Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director

Seeds are the starting point for almost everything we do on our farms and in our gardens. Quality, vital seeds are fundamental to agriculture as a whole. Throughout history, maintaining a supply of seeds was almost as important as the harvest itself, because the seed supply assured that everything was ready for the next year.

Early this year, in quick succession, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack moved to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa and sugar beets – i.e., to allow their planting without restriction. Federal courts recently required USDA to do Environmental Impact Statements on these crops, but that didn’t really impact the decision. The courts may still weigh in on these issues, but the push is definitely toward just planting GE crops.

What’s interesting is that Secretary Vilsack, for the first time, acknowledged that a conflict exists between those growing GE crops and those growing organic crops, and that USDA should try to help find a way to resolve this conflict. Vilsack has started using the term “co-existence,” although I don’t think that he fully grasps how hard it will be to have GE crops growing near organic crops. For many crops – canola, alfalfa and beets included – co-existence is not a real option.

The National Organic Coalition (NOC) represents a number of U.S. groups, including MOFGA, in these conversations. The NOC lists seven principles that USDA should address in making decisions about GE crops. They include banning promiscuous GE crops (such as canola, alfalfa and beets) that spread their pollen easily; labeling foods containing GE ingredients; and studying long-term health and environmental impacts of GE crops. So far, these aren’t even among the issues USDA wants to discuss.

One good effort that does seem to be moving forward is preserving some “clean” seeds – that is, seeds that aren’t cross contaminated with GE varieties. Secretary Vilsack says he wants to revitalize this effort so that farmers have at least some choice.

That’s good, but it’s not enough.

As we’re planting our gardens and our farm fields this year, we must support the farmers who are producing organic seeds. They are the ones who are, most directly, grappling with the issues of contamination from GE crops. Your seed order is the most direct way to support them.

We need to continue to let USDA, and the White House, and Congress, know that we want true choice, which means they have to help prevent a contaminated seed supply. Write Secretary Vilsack, the President, our Congressional delegation. Their decisions are allowing unlabeled GE seeds, and crops, to permeate our food supply.

Finally, it’s time to take some direct responsibility for our own seed supply. Is there a variety that you particularly like to eat or grow? Take on the challenge of saving some seed yourself this year, and then share it with others. You can pick an easy crop (peas, beans) or try something a little more complicated (tomatoes). There are some great resources – Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed is my favorite, but there are others as well. Once you have a variety you like, share it with others, and keep it alive.

Ultimately, that’s going to be a big part of the solution. We need seed savers in every corner of the country so that we can be sure a real alternative to GE crops exists. It’s not going to happen without us each doing our part.

Happy planting!