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Organic seed expert: Phil Winteregg

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phil wintereggQ:  What does it mean if a seed is organic? How does this differ from treated, untreated, and genetically modified seeds?

A:  Let me start with the non-organic seed.  Most seed is produced by growing plants using conventional growing methods, which may include the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and the like. 

Treated seed refers to seed that is 'treated' just before packaging, usually by dusting, with an USDA approved chemical to help overcome common issues that can affect germination and early plant growth.  These chemicals are usually designed to fight off fungal attracts, but may also have additional properties to ward off bacteria or insect damage.  This class of chemicals is designed to break down quickly in the soil, usually within days or weeks of planting.  When planted in less than ideal conditions, many types of plants can have serious problems.  Groups such as legumes (many beans, peas), zea mays (corn), cucurbita (squash, pumpkin), and cucumis (cucumber) are perhaps the most commonly treated seeds, as they will often experience problems such as germination failure or 'damping off' (a fungal attack) early in their plant life when planted in conditions that are too cool and/or wet. 

Untreated seed is only different from Treated seed in that it has not been given this final chemical application.  This class of seed is, again, usually grown using conventional commercial growing methods.  When Certified Organic seed is not available, most organic certification organizations in the US will accept the use of Untreated seed, but only as a 'plan B.'

Certified Organic seed is produced by a certified organic grower, so it has not been exposed to any chemicals throughout the growth in the field, the harvesting of the seed, and processing.  As a seed distributor that handles all three types of seed, we have separate stainless steel equipment dedicated to handling just the organic seed, as well as for the treated and untreated, so that the potential of cross-contamination between the three types is nearly impossible.

GMO (genetically modified organism), or Genetically Modified Seed, is seed that has had foreign genetic material artificially inserted into its DNA.  The most commonly known type of this seed is often called “Roundup Ready”, as it has a resistance to the use of glysophate to make weed control easier for the grower.  Because of the tremendous costs involved, GMO seed is normally found just in large commercial crops, such as cotton and soy bean.  In theory, the GMO process can hold great promise for advancement, such as adding critical nutrients to rice for use in poor SE Asian regions.  However, very little is known about the long-term impact on our environment, flora and fauna, or on us as consuming humans, and we're already seeing some warning signs there may be problems.  As such, many seed companies including ours have signed on to the 'Safe Seed Pledge', stating that we will not knowingly sell GMO seed.  We simply don't know enough to want to promote use of this type of technology, which appears to simultaneously hold so much potential promise and danger.

I'd like to clear up one other issue many customers often ask about, and that is the difference between GMO and hybrid seed.  While the GMO process takes totally foreign genetic material and inserts it artificially, hybrid seed is created by cross-pollinating two or more varieties, usually of the same species.  This mimics a naturally occurring process that is evidenced in nature all the time.  However, hybrid seed is produced using very controlled methods to ensure extremely consistent results.  In most cases, hybrids will not reproduce themselves well, so the seed needs to be recreated through cross-pollinating for every crop.  This is why hybrids are so much more expensive than open-pollinated varieties.  By the way, it is possible to find hybrid seed that is also Certified Organic.

Q: What are some of the main benefits of planting organic seeds? Are there any drawbacks?

A: Just like with any other organic product, organic seed reduces our direct exposure to chemicals, however the greater impact is the reduction of use of chemicals in our fields.  It is also likely to be grown using sustainable agriculture methods, which is very beneficial.  Although the small trace of chemical that could be present in a non-organic seed would be seriously diluted in a final mature crop, the use of organic seed becomes more important when used for  'young' crops where this dilution would be minimal.  Examples of these would be growing micro- or baby-greens, or especially the production of sprouts.  Our entire line of seed for sprouts is organic.

As far as any drawbacks, the use of any untreated or organic seed means the grower or home gardener will need to be more diligent to plant the seed in optimal conditions.  If you've never used untreated bean or pea seed, for instance, and your first experience with organic seed results in failure, your results may not be due to poor seed, but poor growing conditions.  Where a treated seed my survive these conditions and still germinate and grow, an organic or untreated seed may fail.  Just be sure you understand what your crops need for successful germination and early growth, and pay close attention to your long-term weather forecasts as you plan your planting times.  As much as is possible, we provide optimal soil temperatures for germination (note I didn't say air temperature), to help our folks know what their seed will require.

Q:  Do most retail outlets that sell non-organic seeds sell organic seeds as well? If not, what is the best way to find organic seeds?

A:  Until recently, certified organic seed was found mostly through specialty mail-order companies.  We've seen a shift by the mainline seed companies towards offering a limited line of basic seed varieties as certified organic.  These are now often seen in stores as they respond to the ever increasing demand for organic products and reduction of the use of chemicals.  With the explosion of e-commerce, it is now fairly easy to go online and find companies such as ours that offer a much broader range of organic seed. 

How much this availability will increase in the future is dependent on demand.  If the market keeps going in its current direction, I would expect availability to continue to grow.  However, as with any trendy product, we've seen some producers and distributors put a fairly high premium on organic seed.  Although organic is, by the very nature of its production, generally a bit more expensive, some of the elevated prices I've seen are difficult to explain.  I'm fearful this will suppress the very demand we need to help promote organic seed and organic agriculture.  

Q: What top 5 factors should people consider when they are trying to decide what type of organic seed to plant?

A:  First and foremost is to work backwards when planning.  What do you want to produce from your garden or field?  This will help you in figuring the types of crops and the quantity of seed you'll need. 

Are the types of crops you want suitable for your area?  We're here in SE New Mexico, with a fairly harsh climate and soil, so even though I may want a big batch of some type of vegetable or herb, if it won't easily grow in my area, I either need to figure out how to compensate for my area's challenges or forget growing it.  If you want to grow organic, but the crop you want to grow will be nearly impossible to grow without heavy chemical use, maybe you'll need to rethink your choice.  Often hybrids can be more disease or insect resistant, and now that we're beginning to see a few offered as organic, this may be a choice for some difficult situations.

How do your crops complement each other?  Can you increase efficiency by combining spring and fall crops and get double usage of a spot in your field or garden?  Are you going to create a headache for yourself by planting crops that will all need to be harvested at the same time?  Do you have a number of very tall crops (such as corn) that may create too much shade for their neighbors?

Do you homework.  Research the requirements of the crops you want to grow, know their needs and weaknesses.  Be prepared to handle the known, likely issues that may arise.  Especially if you are using organic methods, prevention and early intervention are far easier than dealing with a full-blown outbreak of insects or disease.  Prepare the soil for the specific crops you'll be growing—not all vegetables and herbs like the same soils or nutrient levels.

Plan ahead for harvest.  How are you going to deal with the crops as they come in?  I don't know how many times I've seen someone grow a huge crop, far more than they (or their friends and neighbors) could ever use.  Know the options for usage and storage.  You may be surprised at how easy it is to be able to enjoy your harvest all year long.

Most seed companies carry books that can be useful in dealing with all of these issues.  Your local library, agriculture office, quality garden center, or master gardener program can also be very helpful.  I've recently seen a dramatic increase on the internet for reference, self-help, and garden planning sites that are also very good.