by Nikos Kavanya
This winter I attended my second biennial Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) conference in Oregon. Upon returning from my first, I intended to write a “travel report” for my community here in Maine, but it was the busy time in the seeds season, and one thing led to another until I had procrastinated way past the point of timeliness.
This time, I am writing the day after my return: still filled with the stimulation and onrush of energy that comes from brushing up against another branch of the organic tribe on the far-flung coast and becoming enlarged by their actions there.
The OSA evolved out of the old network of growers assembled by the original Abundant Life Seed Foundation. It excels at providing cross-pollination opportunities among seed growers, organic farmers, university researchers and extension agents, seed industry professionals and food industry participants. Initially focalized around the Pacific Northwest, the Alliance is seeking to encompass more of the country, with the addition of Aroostook County potato farmer Jim Gerritsen as board president.
This year the conference had two components: a one-day Fundamentals of Organic Seed Production short course, followed by a two-day conference. The latter encompassed a resource room, seed swap, socializing, exhibition booths and a wide variety of sessions on organic seed. Here are some highlights.
Dr. Edith Lammerts van Bueren of the Netherlands presented the concept of ethical values in plant breeding and how that discussion is being held in Europe, as well as some of the new gene manipulation techniques being evaluated. Cis genesis, for example, would be labeled as genetically modified in some systems but not in others. This technology allows for breeding results that would be reproducible in nature but which are hastened by the insertion of a gene into a cell. If our intrinsic values include respect for the autonomy of plants, this technology needs to be discussed. As another classical, U.S. plant breeder stated, “I am working with the plants, not on the plants. I apply selective pressure, and the plants decide where to go.” Now that’s elegant breeding!
Will Rostov, a lawyer at the Center for Food Safety, gave an overview of the lawsuit against the USDA/APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) concerning the recent introduction of GM (genetically modified) sugar beet seed production in Washington and Oregon. This ongoing problem between the transgenic industry and organic farmers escalates when it affects seed production in an area where much of the beet and chard seed production in this country is concentrated; and this affects both conventional and organic seed production. The National Environmental Policy Act, the basis of the suit, requires assessment of the ecological consequences of deregulation (of Roundup Ready beets), but, in fact, no environmental impact study was done. A weed that grows in California can cross with the sugar beet, and this was not considered in the deregulation; nor were economic and market consequences for local seed growers and for producers operating in the international marketplace, where GMOs are restricted or prohibited.
An interesting aside that I learned in a conversation with plant breeder Frank Morton, one of the litigants, is that this lawsuit could have been avoided if the biology used was less aggressive. In the hybrid sugar beets now being field tested, the male line, which spreads pollen, is genetically modified. The female line does not produce fertile pollen. To produce modified beets using the female line, each different variety would have to be individually manipulated for the modified trait. Changing the male line by inserting this trait is cheaper and faster, since the pollen can do the work of inserting the Roundup Ready gene into any existing female line after just one initial manipulation, but using the male line is more problematic for everyone else, since beet pollen can spread up to 4 miles.
Such issues in the organic seed industry led to the formation of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, which got its kickoff at this conference. Of the 13 initial members, two are from Maine and two from Vermont. As currently envisioned, the Association is a democratic membership organization of seed growers and others involved in the seed trade to address issues of mutual concern on business and policy levels. The initial foci are: to lay the foundation for organic seed integrity, including the cessation of GMO contamination on the Federal and state level; to improve the visioning goals of the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) and NOP (National Organic Program); and to increase funding for classical breeding, especially with regard to organic seed breeding. The incubation of this idea has been a long time germinating, and I am delighted to see it surface and start to root.
Many other technical and educational presentations encompassed everything for organic seed economics, managing diseases in seed crops, NPGS (National Plant Germplasm System) and OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) overviews, hybrid production, potato production and plant breeding.
As in so many other venues, the value of the gathering often comes down to the people involved. To conclude the conference, Scott Vlaun of Norway, Maine, presented a slideshow of the seed growers he has been photographing in his work with Seeds of Change. The pictures were edifying and evocative, but even more inspirational was Vlaun’s running commentary on the sustaining work that these farmers do for us all. His respect shone through and filled us. I kept thinking of that phrase of Mahatma Gandhi to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Nikos is the seeds purchaser for Fedco Seeds. The opinions expressed here are her own.
For more about the OSA, including a July 30 twilight meeting, open to the public, to be held with the OSA board at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center, please see Marada Cook’s feature story in this paper.