research successes also have been achieved by Vitalis Organic Seeds, the independent organic division of the Dutch headquartered Enza Zaden, a global seed company that produces and breeds vegetables and herbs. Vitalis, the company’s North American division, is producing and developing varieties adapted to organic agriculture systems to meet the specific needs of U.S. growers and markets. 

Vitalis screens Enza Zaden’s genetics to identify those best suited for organic production conditions. It also has separate independent organic breeding initiatives targeted at developing the best cultivars adapted to organic agriculture.

“We focus on identifying the organic needs of a bio-region or a crop group. We identify the unique trait requirements for organic growers, and work with organic growers to explore resistance needs,” says Erica Renaud, Business Development Manager for Vitalis Organic Seeds.

Renaud says researchers, for example, try to identify genetics that are efficient in nitrogen uptake, and meet organic’s need for varieties that can scavenge nitrogen in order to develop a vigorous plant under slower release fertility systems.

Vitalis is breeding and selecting varieties that are adaptable to organic soil fertility and conditions because sometimes organic growers require traits in a variety that aren’t needed in conventional agriculture. 

One successful example of the company’s research is its assortment of lettuce varieties targeted for organic production. The largest area of organic lettuce production in the United States is coastal California where the crop faces intense pressure from downy mildew and aphids. An organic grower does not have access to the synthetic chemical fungicides and insecticides permitted in conventional agriculture production, so a primary breeding objective for Vitalis’s lettuce breeding program is genetic resistance to these particular challenges.

“This work has been enormously successful, and we have released seeds for their use. These varieties produce quality organic crops without the residues that are on lettuce produced conventionally,” Renaud says.

A big difference between organic and GMO crop breeding is that one form of genetic engineering modifies a crop to be tolerant to specific pesticides and herbicides by inserting foreign genes so that plants survive when such chemicals are used. This has increased the use of these chemicals, increased residues in the resulting GMO crop, and created weeds that are now resistant to the herbicides, resulting in the need for heavier and more frequent applications. Organic breeding, on the other hand, relies on natural selection and maintenance under organic conditions to develop distinct plant traits.

Soil health, citrus greening and more

The Organic Center has a number of critical research projects underway: comparing soil health on organic and conventional farms, outlining antibiotic-free alternatives for controlling fire blight in organic apple and pear orchards, and seeking organic solutions to citrus greening. Earlier this year, it released an important report on the benefit of organic farming practices to pollinator populations.

Just recently, a collaborative research team of which The Organic Center is a part has been awarded a $555,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help increase organic rice production in the Southern U.S. through the development of economically viable organic practices.

The grant, funded by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), will go to The Organic Center, along with researchers at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Research & Extension Center, Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, USDA’s ARS Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center, and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Department of Agriculture. The three-year project will develop a multi-disciplinary approach to developing Integrated Pest Management strategies for organic rice production in the Southern United States.

Several researchers who serve on the Organic Center’s Science Advisory Board are already involved in improving organic plant varieties. Learn more.

Making a difference

Investments in collaborative organic research are making a difference. 

“Investments today in organic research will impact our future farming and food,” explains Dillon, currently Director of Agricultural Policy and Programs at Clif Bar, and Director of Seed Matters™, an initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation to improve organic seed systems. Prior to joining Clif Bar and Seed Matters in 2012, he was founding director of the Organic Seed Alliance, which launched the nation’s first organic plant breeding research and seed production education programs.

Clif Bar funds two types of organic research. One focuses on research that benefits its own supply, such as trials to improve oats for its Canadian supply chain. Organic rolled oats are a major ingredient for its products, yet the company has had to go outside the U.S. to northern Europe to buy some supplies—and at a premium price. The second has been to collaborate with other organic stakeholders to invest in long-term plant breeding research for the future of organic agriculture. 

Seed Matters collaborates with companies, scientists, and non-profits to make organic research happen. In addition, it is grooming the next generation of plant breeders through fellowships to not only improve seed for today’s organic farmers but to invest in future leaders (See Investing in the next generation). The latter has included 13 general grants to graduate fellowships at land grant universities. Its latest investment has been starting an endowment program for long-term professorships.

“For the first endowed chair at a university we reached out to Organic Valley because we saw it as a company sharing the same values/goals. We are putting competition aside and working together to complement each other and cooperate,” Dillon explains. Future partnerships with other investors will make the other planned endowed chairs possible. 

The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) has partnered with Seed Matters on projects ranging from developing nutritious and delicious varieties of organic food barley for production in the Pacific Northwest, to breeding “organic ready” corn that maintains its non-GMO integrity (corn is generally very susceptible to outcrossing with genetically engineered corn), to releasing open-pollinated organic sweet corn.

“We have been able to fund some really exciting breeding projects—projects that we see are both practical and show economic potential,” says Brise Tencer, OFRF’s Executive Director.  The barley project, for instance, expands its potential from being an animal feedstock to breeding for flavor and nutrition for human consumption.

In addition, such developments expand options for farmers for crop rotation programs. Marketing grain crops for local bakers, brewers, and culinary uses, for example, offers economically attractive crop options that can be rotated with corn, and even with vegetable production.

Researchers and farmers: One and the same

The Organic Seed Alliance uses farmer participation as an effective way to select for locally adapted cultivars. These organic plant breeding programs focus on such characteristics as adaptation to local climate or environmental variation, resistance against pests and diseases, and weed tolerance.

As Kristina Hubbard of Organic Seed Alliance explains, “Participatory plant breeding not only helps ensure that new varieties are directly meeting farmers’ needs, it also educates and empowers farmers to be part of the breeding process, giving them the tools they need to begin new breeding projects.” 

To keep those tools up to date, the group holds an Organic Seed Growers Conference every two years to help further organic seed production. The next conference will center on “Cultivating Resilience” and will be held in February at Oregon State University. Also, the Organic Seed Alliance this year released four organic plant breeding manuals that walk farmers through the methods of breeding new crop varieties on their farm. 

The group focuses on developing new open-pollinated organic seed varieties and engages farmers in every step of the process. Scientists and farmers work collaboratively, setting goals, forming breeding populations, implementing effective selection methods, and releasing new varieties.

A prime example is the recently developed variety of organically bred sweet corn called “Who Gets Kissed?” Bill Tracy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Minnesota organic farmer Martin Diffley (Gardens of Eagen) and John Navazio and Jared Zystro of the Organic Seed Alliance worked together to develop this vigorous open-pollinated sweet corn, which means farmers can save the seed.  Montana-based sweet corn seed grower Doug Baty produced the seed that was then sold commercially through High Mowing Organic Seeds’ catalog—with the seed quickly selling out this year.

Another example is a joint effort by the Organic Seed Alliance and Organically Grown Company to breed a new organic variety of purple sprouting broccoli. It is seen as an ideal crop for winter food production in the Pacific Northwest and is gaining popularity as a produce item distinct from traditional broccoli. This research is being done in collaboration with Oregon State University and Washington State University.

Some clouds in the bright outlook 

There are still hurdles ahead. While Driscoll’s and Vitalis Organic Seeds are moving ahead to make organic cultivars available for organic growers seeking to grow certified organic berries, vegetables and herbs, there are segments of organic crops where organic seeds or planting stock of some varieties of crops are not available.

Organic Lettuce“The organic market has demonstrated strong propensity for growth,” Erica Renaud of Vitalis Organic Seeds says. However, she adds, a primary reason why there are still many exemptions to organic seed requirements “is that the regulatory framework is not embedded in the regulatory and certification process. The regulatory language guiding the interpretation of the U.S. organic standard indicates that organic growers must use organic seed ‘when commercially available.’ If not, growers can use conventional untreated seed. Thus, if they are accustomed to using conventional seed varieties, they have no constructive incentive to transition to the purchasing of organic seed.”

To compound that, an effort to create a database clearinghouse of certified organic seed varieties—the Organic Seed Finder hosted by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA)—is currently incomplete. Some companies have chosen not to upload their full organically available assortment. Others have had difficulty putting in their information in the database format.

As a result, the Organic Seed Finder to-date presents a limited view and does not completely answer what is and is not available commercially. This, in turn, keeps organic inspectors from knowing precisely how much certified organic seed is available and inhibits their ability to determine the accuracy of organic certification applications. 

Hubbard notes that the Organic Seed Alliance originally facilitated a working group to develop the Organic Seed Finder, and it is still a work in progress. “Stakeholders are working diligently to improve the database so that it meets the needs of the organic community,” she adds.

More collaboration needed

Working with a broad spectrum of growers to discuss their needs for varieties with specific traits, Renaud of Vitalis Organic Seeds envisions that organic seed breeding efforts could jump forward if public breeding efforts were partnered with the resistance and genetic tools that her company already has available.

“We could all make huge strides if we partnered—cross pollinated—public and private breeding programs,” she says. 

Seed breeding in itself is complex. Seed breeding companies have developed and have access to technologies that may not be available to public breeding programs, although the latter may have access to agricultural extension services. Public breeding programs serve bio-regional growers, while professional seed companies tend to focus on larger-scale growers. If these components were merged, the needs of more organic growers could be served.

In addition, making hybrid seeds more available for organic production is needed to build larger acreage to meet the increasing demand for organic products.

There are presently some smaller organic growers producing open-pollinated crops, while there are a few companies growing organic hybrid seed. Smaller growers understand the organic production model, while the hybrid seed producers understand the nuance of hybrid seed production. A sustainable organic seed system not only requires better adapted varieties, but growers who can grow the finished varieties organically on a larger scale.

Future prospects

Game-changing research is under way for organic production, but no one within the industry questions the need for more research dollars to improve prospects for today’s organic farmers and to encourage more to farmers to join their ranks.

With more and more public programs asking for matches when grants are awarded and more competition for limited federal dollars, there is a clear need for an additional reliable—and sizeable—funding system. For supporters of the proposed GRO Organic check-off program, the answer is clear.

With 50-75% of organic check-off funds eligible to support research activities, the scope of what’s possible could be a game-changer for research innovations.

In addition to the tens of millions of dollars possible from check-off funding, money could be leveraged for matching funds now required in the 2014 Farm Bill [Match requirements for both USDA’ Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative program and USDA’s Organic Transitions Program now require non-university research entities to provide 100 % matching funds (see Research successes in organic plant breeding). Check-offs are highly influential in criteria for public funding concerning research, and matching funds from industry would give organic a set at the table for setting priorities.

Until then, private investments, company initiatives, and collaborations involving seed researchers at universities, farmers and organic-related organizations will keep advancing meaningful research innovations for the organic sector.  //