“Oh no, not again” ran through my mind as I looked down at the small pile of carrot seeds cupped in my hand. Sowing the last bed of carrots in our spring and summer vegetable trials was going according to plan, except the times when I looked down and saw electric blue seeds resting on the palm of my hand. Carrot seeds are not usually electric blue, and these weren’t supposed to be either.
The blue color comes from a colorant that is mixed with fungicide and applied to the seeds before they are sent out to customers or potential customers. This colorant is something to be grateful for, in a way, because it tells me and other seed-sowers what they’re dealing with. Fungicides are generally thought to cause an assortment of ailments to their target soil microorganisms and to the humans who spend enough time working with them. Since I work mostly in organically managed fields, my exposure to these chemicals is low, but things slip by without being noticed until they’re staring right at you.
While the companies that produce the seeds try to send us uncoated samples, they can’t always make it happen. Most of the seeds are coated en masse, because it’s one more way to ensure that a good crop germinates just about anywhere. On our side we try to catch any incoming treated seed and wash it, but that’s only as a precaution since our trials are not certified organic.
Unfortunately mistakes, mislabeling, and oversight occur, and fungicides make it onto my bare skin intermittently. Before I move on to the next seed packet, I double check the seed color and I wonder to myself why this is such a pervasive issue despite the ever-growing organic food movement.
As someone working in agriculture, and particularly through my jobs in the seed industry, I’ve come in contact with a lot of seed (no surprises there, I suppose). I sow seeds and later tend them into abundance, but I also keep an eye on the packet labels. Despite the preferences or beliefs held by myself and my colleagues, conventionally produced seed remains the standard over organic.
The Organic Seed Alliance reports on the status of organic seed every few years, and their most recent report indicated that growth within the organic seed industry has not kept up with the growth of the organic industry as a whole (Hubbard & Zystro, 2016). While this may be the case, there are barriers that discourage farmers (and sometimes gardeners) from purchasing exclusively organic seed.
During the process of selecting varieties and purchasing seed, organic farmers are required to purchase organic seed unless it is impossible to find. This must typically be documented by indicating which seed companies were contacted and were not able to provide organic seed. Additionally, the cost of organic seed is sometimes higher than the conventional counterparts.
Beyond the certification and cost considerations, there remains the challenge of seed quality. The organic seed industry has yet to catch up with the overall organic movement, and a gap has formed between the quality of seed that is produced conventionally versus organically. This arises, in part, because “organic” was considered a niche industry or too alternative during many of the decades that saw massive advances in conventional seed production. Individuals and companies that initiated the organic seed movement did so without the R&D budget of multinational corporations. The result is an organic seed industry that is made up of unique, beautiful varieties that do not always perform as well in regards to uniformity or other quality considerations.
Momentum is building behind the organic seed movement, and I am not the only vegetable grower who spends her time in the field pondering these things. But, as often occurs, questions beget more questions: Where will the organic seed come from? Who will run the seed farms when the current generation retires? How can lessons learned in the conventional seed industry inform the expansion of organic seed production?
I won’t claim to have any of the answers but I have plenty of rows to hoe while I think of more questions.
What do you hope to see in the future of seed? Send me your thoughts and the questions that you have about this or any other seedy topics.
Hubbard, K., & Zystro, J. (2016, June). State of Organic Seed, 2016. Retrieved from Organic Seed Alliance: http://stateoforganicseed.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/SOS-2016-report-FINAL-DIGITAL.pdf