Posted  27 Apr, 2020 
In: Articles

Originally published April 27, 2020 by Canada Organic Trade Association

Seeds are the foundation of farming. They are the repository of the genetic potential of the crops we plant, resulting from improvement and selection by breeders and farmer-breeders over time. As organic farmers, we rely on seed adapted to our farm conditions and climates more than other farmers because we don’t use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We understand that seed can provide the genetic tools to help us meet the challenges of pests, diseases, and plant nutrition.  We need access to varieties that are suited not only to organic production, but also to our local ecosystem. Our challenge now is to develop an organic seed system in Canada that will give organic farmers access to the varieties they need.
We know that some conventional seeds perform well in organic systems, but they need to be organically propagated and the extra costs related to that means that seed companies often have less interest in producing organic seed.
The ability to request derogation and use conventional, untreated seed is important so that organic farmers have access to the varieties they need in sufficient quantity and quality. While this allows our sector to grow, it also means that seed companies don’t have the necessary incentive to ramp up organic seed production.
COTA’s The Market for Organic and Ecological Seed in Canada highlights how problematic the divergent interpretations of the derogation rules are in Canada. Inspectors interviewed suggest that while some farmers make a great effort to purchase organic seeds, others do not. According to one inspector, “Some producers really look hard for organic seeds, others hardly at all, they write down three sources that said no and the CBs accept that… I think CBs should increase the expectation of organic seeds.”[1]

In the US, certain certifiers are requesting that farmers improve their sourcing of organic seed. In their 2016 State of Organic Seed report, the Organic Seed Alliance found that when certifiers request improvement in sourcing more organic seed, farmers respond by using more organic seed. According to EU organic regulation (Regulation (EU) 2018/848), the ability to request derogations will be phased out by the end of 2035. We cannot ignore the direction in which our trading partners are moving, and the massive efforts taking place in both the US and the EU to develop robust organic seed systems.
Another challenge we face in developing our organic seed sector is the unprecedented concentration of global seed companies. Small seed companies are being bought up by multinational agro-chemical corporations.
For these companies, seeds are just one component of their sales packages of agricultural and chemical input, and another means to vertically integrate the global agricultural market for GE seed and chemical sales. Three companies now own over 60% of global seeds worldwide.[2] This corporate concentration of the global seed sector poses a very real threat to organics in Canada.

We also face challenges from the regulatory system. According to a 2013 analysis conducted by the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, in general regulations governing seed in Canada aren’t favourable to the development of the organic seed sector. For instance, variety registration and the pedigreed seed certification system are tailored to conventional seed production rather than the development of varieties that would be well-suited to organic production.[3]

In their The Market for Organic and Ecological Seed in Canada report, COTA compiles the major challenges to achieving organic seed security, high among them being the lack of large breeder investment in genetic advancements for organic varieties in Canada [4]. Royalties paid by organic growers are usually invested in non-organic plant breeding, and often even varieties developed using GE techniques.

Seeds and seed breeding need to be in the hands of farmers in partnership with both public and private breeding programs. Public breeding plays a vital role in developing varieties that have been immensely useful for organic farmers. Research and development for seed improvement has long been a public domain and a government activity for the common good. We also need to support private breeders who are developing varieties well suited for organic and low input agriculture. Now is the time for us to advocate for investment of public and private dollars in organic seed research.

There are interesting efforts taking place around the globe to strengthen local organic seed systems. In the EU, LIVESEED conducts on-farm training in seed production and processing, and tests different organic seed treatments to improve health and vigour. There are also efforts underway in the EU to create easier registration of organically bred cultivars which might be less uniform as the F1 hybrids from the commercial breeding companies. In the US, RAFI works to promote regionally adapted seeds and breeds.  The Open Source Seed Initiative is gaining momentum in the EU, the US, and Argentina. In Canada, Participatory Plant Breeding programs have been very successful, with lines yielding better than the check varieties.

In this moment, we have an opportunity to create an organic seed system that is very distinct from the dominant seed system.  We need to build relationships with regional plant breeders. We need to develop robust mechanisms for increased funding for organic seed development. We need to support the re-emergence of small seed companies. We need to support the next generation of plant breeders. We need to protect, improve, and utilize regionally adapted seeds. We need to train and support a new generation of participatory farmer-breeders. We need to support the scaling up of organic seed production to provide quality seed in the variety and quantity farmers need.  We need to advocate for organic seed by working with the certifiers to ensure a consistent application of the derogation option. The time has come for us to prioritize the development of a robust organic seed system in Canada. The future of our organic food supply depends on it.

[1] COTA. The Market for Organic and Ecological Seed in Canada, 2014. P 39.

[2] IPES Food. Too Big To Feed. 2017

[3] The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, Discussion Paper: Seed Policy in Canada, 2014. P. 4.

[4] COTA. The Market for Organic and Ecological Seed in Canada, 2014. p 41.
About Lisa Mumm:Lisa Mumm was raised on her family’s organic seed and sheep farm, and is a fourth-generation farmer. Together with her mother Maggie Mumm, she runs the family farm and business, Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds.

Lisa works hard to strengthen the organic sector in Canada. She has worked with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network in its efforts to stop GM Alfalfa, and is a member of the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund Committee of SaskOrganics. She is also a member of the federal Organic Value Chain Roundtable and represents the organic sector on the Seed Regulation Modernization Working Group. She is COTA’s representative on the CFIA’s Plant Breeder’s Rights Advisory Committee. She has served on the Organic Connections board since 2012, and spent seven years on COTA’s board of directors.

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