Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Dirty Little Secret of Organic Seeds

It was shocking, actually. And the person who said it was in a position to know. It was at the recent Organicology conference, during a panel discussion on managing the threats posed by genetically engineered crops.

“The dirty secret of the organic seed industry is that seeds are getting contaminated (with genetically modified organisms or GMOs) and are getting sold to growers,” said Matthew Dillon, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. In other words, farmers and gardeners may be unwittingly buying GMO-tainted seeds when they think they’re buying an organic, and thus non-GMO, product.

There are myriad reasons that this happens, from the expense that testing adds to a low-margin crop like seeds to the fact that declaring the presence of GMOs in a seed catalog would make some farmers and gardeners refuse to buy it. “GMOs are an ‘excluded method’ in an organic program,” Dillon said, “It could threaten the farmer’s certification to ‘knowingly’ plant seed with GMO presence.”

These same farmers may be selling their crop to companies (like food processors) that test for GMO presence and so their crop will be unmarketable, he added. Plus there’s the fear, as happened with a canola farmer in Canada named Percy Schmeiser, that Monsanto might sue them for illegally planting the company’s patented genetics.

The protection of organic crops also depends on the active participation of conventional growers. “People who grow commodity crops don’t have a lot of time to do management of their crops and they get sloppy,” said Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. And the large scale of commodity growers swamps the smaller plantings of most organic growers.

The difficulty is multiplied when organic growers depend on insects and pollen in the environment to grow their crops, since insects might have a range of one to three miles and wind-blown pollen can fly from one-and-a-half to six miles. And in a cramped environment like the Willamette Valley, it means that keeping crops free of contamination becomes next to impossible without strict oversight.

The impact of contamination on organic farmers can be devastating, from rejected shipments to a loss of premiums and, worst of all, the erosion of confidence on the part of consumers. The solution, according to Ken Roseboro, editor of the Non-GMO Report, is to establish enforceable standards in the industry based on strict thresholds and verification.

The bottom line? According to Dillon: “Without seed integrity, food integrity is impossible.”

This post won the Culinate.com editors' award in the "Almost Spring Blogging Contest" as the post of the week! Thanks, guys!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for these posts. I wasn't able to attend and both enjoy and appreciate reading what was discussed.

Kathleen Bauer said...

I felt lucky to have been there. Great topics, great people!