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New Opportunity for Canterbury Farmers

Two articles By Jocelyn McIlraith jemcilraith@xtra.co.nz published in Canterbury Farming

Part One

The EU Regulation 2092/1991 and the USA (United States of America) NOP (National Organics Programme) requiring the use of organically produced seed in organic production systems, is providing new opportunity for Canterbury farmers.

Interest in organic vegetable and pasture seed multiplication has been stimulated by EU seed houses approaching New Zealand seed multiplication companies offering considerable premiums for organic seed over conventional prices, (some guaranteed for multi-year periods). Such crops are considered a useful addition to the typical Canterbury farmer’s crop rotation as well as providing a potentially high value crop.

However, organic production raises questions about what determines organic seeds, and how should seed and crop quality be established.

The different mindsets of the non-organic and organic sectors were highlighted at the first scientific conference on organic seed production held in Rome in July. Jointly organised by IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), and ISF (International Seed Federation), conference attendees examined mutual challenges and opportunities for the organic agriculture and seed sector.

Charles Merfield and Tim Chamberlain, awarded a Lincoln Foundation grant to travel to the EU to study organic vegetable seed production and computer vision guidance for agriculture, also attended the conference. Charles is a PhD student researching organic carrot seed production. Tim is an organic farmer growing a range of organic vegetable seed crops as part of his farms cropping and livestock system.

Merfield and Chamberlain met with key industry organisations in the UK involved in the organic vegetable seed market, and with scientists conducting research relating to organic vegetable seed production. They also met manufacturers of interrow hoe and computer vision guidance systems (CVGS).

“The conference and discussion we held confirmed that organic vegetable seed is a potentially high value crop but with commensurate high risk because of a large number of unknowns,” Merfield said.

“Successful seed production is reliant on a partnership between the farmer and the NZ seed multipliers to bring equal amounts of expertise to the field.

“But, even with this partnership there are still the unknowns such as in the areas of pest and disease control, for which there are few organic alternatives to the synthetic chemical controls available to the non-organic producer. As vegetable seed crops often face quite different pest and disease problems than as food crops, success in growing a food crop is no guarantee of success in producing a seed crop.”

The organic seed market

Merfield said a clear demarcation exists between the developed and developing countries. “The difference in issues between the two was so stark the conference could have been viewed as two separate, intertwined conferences such were the lack of cross over issues.

“In the developed world, vegetable seed production is a highly specialist activity, especially for F1 hybrid production, and where large seed breeding and multiplication companies (seed houses) often specialise in certain groups of vegetable species.

“The developing countries are much more diversified but with farmers in subsistence, sub-subsistence or subsistence plus limited cash crop production.”

EU legislation and the political and economic climate

Vegetable seed production is a ‘difficult’ business; it involves complex techno/biological issues in terms of plant breeding, especially for F1 hybrids. “The time from the initiation of breeding of a new cultivar and its final stabilisation can be over a decade with many failures along the way. The multiplication process can easily exceed four years, while the final market of delivering fresh vegetables to consumers is subject to year to year vagaries.”

Because of a lack of understanding of the organic movement, and the 1991 regulation that organic seed be used in organic production systems, Merfield said some EU seed houses have decided not to become involved in the production of organic seed. “However, those large seed houses that are currently involved are seriously committed to make it a success, along with other seed resellers who generally have a philosophical commitment to organics and also see the potential of such niche markets.”

Part Two

The term ‘organic seed’ was given a clear definition at the first scientific conference on organic seed production in Rome as meaning seed produced under an organic production system, ideally one that is certified as opposed to meaning a cultivar that has been bred to perform optimally in organic systems.

“This differentiation is important,” Merfield said, “because the organic movement’s long term desire is to have organic seed and organic cultivars that have been produced in an organic breeding system.”

For large seed houses to implement such a system, it could entail two possibly entirely separate, production systems from initial breeding to final bulking up.

“The organic philosophy also desires seeds to be produced on farm using locally adapted cultivars, rather than a reliance on a limited number of large companies that breed, multiply and sell seeds, especially hybrid cultivars that do not breed true and cultivars that are protected by plant variety rights.”

Merfield said that such a desire is going to be much easier to meet in arable and pastoral, and self sufficient situations in developing countries where on farm seed saving and selection is not significantly more difficult than equivalent crop production. For vegetables, on farm seed production and breeding is more problematic.

“The existence of the specialist vegetable seed breeders and multipliers is evidence of improved efficiencies due to separation of crop production from breeding and seed production.”

Demand and supply of organic seed

Although there is still much to be resolved between the parties involved in organic seed production and supply, Merfield and Chamberlain say there is an increasingly wide range of species and cultivars of organic arable, pastoral and vegetable seed now available.

“The perception we gained is that for arable and pastoral seeds most of the common species and cultivars are now available in sufficient quantities,” Merfield said. “For pasture species, the seed production system is relatively similar for seed and crop production and should not be significantly more difficult than crop production.”

For vegetables, the crop and seed production systems can be very different, especially for hybrid crops and biennials. Both said vegetables have proven to be more difficult to produce organically and their supply is the most limited. “However, with many large seeded crops, (such as cereals), seed multiplication rates can be as low as twenty. In comparison, vegetable seeds can have multiplication rates in the thousands so that only a small percentage of the cropping area is required to produce seeds.” Merfield gave the example of one to two hundred hectares of organic carrot seed crop would be sufficient to supply all the organic carrot seed requirements of the developed world. However, it does also mean choosing optimal areas for growth in terms of lack of pest and disease and ideal climate.

The need for quality assurance in all organic seed

Because some organic seed produced on a small scale outside the large seed houses systems is of dubious quality, it appears that rigorous quality assurance systems developed by seed houses and organisations like ISTA (International Seed Testing Association) are not being used for some organic seed.

“The EU and USA organic seed markets are in a turbulent state, particularly for vegetable seeds, but this is entirely to be expected for any emerging organic sector, especially one that is being driven by a range of market forces, the organic movements wishes, and corralled by USA and EU agricultural and organic legislation,” Merfield concluded. “However, we believe that organic seed production will move from experimental to practical for most crops within five years.”

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Copyright Timothy P. Chamberlain. Page last modified on 5 January, 2005