19 February 2000

The seed of the problem

Theres a crisis looming with organic seed, as Gilly Johnson reports

IDEALLY an organic crop should be grown from organically produced seed; thats the position of the Soil Association, MAFF and the EU. No doubt consumers would agree.

But this presents the industry with a huge problem: there isnt enough organic seed to meet demand. Nowhere near enough, in fact, according to a recent report from the Elm Farm Research Centre, commissioned by MAFF.

An EU regulation states that organic crops must be grown from organic seed. But UK growers have taken advantage of a derogation to this law, which allows the use of untreated but conventionally grown seed, where an appropriate organic variety cannot be sourced. The derogation was extended last year, and now applies until 31 Dec 2003.

But even with this extension, its unlikely that the industry will be able to satisfy future demand, says Elm Farms Dr Amanda Cook, author of the MAFF report. "The situation is untenable. Unless UK production is stepped up, theres no hope of meeting seed demand when the derogation ends."

For the moment, most organic growers are planting conventional, but untreated, seed. But many dont appear to be doing the necessary paperwork that is required under standards set down by the UK Register of Organic Foods (UKROFS). Official request applications for derogations fall far short of what is actually being planted in the UK.

Some growers will be using organic seed, but given the limited supply, its likely many are just going ahead and planting conventional seed without permission. "Theres a lack of proper policing," says Dr Cook. "If it continues, it could hinder the development of an organic seed industry."

Price is a major issue for growers. Organic seed may be two to six times the price of conventional seed. Not surprisingly, many would prefer to grow their own, or use conventional seed until the derogation runs out. This is a concern for seed suppliers, because of the high costs involved in producing quality organic seed of many different varieties. Without greater certainty of recouping their investment, seed companies are understandably reluctant to put cash into developing their organic seed portfolios – particularly as the organic area is small; in 1998 it was 0.5% of the total agricultural area.

Dr Cook would like to see the blanket derogation come to an end, and not extended in 2003, in order to spur the industry into action. "There should also be a system in place which would ensure that any available organic seed is bought in preference to conventional seed."

The production of organic seed is not easy. Pests, diseases and weeds must all be controlled without pesticides. And F1 hybrid seed, which is used for many vegetable crops, would be extremely difficult to produce organically, because of the chemicals used to promote male sterility in parent lines. A MAFF-funded project, led by Horticulture Research International at Wellesbourne, has now been set up to look at the economic and agronomic feasibility of organic vegetable seed production. But growers will have to be patient – the project has only completed one year of its five-year span.

Organic seed issues:

&#8226 Only 4% of the varieties most commonly used by UK organic producers are currently available as organic seed

&#8226 Main shortages are in oats, rye, triticale, parsnips, swedes, turnips, grasses and clovers – no organic seed is commercially available. Organic seed of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, courgettes, kale, kohl rabi, spinach, sweetcorn and tomatoes can be sourced, but not for varieties which are commonly used in the UK

&#8226 Organic seed is in short supply elsewhere in Europe – and quality may be uncertain

&#8226 Currently, no standards for organic seed production exist in UKROFS. The EU regulation simply defines organic seed as: being produced from crops grown organically for at least one generation. No mention is made of harvesting, processing and packaging aspects

&#8226 Organic seed demand will rise by 2002: for cereals, double; for vegetables, triple; and for grassland seed, the increase is seven to eight times current demand

&#8226 This demand cannot be met at the end of the derogation period unless a massive increase in production takes place.

Interested in growing organic seed under contract? Contact Roger Wyartt of Organic Seed Producers Ltd (01359 270410), or Julie Goult of Dalgety Agriculture (01638 560360).