International organic seed regulation workshop at ORC

Thomas Döring & Sally Howlett

Seed represents one of the most important foundations of agriculture. As the carrier of the genetic material it determines, to a large extent, the qualities and quantities of agricultural produce. But in addition, seed is also a focus point for the organic principles of health, ecology, fairness and care. For example, do we have seed available from plant varieties that are appropriate for the specific ecological conditions of organic agriculture? How can organic seed producers ensure good seed health to provide growers with excellent starting material? Who should bear the risks of seed production, and in particular, the higher costs associated with organic compared to conventional seed?

Using organic seed is a natural consequence of the organic philosophy – indeed there is no reason why in the life cycle of the plant the seed should be exempt from applying organic principles. However, because the organic market sector is relatively small and costs in both organic plant breeding and organic seed production are high, there is still a lack, or limited choice, of appropriate varieties for organic agriculture in many cultivated plant species. In these cases, growers can apply for seed derogations, i.e. permissions to use non-organic seed. On a European level, the use of organic seed seems to have increased over the last few years but for many crops there is still a long way to go before all seed used by organic farmers and growers is organic. A major problem is that the derogations themselves limit the market opportunities for producers of organic seed and prevent investments in this area, which in turn keeps the number of appropriate organic varieties low – a classic catch-22 situation.

In order to increase the use of organic seed and to identify regulatory and other barriers that prevent higher uptake of organic seed, the European Consortium of Organic Plant Breeding (ECOPB) organizes regular meetings with the European stakeholders in organic seed regulation. These workshops take place every two to three years, and the 6th European workshop was hosted by the Organic Research Centre, a founding member of ECOPB, on the 21st and 22nd of September 2011 at Elm Farm. Chaired by ECOPB president Prof. Edith Lammerts van Bueren, the workshop was attended by representatives from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Members of the European Standing Committee on Organic Farming (SCOF) who regularly discuss organic standards at the European level were present, as well as country representatives responsible for approving or declining seed derogation applications, farmers, seed companies, breeders and researchers.

The meeting provided a good opportunity to exchange information on the current situation in various EU member states with regard to the use of organic seed and seed derogations. Not surprisingly, there are large differences between countries in the way organic seed derogations are handled and reported to the EU. In the lively discussions some key points that emerged were:

  • The need to harmonise the reporting on seed derogations across the EU;
  • The important role of national expert groups who support decisions on seed derogations;
  • The potential conflict between the harmonisation of European rules for organic seed regulation and the conservation of on-farm diversity of cultivated plants, especially in Italy and Spain where informal seed exchange systems, particularly of traditional varieties, are of high importance;
  • The difference between ‘small’ organic growers who tend to use a higher proportion of organic seed and larger growers who tend to request more derogations.

A more detailed report on the conclusions of the workshop will follow in the next issue of the Bulletin.

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