Summer 2013 Newsletter
Seed has been in the national headlines a lot these days. From a chance discovery of unauthorized genetically engineered (GE) wheat in Oregon to a Supreme Court decision involving patents on seed, our staff has been busy responding to news and events that may impact how seed is developed, owned, and managed in the U.S.
First, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of patent holders to prohibit the saving and replanting of seed. The decision wasn’t surprising, but the case did have merit, as we explained in this Salon article. OSA believes strongly that the patent system is the wrong tool for protecting products of plant breeding. We also believe it’s possible to foster new innovation and receive fair returns on research and development without taking away the rights of farmers and plant breeders.
Second, the wheat event: GE wheat is currently not approved for commercial planting, yet made its way into an Oregon field more than 10 years after experimental trials ended in the state. The incident elucidates two important truths: 1) contamination happens (complete containment is impossible), and 2) current U.S. policy and oversight is inadequate for safeguarding the genetic integrity of organic and other non-GE seed, which we outlined in an Oregonian op-ed recently. We hope the Oregon incident serves as a wake-up call to regulators, and leads to stronger oversight.
Some days the headlines feel overwhelming, which is why I’m incredibly proud of OSA’s work to deliver proactive solutions to GMOs and restrictive patents through innovative organic research and education. Everyday our work creates a future where seed is produced in a manner that supports a healthy ecology and economy, where seed is bred collaboratively for regional needs and nutrition, and where new seed varieties remain in the public domain and support the organic community.
We also have great hope in the next generation of organic seed professionals. This year OSA is investing in their future by leading field tours for the Student Organic Seed Symposium, teaching the nation’s first online organic plant breeding course through Washington State University, and welcoming a new intern, Laurie McKenzie, who recently graduated from Oregon State University with a master’s in plant breeding. From farm field to higher education, we are realizing our vision of diverse and accessible organic seed one season at a time.
Help us change the headlines with a donation today.
My best this summer,
OSA's newest intern, Laurie McKenzie, is a recent graduate of Oregon State University where she earned a masters of science degree in Horticulture. Her degree was funded through the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC) and the focus of her thesis work was breeding an open-pollinated broccoli variety for organic systems using participatory methods. She was also very involved in the NOVIC variety trials and spent a great deal of time managing, evaluating, and presenting results with and for participating growers.
As well as bringing highly relevant research skills to our team, we are very excited that Laurie also has a great deal of organic farming experience. She has spent the past 12 years working for Gathering Together Farm and Wild Garden Seed company in Philomath, Oregon. Her farming experiences encompass all aspects of commercial seed development, production, and cleaning as well as general field and packing shed labor, interacting with all aspects of a large CSA, delivering to restaurants and co-ops, and managing farmers markets. In her spare time Laurie is most likely to be found running around on the beach with her dog, making crafts in her backyard, or cooking and canning up a storm in the kitchen. She is very excited to be in Port Townsend and looks forward to working with the OSA community.
This autumn, Organic Seed Alliance and the Risk Management Agency will release a new publication titled: Climatic Considerations in Organic and Specialty Seed Production in the Northwest. The guide will form the basis for a series of on-farm trainings in seed production in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and will be made available in both English and Spanish.
The Northwest region contains some of the best seed producing areas in the world. In 2009, there were 27,000 acres in vegetable seed production in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon combined, representing about 80% of the total vegetable seed acreage in the U.S. and valued at over $50 million. The growing organic seed market presents an excellent opportunity for organic farmers to diversify into seed production. Seed production requires specialized skills and knowledge in order to produce quality seed of specific crops. Understanding the influence of local environmental conditions and their impact on the feasibility of quality seed production is critical to success. Seed producers face risks for crop failure due to a number of environmental factors. Damage due to extraordinary weather and weather-related diseases can make seed crops unmarketable. Insufficient heat units can prevent seed from reaching full maturity, which can result in unacceptably low germination. Late season rains can cause premature sprouting and seed discoloration. Temperature and day length requirements affect flowering and seed set.
In any given climatic region there are certain crops and cultivars that are best suited to the environmental conditions. The new publication and on-farm trainings will provide growers with an understanding of what climatic challenges they face in their region, which crops are best suited to the local climate, and what tools may be used to modify the local environmental conditions.Here is the schedule for on-farm workshops:
- September 11th at Canyon Bounty Farm in Nampa, Idaho
- September 17th at Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, Oregon
- September 19th at Ayers Creek Farm in Gales Creek, Oregon
- September 26th at Cloudview Eco-Farm in Royal City, Washington
- October 19th at Washington State University in Mt. Vernon, Washington
A Spanish translator will be available at the Mt. Vernon, Washington workshop. Workshop details will be announced soon. Pre-registration will be required for all events. Visit our events page for more information and announcements.
In accordance with Federal law and U.S. Department of Agriculture policy, this institution is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. To file a complaint of discrimination, contact USDA, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Washington, D.C., 02050-9410 or call 1-866-632-9992 Toll Free; or 1-800-877-8339 Federal Relay Service; or 1-800-845-6136 (In Spanish); or 1-800 795-3272 between the hours of 8:30 am and 5:00 pm Eastern Standard Time; or (TDD) 720-2600. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.
Organic Seed Alliance and project partners have just finished planting organic wheat trials in Northern California. On three beautiful mornings this spring, farmer John LaBoyteaux towed his vintage International Harvester grain drill out to plant eight different varieties of wheat on three organic farms in the area. LaBoyteaux, Jared Zystro of Organic Seed Alliance, and David Lewis of University of California Extension–Marin are conducting wheat variety trials in organic fields at Marin Roots Organic Farm in Marin County, Front Porch Farm in Sonoma County, and College of the Redwoods Organic Farm in Humboldt County.
These are large replicated trials intended to help identify wheat varieties that will thrive on organic farms in the rainfed environments of Northern California. Organic wheat production is taking off in Northern California and organic farmers have specific challenges that make it important to identify the best varieties for them. These challenges include weed competition and less readily available nitrogen.
The trial includes soft white and hard red spring wheat varieties, with a mixture of heirloom and publicly developed modern varieties represented. Researchers are comparing the performance of the varieties based on traits including maturity, disease resistance, height, resistance to lodging, yield, and protein content. At the end of the season, the trial results will be published and made available in the Organic Variety Trial Database.
In addition to the on-farm trials, this project includes a survey of small grain production in the Northern California counties of Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, and Humboldt. This project is supported by a grant from the California Wheat Commission.
If you are a farmer growing small grains in any of these counties, contact Jared Zystro to participate in the survey.
A cornerstone of OSA’s research program is engaging with the scientific community to advance organic plant breeding knowledge and practices. Our collaboration with university plant breeders has strongly influenced this expanding field of scientific study, including graduate student programs. Next month, three OSA staff will travel to Palm Desert, California, to participate in this year’s ASHS Colloquium, titled: Advances and Critical Issues in Breeding Cultivars for Organic Cropping Systems and Developing Methods of Organic Seed Production.
The colloquium brings together researchers from across the U.S. involved in organic plant breeding, organic variety trials, and organic seed research, allowing for the dissemination of information and the opportunity to forge new research directions and collaborations. OSA staff will participate in three paper presentations, including: Breeding for Traits Unique to Organic Production Systems, The Value of Farmer Based Participatory Plant Breeding for Organic Systems, and Participatory Variety Trials: Value and Methods. OSA is also a co-author on two poster presentations, including Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture and the Open Source Seed Initiative.
Ten years ago, when OSA started, there were few organic plant breeding programs and minimal published literature on the topic. Today, OSA is proud to actively engage in this growing scientific community.
Originally published in Salon on May 30, 2013. When the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Monsanto recently, it upheld the company’s right to prohibit the replanting of patented seed – handing the biotech giant a major victory. The court ruled that the doctrine of “patent exhaustion,” which an Indiana farmer argued should apply after the first sale of patented seed, “does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission.”
It’s not surprising the court ruled in Monsanto’s favor. Still, the case had merit: The farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, wasn’t challenging Monsanto’s claims that he knowingly planted seed with its protected genetics. Instead, he challenged the way patent law is currently applied to self-replicating products – a worthy effort, considering the injustices patents on seed have sown across America.
It’s relatively well understood that simply using seed with patented genetics – especially widely planted genetically engineered varieties, such as Roundup Ready soybeans – enters the user into a restrictive licensing agreement. Farmers sign these agreements at the time of sale, which includes a prohibition on planting more than one crop. The seed packaging also states that simply opening the bag binds the user to the agreement.
But Bowman thought that by purchasing soybean seed from a grain elevator he had found a legal way to plant seed from subsequent generations. He assumed the seed contained patented genetics but argued that the patent exhaustion doctrine allowed him to plant them anyway. Nevertheless, the Federal Circuit Court ruled, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Mr. Bowman must pay Monsanto more than $80,000.
Needless to say, Bowman is not alone in his desire to use seed from subsequent generations. More than 150 farmers have been targets of patent infringement lawsuits filed by Monsanto. And legislative initiatives at the federal level also highlight the demand. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, of Ohio, introduced legislation in 2004 and again this year to establish a registration and fee system that would allow farmers to legally save patented seed. “Companies deserve a fair return, not an exorbitant return,” Kaptur has said.
She’s right. Should developers of new seed varieties earn returns on their research and development investments? Yes, absolutely. But patents on self-replicating seed – and any living organism, for that matter – are unethical and dangerous.
The law needs to change. In the meantime, there is an important role for the judicial system to play in teasing out the injustices of the current patent system. Indeed, the outcome of another Supreme Court case that challenges patents on human genes will be telling. Read full article here
Originally published in the Oregonian on June 15, 2013. The recent news that genetically engineered wheat never approved for sale was growing in an eastern Oregon field surprised many Americans, including the farmer working the land. Japan and South Korea responded swiftly by suspending wheat imports from the United States. For those of us who study these issues, this latest incident underscores, once again, the difficulty of containing GE crops and the inadequacy of U.S. policy. The federal government must heed this wake-up call and dramatically improve regulation of GE crops both before and after market approval.
How the unapproved GE wheat made its way into a farmer's field is currently unknown. What we do know is that there are many ways contamination can occur. Given that this wheat included a trait never approved for market, experimental field trials conducted by Monsanto are the likely culprit.
When companies want to develop a new GE crop, they conduct field trials before commercialization. Theoretically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees these trials, the vast majority of which are managed under a streamlined notification system. Companies simply inform the agency that tests are underway.
While Monsanto and the USDA struggle to find the source of Oregon's rogue gene, three interrelated problems plaguing the government's oversight process of field trials come into sharp relief. Our observations here are informed by a policy analysis we conducted on another GE crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa, recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Agriculture and Human Values.
First, the USDA does not impose any firm requirements on the company doing the testing. The companies devise the specific procedures by which they will try to "confine" the experimental genetic traits and thereby attempt to reduce effects on surrounding crops and the environment. The companies also certify whether their own standards are being met. In other words, they regulate themselves.
A second, compounding problem is that the government and the public lack reliable, specific information on field trials, making oversight nearly impossible. As the USDA's own inspector general noted in 2005, the agency often does not collect basic data on the test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown and what happens to them after the trial. Thus, it would be extremely difficult for the government to monitor trials, ensure that performance standards are met and trace back the source of contamination that might occur as a result of GE experiments. This lack of basic information not only hampers the government, but also threatens the agricultural industry more generally. Farmers near field trials would never know to take their own precautions or test their crops if they wanted to. The Oregon farmer found the GE wheat growing in his field purely by accident.
This chance discovery reinforces the third, most fundamental problem: the inability to contain GE crops before and after market approval. The USDA promotes the idea of "coexistence," that is, the notion that GE and non-GE crops can exist concurrently and be managed so that neither undermines the viability of the other. Yet the agency routinely approves field trials without even assessing the effectiveness of mitigation practices designed to contain GE seed and prevent contamination of non-GE crops. Effective containment must begin at the experimental stage. Why? Because contamination happens. The Oregon case is but the most recent one to come to public attention. The USDA has approved more than 50,000 trial sites since 1986. How many undetected instances are out there?
Unlike Europe, the United States has no real coexistence policy. Our laws and regulations favor the biotech industry by overprotecting trade secrets of companies and thereby neglecting any protection of non-GE farmers' basic right to choose what grows in their fields and what they supply to their markets.
In the short term, halting existing field experiments on GE wheat is a sensible precaution, given the crop's importance, and the investigation of the Oregon case must be rigorous. To really move forward, though, Congress and the USDA must fix the rubber-stamp approach to trials. Strong requirements for preventing contamination must include enforceable (rather than voluntary) performance standards related to confinement of genetic material, as well as active investigation to ensure compliance. Regulations must also provide for full public disclosure of the GE crops being planted, and how much and where. The lack of transparency hinders the ability of non-GE farmers to take protective measures, and it thwarts meaningful public participation and independent scientific inquiry.
Without extensive regulatory improvements, the integrity of U.S. agriculture will continue to be threatened.
The Farm Bill process this year has provided a tedious familiarity: The Senate passes its version of the bill, which is friendlier toward organic programs than the House’s version, and then the House fails to pass any bill at all. What happened last year (or, rather, January 1st of this year) is that Congress passed a Farm Bill extension that didn’t contain many organic programs, including the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, Organic Data Initiative, and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. This extension ends in September.
This week the Senate Majority Leader asserted that the Senate won’t pass another extension, and called on the House to pass the Senate’s version of the bill. OSA would like to see that happen, since, as mentioned above, the Senate’s bill better supports organic agriculture and restores funding for some important organic programs that were left out of the extension. But it’s unlikely the House will do that, and so the path forward is still very uncertain.
What is certain is that Sen. Tester’s classical breeding amendment was unsuccessful. OSA worked hard to once again gather more than 100 signatures in support of this amendment to prioritize classical plant breeding projects that result in publicly owned cultivars. The outpouring of support was inspiring.
In the words of Irwin Goldman, Horticulture Department Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, public plant breeding is a “relatively low-cost investment that yields huge downstream benefits for agriculture and food production in this country.”
“Farmers and consumers consistently express to us how much they value the efforts of public plant breeding,” Goldman says. “Most of them identify specific cultivars or research findings discovered by public sector scientists as important and useful. And the agricultural industries that depend on our work also value the many students who get their science training in our programs. These are our stakeholders, and the message we hear is that public funding invested in this enterprise results in long-term gains for agriculture and food production in the U.S.”
OSA will continue to advocate for public plant breeding that prioritizes the delivery of diverse and regionally adapted seed for farmers, beginning with a listening session hosted by the USDA's Plant Breeding Working Group. We'll keep you posted as details about this event are confirmed. And we’ll keep rooting for organic programs in the Farm Bill. Please join us by following our timely updates via Facebook, Twitter, and Seed Broadcast.
We welcome your proposals for presentations, workshops, posters, panels, and roundtables. The 7th Organic Seed Growers Conference theme is Innovation in the Field, a celebration of advancements in organic seed and the role farmers play in improving our crop genetic resources. While we welcome a diversity of proposals, those that fit the following categories are encouraged:
- Advancements in organic plant breeding
- Breeding for resiliency and biodiversity
- Farmer-led breeding projects
- New models for organic seed production and enterprise development
Deadline: Proposals must be submitted by July 1, 2013. Applicants will be notified by August 1, 2013.
Proposals (presentations and posters): To submit a proposal, please copy the Proposal Application fields below into a Word doc, complete it, and email to Cathleen McCluskey. If you have any issues, please contact Cathleen with questions.
- Check one: Poster or Presentation
- Title of Presentation
- Brief Description (300 words or less)
- Target Audience
We welcome not only academic sessions, but also encourage advocates, government staff, and others with practical knowledge of organic seed systems to participate. Each presenter will be required to submit a paper for the conference proceedings no later than November 15, 2013. Please contact Cathleen for assistance with the proposal process.
Suggestions for content: We also welcome suggestions for speakers and topics. What issue would you like to learn more about? What questions do you want to see addressed through a panel discussion or presentation? Who would you like to hear speak at the conference? Email your ideas and questions to Cathleen McCluskey in Word format or in the body of an email. If possible, please include: name and contact information (for follow-up questions), suggested topics, suggested speakers, and any additional input regarding conference format and agenda (note: the date and location are already set).
Selection process: Proposals are evaluated and chosen by a review committee with diverse representation from the organic seed community. The agenda is also informed by input received from past conferences.
Thanks to FarmsReach and OSA, California farmers have a new place online to find tools and information that help them improve their seed choices. FarmsReach is a recently launched farmer-to-farmer networking and information-sharing platform. OSA has served as an expert resource in creating helpful new resources on seed, including:
- A discussion board moderated by experienced farmers and industry members.
- A Seed Toolkit that includes many of OSA's resources.
- A Seed Sourcing Tool that will be part seed catalog and part regional farmer reviews and ratings.
To learn more or to join the community, go to www.farmsreach.com.
The Next Generation of Organic Plant Breeders The journal Sustainability recently published an article about the first Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS) and what it demonstrates about the blossoming field of organic plant breeding. Organic farmers need more breeders developing varieties specifically adapted...Read more
Call for Organic Variety Trial Results Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is a proud partner in the Organic Variety Trial Database — the only searchable site of its kind that includes hundreds of organic variety trial results from across the country. The Organic Variety Trial Database is an excellent tool in sharing results of organic...Read more
Farmer Seed Stewardship: Nancy Redfeather & Gerry Herbert Nancy Redfeather of Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i, remembers the exact moment she became a seed saver. “I was at a three-day conference with John Jeavons of Bountiful Gardens/Grow Biointensive here in Hawai’i in the winter of 1994,” she says...Read more
OSA’s Senior Scientist Dr. Navazio Recognized by American Horticultural Society Organic Seed Alliance’s (OSA) Dr. John Navazio has received an award from the American Horticultural Society (AHS) for his book, The Organic Seed Grower. Each year the society recognizes outstanding gardening books published in North America...Read more
Billings Gazette Region's Farmers Not Confident in GMO Safeguards "Farmers in Montana and North Dakota say neither the government nor agri-giant Monsanto have done enough to safeguard wheat fields from genetically modified crop contamination. The comments come one week after federal officials announced that an Oregon"...Read article
Growing Magazine Features: Organic Seed Alliance "Farmers and their supporters are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of seeds and genetic diversity in agricultural seed banks. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) in Port Townsend, Wash., reports that interest in agriculture seed issues is moving beyond farmers and small"...Read article
Slate Going Against the Grain "In one minute, a single person driving an industrial-grade combine through a wheat field can harvest almost 1 ton of grain-about enough food to provide adequate calories to four people for a year. In the same amount of time, California farmer Reed Hamilton, plodding through"...Read article
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“We know system diversity is one of the foundation stones to successful organic production and we have seen a demonstrated commitment from OSA to build that component of diversity relating to seed. I want to ensure my dollars to on-the-ground projects, a place where an emphasis to make an enduring difference is part of the mandate and where my dollars can be leveraged to build a stronger, healthier food system around the world.”