(June 19, 2014) — Organic food and crops must necessarily spring from organic seeds, according to the agriculture department’s National Organic Program (NOP), but as is the case with many rules, this one is often easier made than followed.
The NOP Seed Rule, which has been in effect since 2003, states that organic food and crops products must come from organic seeds and planting stock or their “equivalent,” except when an organic option is not commercially available. In those cases, the use of conventional seed in an organic operation is allowed.
Kristina Hubbard with the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) explained some of the problems associated with the NOP seed rule during a recent webinar on the subject. She said the organic seed sector has simply not been able to catch up to the rest of the market.
According to a national farm survey of organic farmers by OSA, only 20 percent of the farmers surveyed said they were using 100 percent organic seeds in their operations. They cited variety availability as the biggest factor, especially with vegetables. Hubbard said price was a “moderate or greater consideration” in their seed selection, though price is not an allowable reason for not using organic seed under the seed rule.
“More than half of the respondents said they were interested in either producing seeds on their farms or being part of on-farm improvement projects, especially if economic training and availability are available,” Hubbard said. “I think that last part is especially important to remember as we create a road map for going forward.”
Emily Brown Rossen with NOP outlined the organic seed rule and clarified some of the language, such as the definitions of “equivalent” and “not commercially available.”
“Equivalent” seed, she said, must be of the same type with similar agronomic and marketing characteristics, the same number of days to harvest, and it must be suitable for the grower’s climate. To be considered “not commercially available,” the grower must show “a lack of ability to obtain the seed in planting stock in the appropriate form, quality or quantity.”
The determination of whether or not a grower is making the necessary effort to obtain and plant organic seeds is made by NOP certifiers based on reports from field inspectors. Zea Sonnabend, an organic farm inspector and member of the National Organic Standards Board, said inspectors and growers have to be flexible for the system to work. In the absence of compliance, the inspectors look for improvement, which she admits can be difficult to prove one way or the other.
“We look at seed records and the planting list and generally don’t try to do a commercially available discussion on every single variety,” Sonnabend said, noting that some farmers might plant more than 100 different varieties.
Inspectors ask the farmer to keep records on which of their seeds are organic, which ones are not and where the seed was obtained. Sonnabend said inspectors usually pick a few non-organic varieties and ask farmers for detailed answers about why they chose it and where they looked for an organic alternative.
The report the inspector files with the certifier includes that information along with an overall assessment of whether the farmer has improved in his or her search for organic seed. Sonnabend said it’s hard for certifiers to identify the point where a farmer crosses over into non-compliance with the organic seed rule.
Cullen Carns-Hilliker, a certification specialist with Midwest Organic Services Association, said that a non-compliance determination is rare and comes only after the farmer has first been sent a reminder and then a “condition for continued improvement.” Non-compliance is usually declared, he said, when farmers have shown resistance to the organic seed rule.
Carns-Hilliker said the availability of organic seed for row crop producers of corn, small grains and soybeans has increased faster than it has for vegetables, but agreed with other speakers that more organic vegetable seed sources are needed.
More information on the organic seed rules is available at ams.usda.gov/nop and at http://organicseedfinder.org/. Reports on organic variety trials are available at http://varietytrials.eorganic.info/.