Boosting the organic seed industry
Organic farmers are not allowed to employ chemical plant protection products (PPPs). Consequently, they are on the lookout for varieties that are resistant to insects and diseases. This need is a significant driver of current variety breeding.
However, organic and conventional farmers alike are interested in a variety of other plant features, including stress resistance, cold hardiness, and nitrogen efficiency.
Two key standards for organic seeds
First, organically produced seeds and plants must meet the same quality standards as conventionally produced seeds and plants. For the cash crop species covered by seed-related legislation, commercial organic seeds must be certified.
Furthermore, since 1991, European regulations on organic agriculture stipulate that “only organically produced seed and propagating material shall be used. To this end, the mother plant in the case of seeds and the parent plant in the case of vegetative propagating material shall have been [organically produced] for at least one generation, or, in the case of perennial crops, two growing seasons.” To be certified organic, seeds cannot have been produced using chemical PPPs, which can provide protection against certain seed infections. In addition to breeding efforts, research is underway to find alternative biocontrol solutions for dealing with diseases that are compatible with the principles of organic agriculture. Some possibilities include treating seeds with heat or applying coatings that contain disease-fighting micro-organisms.
Supplying organic farmers with high-quality seeds
One of the main goals of the seed industry is to provide farmers with high-quality seeds. However, initially, accomplishing this aim was a bit problematic in the case of organic farmers because demand was diffuse and involved small quantities.
At the request of the French Ministry of Agriculture, since 2004, SEMAE (formerly GNIS) has been managing a database that helps organic farmers procure the seeds and plants that they need. It contains information provided by seed suppliers on the availability of organic seeds and plants for different species varieties.
This work is carried out in collaboration with the French National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO) and its commission on organic seeds. Each year, the INAO’s organic certification committee re-evaluates the state of affairs for different plant species to determine which still face supply issues. For example, the availability of organic seeds and plants remains extremely limited for certain vegetables, potatoes, grains, forage plants, and the field pea. Under the INAO’s system, farmers can request an exemption if there is an insufficient supply of organic seeds and can use untreated conventional seeds instead.
To sum up the situation
Over recent years, guided by the needs of organic farmers, the seed industry has dedicated itself to increasing the supply of various organic seeds and plants. The organic agricultural industry has subsequently seen a rapid rise in stakeholder number, dedicated land surface area, and seed and plant farms. Thus, the surface dedicated to biological seed production in France has increased by 9% in 2017 and will increase by 24% in 2018.
Header photo : © SEMAE / Christian Watier