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Is there a difference between conventional and certified organic seeds? Yes. Read on to learn what it means to be a USDA certified organic seed, and why it matters to you and your garden.
The high cost of cheap: conventional seeds vs. organic seeds
Below, we’ve provided a quick comparison chart that we’d like you to share on Facebook or Pinterest to help get the word out about an important issue that most people (including most gardeners) don’t know about: conventional vs. organic seeds.
Now, if you’d like to dig in and read more about where the claims in the above chart come from, please read the remainder of this article!
Nature vs. nurture or nature AND nurture?
Over the years, we’ve grown hundreds of varieties of fruits, herbs, vegetables and grains. Regardless of what we’ve grown, we’ve always used an organic/permaculture approach, which requires a greater understanding and focus on the overall system rather than a reductionist fixation on the components operating within the context of the system.
That’s a fancy way of saying the health and productivity of a specific plant is less about the actual plant and more about the growing environment the plant is in. In our opinion the DNA of a particular plant is part of the equation, not the solution to the equation.
The same principle applies to people: a baby born to a wealthy family in New York City is going to have a drastically different life outcome than an identical baby born into a family of pirates in Somalia. (Granted, if the NYC baby grows up to be a Wall Street banker, he/she might end being a de facto pirate anyway, but that’s a topic for a different conversation.)
75/25: Environmental Factors FTW!
If a farmer or gardener takes a biomimicry, systems-based approach to food production, that does not mean that the components (such as plant genetics) do not make a big difference. They do.
How and how much difference genes make is a matter of debate and depends on a wide range of factors.
We recently read an interesting article about the environments/communities around the planet that give rise to the longest living, healthiest people on earth. The article details certain areas where people live well into their 90s, have virtually no mental or physical diseases/illnesses and lead happy, productive lives up until the day they die…
And they do this without taking closets full of pharmaceuticals or having heart surgery every few years. The article states that medical scientists generally believe that 75% of your health and longevity is due to your environment, and the other 25% is due to genetics.
Yes, you are much more than your genes.
Plant health: 75% due to environmental factors?
Does this 75-25 rule apply to plants and other living organisms as well? Are environmental factors more important for them than genetic factors?
If so, that would mean about 75% of the health and productivity of a particular plant is the result of its growing environment. Or as the case may be, how many inputs are added to make a plant productive despite its growing environment. (We and many others argue that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are the equivalent of a human being taking steroids – sure you might look good in the short term, but what will the long-term impacts be?)
Yet still 25% of a plant’s health and productivity is going to come from genetic aspects innate to the particular plant. That’s significant: a quarter of the pie.
As we’ll discuss, the broader equation is something like this: the plant’s genome (DNA “hardware”) plus the plant’s epigenome (the “software” that controls DNA expression) operating in and responding to the plant’s growing environment will determine the plant’s overall success (health, yield, etc.). Interestingly, the plant then passes on information to its offspring to help them grow better in the same environment.
Groovy! But what does this have to do with organic seeds? Everything! Let’s take a look…
Organic Seeds: A Peek Inside
What is an organic seed?
All USDA Certified Organic seeds were grown in/on a USDA Certified Organic growing environment/farm. Not all organic farms are the same. Some look like conventional farms, they just use organic/OMRI listed pesticides and fertilizers.
Others look nothing like a conventional farm and use no pesticides or fertilizers other than the ones grown and produced naturally on-site. And plenty of organic farms fall in between these two paradigms.
What all certified organic farms broadly have in common is this:
1. Organic farms are regulated by independent third part agencies.
They are heavily regulated by international and national organic policies/entities to encourage practices that are both sustainable and safe to soil, ecosystems, and people.
2. Organic farms are regularly inspected for compliance.
They are inspected by independent third-party regulators to ensure their actions match their promises and adhere to the organic standards.
3. Organic farms do NOT use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
They are NOT allowed to use synthetic fertilizers (which degrade soil), synthetic pesticides that cause a huge array of environmental and human health problems, or treated seeds (one popular class of seed treatment is neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide that over 800 peer-reviewed studies have shown can kill bees and other wildlife even when used as recommended by the manufacturers).
The way your seeds were grown doesn’t just impact the environment, it also has a very real impact on the quality of the seeds you buy and the quality of the plants you’ll grow from them.
3 reasons to buy & grow organic seeds:
1. Conventional seed crops use far more pesticides than conventional food crops.
Crops grown for seed must go through their entire life cycle before they can produce seed. This means they’re in the ground longer and susceptible to more (and more varied) pests and diseases than food crops.
Since seed crops are not intended for human consumption, they’re also not subject to the same regulations and restrictions as food crops. For these reasons, pesticides are often applied to conventional seed crops at a much higher rate than conventional food crops.
This is bad news for farmworkers, families living near the farms, communities the farms are in, nearby bees, birds, amphibians, and other wildlife. Oh and it’s bad news for the water you drink (and swim and fish in) plus the air you breath.
These things impact you, even when you think it doesn’t. It impacts us, too, so please care.
Integrated pest management
Organic farmers (including organic seed producers) are required to deal with plant pests and diseases through an integrated pest and disease management approach. They understand that plant pests and diseases are almost always the result of soil nutrient imbalances or poor plant system design (monoculture, not rotating crops, etc).
So, rather than treat symptoms with poisons that cause more longterm problems, they instead focus on the source problem, e.g. creating and sustaining a healthy overall agro-ecosystem. If they do have to take corrective action, they will do so using only those methods or applications that are approved by the National Organic Program (NOP).
Organic gardening and farming offers a better, safer, more sustainable approach when dealing with complex ecosystems. How complex is a farm?
Well, a single component of the system such as a teaspoon of healthy, living soil can “contain up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes,” according to nematologist Kathy Merrifield of Oregon State University. And we still don’t understand the role and function of all of these microorganisms.
2. Organic seeds will grow better in your organic garden
One thing we’ve noticed (albeit anecdotally) over the years is that our best-performing seeds are either organic seeds we’ve bought or organic seeds we’ve produced ourselves. Now, this isn’t for any woo-woo reasons like a us hiring a wizard to cast a magic spell that imbued our seeds with happy energy.
We think science is beginning to uncover the answers that explain our observations.
Like people, plants have microbiomes and form complex symbiotic relationships with a massive array of microbial critters above and below the soil surface. These microbes protect and feed them and receive protection and food from the plant in return.
Just as imbalances in human gut flora can manifest in a wide range of human diseases and illnesses, imbalances in the equally dynamic, living systems of plants can also lead to the emergent result of poor plant health/performance.
Many gardeners don’t realize that if you spot a bug eating your plant and you spray the bug with poison, you don’t just kill the “bad” bug, you also kill the “good” bugs that could potentially eat the bad bug (not to mention the microbial life on the plant).
Imagine if you removed all the herbivores from the African Serengeti; what do you think would then happen to the lions and other predators?
Yes, predatory insects need food (including herbivorous insects) in order to survive.
The same relationships are true of “bad” and “good” soil fungi, bacteria, nematodes, etc.
As it turns out, plants also have remarkably adaptive immune systems that are responsive to their growing environments. Plants even “communicate” with each other and send out “pest alerts” so that other nearby plants immediately rev up the amount of pest-fighting chemicals in their cells. Plants also share information and nutrition via extensive underground fungal networks (it’s like a biological internet).
As previously mentioned, groundbreaking research in the fields of epigenetics has proven that plants even pass along information to their offspring to help them better respond to the growing conditions experienced by the parents (pests, pathogens, soil conditions, climate, etc). For instance, parent plants that have experienced an attack by a particular herbivorous insect will pass on information to the next generation to help them better repel those insects when attacked.
Of course, all of these interactions require that you allow your plants to have exposure to good and “bad” insects rather than killing them all with insecticides. Or that you allow the mycorrhizal root-fungal networks in your soil to develop rather than destroying/disrupting them by plowing them into oblivion and spraying them with fungicides.
3. GMO/GE Seeds
Unless you’re a farmer, you can NOT buy genetically engineered seeds (aka “GE” or “GMO”). Let us repeat that: there are currently no GMO seeds available to home gardeners.
As Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Senior Scientist at the Center for Food Safety points out, it currently costs an average of $136 million to produce a single GE trait.
You’d have to sell a lot of gardening seeds to recoup a $136 million investment, which is why no biotech companies are currently making that kind of investment into the home gardening sector. Instead they’re focused on the big dogs, large conventional farms who are running fast on the chemical treadmill and who buy seeds plus the synthetic chemicals required to grow those seeds as a single patented technology package.
These farming operations buy more seeds in one growing season than a single gardener could plant in a lifetime. And any time they buy GE seeds, the farmer has to sign extensive licensing agreements.
This is a completely different market and a completely different “technology” than what home gardeners have access to.
Are non-GMO or open pollinated seeds organic?
No. Just because a seed company says their seeds are “non-GMO” or “open-pollinated,” doesn’t mean those seeds are organic. Nor does it mean the seeds are untreated.
So why do some gardening seed companies say “non-GMO” on their labeling and website? Because consumers are frequently ask the question “are your seeds GMO?” Rather than answer the same question over and over, it’s easier just to use a packet label.
Again, no GE seeds are currently available to home gardeners. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have GE genes in your non-GMO seeds.
About those “Non-GMO” gardening seeds…
This brings up another big difference between USDA Certified Organic seeds and conventional, non-organic seeds: genetic integrity.
Have you ever heard of the Safe Seed Pledge? A lot of conventional, non-organic seed companies have signed on as well.
And there’s also the Non-GMO Project, which is attempting to help protect genetic integrity and biodiversity of traditionally bred and/or heirloom seed stocks which can easily cross with GE seeds growing in nearby fields. (Yes, wind and insects carry pollen far and wide, sometimes many miles.)
The problems with these worthwhile initiatives (Safe Seed Pledge and Non-GMO Project) are:
1. They have no teeth.
They don’t have nearly the “teeth” that organic certification has (see below) in regards to preventing and/or testing for “genetic contamination,” e.g. cross-pollination from seed crops growing near genetically compatible, GE/GMO crops.
This is a challenge the organic seed breeders/farmers have to deal with daily, and it’s not fun or cheap for them. (If you buy a “purebred German Shepherd,” you probably won’t be happy if, after the purchase, you find out you got a Shepherd-Schnauzer hybrid with a cedar tree gene that allowed the dog to excrete sap that repelled flees.)
2. They’re not addressing the big picture.
They don’t have any ability to encourage or enforce better, more sustainable (or even ecologically regenerative) farming practices.
USDA Certified Organic: Big Teeth With a Big Bite
If you care about these issues, you’ll be glad to know that the problems mentioned above are both addressed under the USDA Certified Organic guidelines/processes for both food and seed production.
For instance, as Ryan Merck, our friend and long-time organic certification agent told us in regards to genetic integrity:
“Organic certification agencies conduct residue testing on both pesticides and GE contamination in order to comply with 205.670. Annually, at least 5% of certified operations are tested by the certification agencies. Some certifiers conduct much more residue testing but 5% is a minimum threshold.
That said, organic certification is process based. If an operation were to produce organic seeds of a variety that was a risk to genetic drift from GE counterparts then they would have to take into account that threat in their system plan. They could use a lot of different tools to prevent/limit their risk to foreign pollen contaminating their gene pool. Some examples would be isolating the planting from GE counterparts, temporal buffers for pollen dehiscence of the GE crop and the stigma receptive period of the organic crop, and planted buffers surrounding the seed producing crop.
As you know, 205.105(e) requires that organic products be produced without the use of excluded methods defined in 205.2 as GMO’s. In 205.201, the regulations require an organic system plan to be developed to meet the requirements in the regulations. Further, in 205.201(a)(3), the plan must describe the monitoring practices used to verify that the plan is effectively implemented and 205.103(b)(4) require that records maintained by the operation be sufficient to demonstrate compliance with the regulations. Using these regulations you can see that, depending on site specific situations taking into account the threat of cross pollination of GE crops, a certified operation may be required to conduct GE testing of their products to verify compliance.
If an operation has no threat of GE cross pollination then it may not be necessary to conduct testing to demonstrate compliance. Again, organic certification is process based.
This differs from Non-GMO Project certification which is based on an action level of 0.9% GMO. Anything below that contamination level is considered “non-GMO”.
Since organic has no tolerance level, any presence of GMO material in a monitoring test would result in compliance action.
As far as I know, there is no monitoring required of conventional garden seed production other than voluntary testing or third party verification.
For further reading you may want to take a look at PM11-13 from the program handbook.
So, if anybody ever tells you that “organic certification doesn’t mean anything,” politely tell them they’re full of, er, manure.
Stop paying the high cost of cheap seeds!
In summary, we want to encourage every gardener out there to get educated and stop paying the high price of “cheap” seeds.
If you buy a cheap sofa or a cheap pair of shoes, you know what you’re going to get. Likewise, if you buy cheap seeds, you’re likely to pay for that decision in the form of sub-optimal gardening results and varieties whose genetics may not be true to the label. Not to mention the massive, negative environmental consequences of conventional seed production or the health impact on the farmworkers, families and communities where those seeds are grown.
Buying USDA certified organic garden seeds provides financial support for organic farmers and plant breeders, helping to hasten our much-needed societal transition to sustainable food production. Every dollar you spend is a vote towards the future you want to create.
So if you want to have the healthiest, most productive organic garden possible, use USDA Certified Organic seeds in your organic garden. Like us, you’ll be glad you did, and that difference will become more apparent each year as your soil becomes healthier and your garden ecosystem becomes more interconnected, biodiverse and resilient.
Now imagine a world where every yard and farm had a similar approach. Let’s grow that world together!