Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 6, 2012. The Clif Bar Family Foundation announced that it has awarded the first fellowships in organic plant breeding ever granted in the United States. Funded through its organic seed initiative, known as Seed Matters, the foundation provided $375,000 to fund three Ph.D. fellowship students for five years in organic plant breeding. The first fellowship recipient has begun working at the Washington State University Mount Vernon Campus and the two other recipients will begin in fall 2012 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Washington State University Pullman.
As with every agricultural production system, seed is of fundamental importance to organic farmers. However, seed issues in organic agriculture remain especially challenging because of the extremely limited resources that have been dedicated to research and commercial distribution of seeds appropriate for certified operations. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification standard s require that farmers select seed varieties adapted to site-specific conditions including resistance to prevalent pests, weeds, and diseases. However, publicly funded plant breeding programs to develop such locally adapted varieties has decreased dramatically over the past several decades and until very recently none of the funding was dedicated to organic systems. Additionally, the concentration of the commercial seed trade in recent years has constrained farmers’ ability to source varieties that have traditionally met their needs.
A second requirement of organic certification is that farmers use organically certified seed unless certain conditions based on commercial availability make doing so impossible. The ambiguity of the commercial availability provision and how farmers must document compliance with the requirement have impeded consistent enforcement of the regulation. As a consequence, some certified farmers continue to use non-organic seed (although no prohibited seed treatments are ever allowed) while organic seed producers have struggled to develop markets. Research such as that now being conducted under the Seed Matters Fellowships will lead to improved seed varieties specifically adapted to organic production systems and thereby enhancing compliance with the current standards and expanding the market for organic products.
“Organic seed systems are the underlying foundation for healthy resilient farming and food systems,” said Matthew Dillon, cultivator of Seed Matters. “Seed is a farmer’s first line of defense against pests and global climate disruption, and has a huge impact on the nutrition and overall quality of the food we eat.” Professors managing the fellowships include Stephen Jones, Ph.D., at Washington State University, whose work with wheat engages farmers, millers and bakers in restoring their local grain economies; Kevin Murphy, Ph.D., also at Washington State University, who is breeding cover crops and heritage grain such as quinoa and spelt; and, William Tracy, Ph.D., at University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose sweet corn breeding is improving the quality of genetics available to organic farmers in cooler northern climates.
The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), a national non‐profit organization committed to the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic that sees developing and protecting organic seed systems as a top priority for organic food and farming. OSA also researches issues related to the performance of organic seeds in the field including genetic contamination attributable to genetically modified organisms. OSA’s authoritative 2011 report State of Organic concluded that “Organic seed that is appropriate for regional agronomic challenges, market needs, regulations and the social and ecological values of organic agriculture is fundamental to the success of organic farmers and the food system they supply.”
In January, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) announced a $12,200 grant to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Preservation to support the work of farmers who produce organic seeds. In recent years, organic growers have become increasingly concerned that pollinating bees may contaminate organic plants with pollen from non-organic crops. The project will identify native bee species that are drawn to specific crops. By improving conditions for such pollinators, researchers expect seed production to increase significantly. That would lead to lower costs to farmers purchasing the seed, lower prices for consumers and decrease in genetic contamination.
Beyond Pesticides maintains extensive resources related to the environmental, economic and human health benefits of organic production systems on our organic webpage. For more information on supporting organic production and upholding the integrity of organic certification by improving compliance with standards such as the requirement for farmers to use organic seed, please visit our Keeping Organic Strong webpage and see The Real Story on the Affordability of Organic Food, published in Beyond Pesticides’ quarterly news magazine Pesticides and You.
Sources: Seed Matters Press Release, beyondpesticides.org
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.