Even if you are a casual gardener you may notice that some of the seeds in the racks at stores and garden centers are labeled organic. So why the marketing of organic seeds? What are the benefits to the gardener? Is it worth the difference in price? Here are some of the facts I discovered.
First, what is organic? In order to be certified as an organic seed grower, the US Department of Agriculture sets standards. The most important are:
1 - The land cannot have had prohibited chemicals used for the past three years
2 - There is no human sludge fertilizer used (think Milorganite)
3 - There is strict physical separation between organic and non-organic products
4 - Detailed records, including an organic system plan, are kept.
The standards for produce crops and seed crops are different. Traditional seed growers are able to use far more chemicals than are allowed than in growing produce. The thinking is that you do not directly eat the seeds that are grown. Brilliant logic, poor science.
Organic seeds differ in the conditions under which they are grown and harvested. Because a plant goes through its entire life cycle to produce seed, it is in the ground longer. In traditional growing conditions, a plant is exposed to high levels of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides that become concentrated in the seed and therefore passed along to the plant that grows from it. Organic seed does not have that chemical load to pass along.
Another benefit that comes with less exposure to various pesticides is a plant that is more adapted to growing conditions without those pesticides. It stands to reason that tomatoes grown for seed with copious amounts of fungicide will have less resistance to fungus infections than those grown in a pesticide-free environment. The stronger plant will mature to produce stronger seed.
Look at the varieties available to you when comparing organic verses conventional seed. Plant breeding and market forces have resulted in varieties that have more to do with shipping, appearance, uniformity, and holding ability than with flavor, texture and color. There are wonderful heirloom varieties available in organic seeds as well as new hybrids. However, just because a seed is sold as an heirloom variety does not mean that the seed is organically grown.
Browsing through the seed catalogs, there are still few organic sources. Very few of the seed catalog companies actually grow all their own seed. Part of the reason is that there are very few suppliers of seeds left and they are very large. You won't recognize the names from the catalogs; the top 10 in the world include Syngenta, Monsanto, Dupont, and Land O' Lakes.
Seminis was recently acquired by Monsanto and was one source of organic seed for many seed catalog companies. Several suppliers like Johnnys and Park, have organic selections while Seeds of Change in Spicer, Minn., only sells organic seed. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, labels their organic selections and certifies that no seeds are treated or are genetically modified (GMO free). Locally, I have found only two organic lines of seeds available: Burpee and High Mowing.
Whether you like it or not, gardeners have a role to play in biodiversity. Thousands of varieties have been lost just in cultivated plants. Large producers continue to practice monoculture farming while the diversity in food crops is being maintained by small producers and home gardeners. Organic seed producers take this role very seriously, they truly are islands of biodiversity in a sea of industrial agriculture.
Look for information about horticulture on the University of Minnesota Extension Home and Garden Information page www.extension.umn.edu/gardeninfo or on the Beltrami Master Gardener site at beltramicountymastergardeners.org. The local Master Gardener horticultural assistance voice mail will again be taking calls, so please dial 444-7916 with your question.