Strengthening organic seed usage

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) strongly recognizes the fundamental role organic seed plays in the success of a thriving organic farm system, and over the years has consistently supported the need to improve ongoing efforts to develop and use organic seed and planting stock. We acknowledge, however, that the organic regulations allow for the use of non-organic seed and/or planting stock when organic equivalent varieties are not available in the appropriate quantity, quality or form.

The regulations also do not explicitly require any sort of “continuous improvement” or increased organic seed usage over time. This is problematic because the intent of the allowance in 7 CFR § 205.204(a) to use non-organic seed under certain conditions was to provide a transition time for the industry while the production of organic seed and planting stock caught up to its demand. However, 15 years later, the increased use of organic seed and planting stock has been less than robust.

Although tremendous strides have been made in the past decade to increase the availability of organic seed and planting stock, there is room for much greater improvement. Unfortunately, commercial availability has been applied inconsistently since the implementation of the rule, and the level at which producers use organic seed and planting stock varies significantly.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has worked on organic seed policies since its formation in 1992. The history of strengthening the existing regulatory requirements of organic seed usage date back to 2005 when NOSB drafted a recommendation to the National Organic Program (NOP) requesting guidance that would help certifiers and industry uniformly carry out the process for determining the availability of organic seed and help bolster the practice of increased organic seed usage. The final NOSB recommendation was unanimously passed in 2008, followed by proposed NOP guidance in 2011 and final NOP guidance in 2013.

Although the Organic Trade Association was pleased to see the NOP Guidance finally released, we were also disappointed by its content because it left out critical areas suggested and strongly supported by OTA’s Organic Seed Task Force and many other stakeholders. Namely, it did not include any language that would incentivize or require organic producers or handlers to increase the usage of organic seed over time. The response to commenters from NOP was that a requirement for “continuous improvement” would require a change to the organic regulations.

Organic Seed Task Force gets busy again

In 2016, NOSB started soliciting public comment on ways NOP’s organic seed guidance could and should be strengthened to achieve full compliance with the requirement to use organic seed. This presented a great opportunity for our Organic Seed Task Force that actively participated through the development of the guidance to reconvene and take another pass at a better outcome. The task force informed the Organic Trade Association’s comments to NOSB in fall 2016 on a discussion document that explored the needed changes and again in the spring of 2017 on a proposal to not only improve the seed guidance but also to revise the regulations to require increased organic seed usage over time.

This is the first time since the implementation of the organic regulations in 2002 that a proposal to change the organic seed requirements has occurred. Although parts of the proposal garnered strong support, the recommendation as a whole needed additional work so it was sent back to subcommittee for further deliberations. Our comments strongly supported the regulatory revision to require increased organic seed usage, but we also agreed that refinement of the proposal was warranted.

The Organic Trade Association understands the complexity of organic seed issues, and recognizes that the organic seed sector has not yet caught up to fully meet the diverse and regional demands of organic production. Still, in part due to a poor regulatory framework, the existing seed guidance as written does not reflect the progress that has been made in the organic seed sector since the regulations and the 2005 and 2008 NOSB recommendations were written. Since then, the number of companies supplying organic seed has grown tenfold, and more educational resources and tools exist to support the sourcing and planting of organic seed. For these reasons, it is time that NOP’s regulations are amended, and guidance on sourcing organic seed and planting stock is updated.

Take action

The Organic Trade Association strongly supports the further development of the organic seed and planting stock industry, and we are committed to finding solutions to meet this goal without hurting or putting undue burdens on growers. The intent is not to have non-compliances handed down to farmers trying to comply with the seed and planting stock commercial availability section of the Rule. Instead, the intent is to have a regulation and corresponding NOP guidance that will help ensure the consistent application and enforcement of organic seed requirements, which, in turn, will promote the breeding, development and production of a greater diversity of varieties well suited for organic production systems.

In the spirit of collaboration and in support of further developing the availability and diversity of organic seed, we invite OTA members to actively participate in the fall NOSB comment period and meeting, and submit comments in support of a recommendation that requires continuous improvement of organic seed usage. We also invite Organic Trade Association members join us in a conversation about how we, as the organic trade, can better influence the increased use of organic seed.

Questions? Interested in getting involved? Contact Gwendolyn Wyard.

To read our comments to NOSB and learn more about our work on various seed issues, check out the Advocacy section of the Organic Trade Association’s website. //