Big Ag vs. Small Seed

The Organic Seed Alliance fights the good fight on multiple fronts

This story first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Edible Seattle.

Photo: Carol Topalian

Photo: Carol Topalian

Seed is not static. It is a living, natural resource whose integrity is fundamental to a secure food system. That’s an enormous job for a tiny bit of germplasm. It’s the “living” part of the equation which requires careful stewardship. Fortunately, Pacific Northwest farmers, independent regional seed companies, backyard growers, and those of us who eat, have the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) on our side.

Based in Port Townsend, the OSA is a non-profit organization whose work in education, research and advocacy is dedicated to revitalizing seed management skills. You see, seed, and our relationship with it, cannot be locked away on a shelf along with dusty books and research papers. Nor should such a precious commodity be left to the jurisdiction and control of Big Ag, with corporate mandates driven solely by market share and profit. Seed must be cultivated, cared for, adapted and culled for specific environmental conditions—in other words, planted and grown—to prosper. It’s an intricate and constantly moving target.

John Navazio is OSA’s senior scientist, plant breeder and educator, and he’s passionate about the role of farmers within what he calls the seed circle. “Not so long ago, farmers had a co-evolutionary relationship with their crop varieties. On-farm seed saving and crop improvement were not only common but essential practices as farmers routinely selected for a crop’s ability to withstand disease, pests, and environmental challenges as well as flavor, color, texture and production,” says Navazio. He helps farmers reclaim their role in the cycle, saying that, “University and private sector involvement in seed development has contributed a great deal, but have created a field of specialization that has left the farmer as an ‘end user’ of a product, rather than an active participant in the process.”

OSA field trials help farmers identify what crops are best suited to Northwest growing conditions, and which varieties are the most productive; critical factors toward economic success. Seed saving and management skills workshops enable independent local seed companies and farmers looking to expand their market offerings, to add producing an organic seed crop to their business model. These efforts all work together to strengthen an independent seed economy, keep dollars in our region, and improve yield.

Behind the scenes, OSA is the small farm’s best friend. Hardworking farmers are free to work the current growing season knowing that OSA is functioning as part historical archivist, documenting changing climate, pests and growing conditions. They’re like a dedicated research and development department, always on the lookout for improved strains and cultivation tactics.

Developing a new seed strain can take five to eight years of trials and careful selection before a new crop is ready to be distributed through local seed companies. It’s valuable time most small farms and backyard growers don’t have to invest.

Many traditional seed saving and crop management skills got lost in the shuffle during recent generations of “advanced” industrial agriculture. OSA’s top priority is to restore that information gap through a series of workshops, field days and other educational opportunities designed to put farmers back at the heart of a local seed system. Navazio says, “Working shoulder to shoulder with farmers on participatory plant breeding projects, I provide guidance while they make selections that best serve their particular organic system. The end goal is the production of stable and resilient organic seed that is adapted to our region, of commercial quality and—this is important—that are held securely within the public domain; not locked up by privatization and patents.”

Make no mistake: our 21st century food system is complicated. ” Local, sustainable and organic” is only the tip of the iceberg. And like an iceberg, it’s what we don’t see beneath the murky waters of legislation and corporate interests that can really cause damage. OSA is committed to serving as an interpretive center and resource hub, keeping folks informed and involved in decisions that affect our dinner table and our very lives. That’s where Kristina Hubbard’s work comes into play. She’s with OSA as an advocacy program specialist.

Hubbard says, “our advocacy program is critical to the success of organic seed systems because we confront threats to the integrity of organic seed—such as GMO contamination and consolidation in the seed industry—while promoting the very real benefits organic seed systems provide to farmers, the environment, and communities.”

A recent example of OSA’s good work is cause for celebration. In early August, a federal court judge for the Northern District of California granted a petition by Center for Food Safety, OSA, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club to rescind USDA approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets, effectively banning the planting or future sale of this controversial crop. Engineered to resist the effects of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, the patented seed was sold to farmers in a tidy, highly profitable, and environmentally questionable package. Sales of similar Roundup Ready crops promote increased use of herbicides; a dangerous precedent resulting in the proliferation of herbicide resistant weeds and contamination of conventional and organic crops.

But what about those of us who only have a backyard, and not a back forty? Think of OSA as the venerable gardening neighbor you never had – only cuter, more hip and with their very own YouTube channel. OSA’s website, newsletter and lively blog offer a wealth of practical information, growing tips, learning opportunities as well as leads on which crops are sure to produce even in a wonky growing season like the one just past.

Our Pacific Northwest growing climate is one of the most hospitable in the country, capable of producing crops in almost every month. The Organic Seed Alliance is our very own homegrown knowledge base and champion for healthy seed, happy farmers and good food.

A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers

This new downloadable publication from Organic Seed Alliance provides a comprehensive how-to guide to seed saving practices. OSA has researched the most reliable information and encourages the reader to experience their own “reality on the ground” to learn what practices work best for their climate and farming system.

The seed saving guide, a current listing of upcoming workshops, trainings and other educational opportunities, as well as lists of companies selling organic seed and valuable links to other resources are all on the OSA website,

Organicology – “The Study of a Sustainable Food Future” will be held February 10-12, 2011 in Portland, OR. This biannual conference, produced by Oregon Tilth, Organic Seed Alliance, Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association and Organically Grown Company, promises to deliver a dynamic blend of intensive workshops, world class keynote speakers, lively entertainment and a celebration of the rich bounty of PNW organic agriculture.