Organic Verses Non-organic Seeds

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Are Organic Seeds Required for Organic Certification?

Organic became all the rage about the turn of the century when Millenials took control of much of the food consuming population. The popularity of the healthy supermarket chain, Whole Foods fueled the "organic is healthy" fires. Certified organic seeds for crops and other organic agricultural uses has been a long-standing problem within the organic industry.

Both seed availability and debates over organic vs. non-organic seed production systems equally play a part.

What it Means to be Certified

The National Organic Program (NOP) requires crop and plant producers to use organic seeds, annual seedlings and planting stock within their operations. By definition, organic seeds refer to seeds that are untreated or treated only with allowed substances found on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

If growers plant seed treated with a prohibited substance, the land itself must wait three years in order to become certified. NOP considers planting treated seed the same as applying the prohibited substance directly to the soil.

Exceptions to the NOP Organic Seed Policy

Despite the restrictions imposed by the NOP, there are very specific instances when the requirements of the National Organic Program can be ignored:

  • An organic producer is allowed to use non-organically produced, untreated seeds and planting stock to produce an organic crop if there is no organic seed variety commercially available in his or her area.
  • Organically produced seed must, without exception, be used if the crop in question is an edible sprout or an annual transplant.

The Organic Seed Debate

Because NOP guidelines dictate that you must use organic seeds unless the organic variety is unavailable, a good faith effort is required on the part of the grower to locate organic seed for their use.

Because organic seeds aren't always available, the majority of organic growers are in agreement that the exception policies are fair. However, some growers who work hard to find organic seed, along with consumers who feel strongly about "going organic," from the soil up, don't agree with the exceptions.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) points out that development of the organic seed industry, along with the increased commercial availability of organically grown seeds, is key to assuring organic seed use by growers.

What If You Can't Find Organic Seed?

An organic certification agent can grant the rights to use alternative seed when an organically grown variety is commercially unavailable. However, a grower must follow some rules to use non-organic seed.

  • A grower must make a good faith effort to find and use organic seed before turning to non-organic seed. This includes contacting a minimum of three organic seed suppliers to see if organic seeds are available. Written evidence of contact to the suppliers is required and may include letters, faxes, e-mail correspondence, and phone logs.
  • Growers who do use non-organic seed must inform their certification agent about the percentage of organic seed vs. total seed used per acre of land.