Seed World

Reports Spotlight Plant Breeding Needs for Organic Agriculture

The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) and Cornell University released two reports that detail plant breeding priorities for organic agriculture in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast. The assessments are a result of surveys and regional working groups that gathered input from organic farmers, organic seed and food distributors, and public and private plant breeders.

“The long-term goal of this project is to increase farmers’ access to regionally appropriate seed well-suited for organic production,” says Micaela Colley, program director of OSA and co-author of the organization’s Pacific Northwest report. “Farmers who use organic practices focus more on prevention and resistance because they have fewer inputs at their disposal.

“They need crop varieties developed specifically for low-input systems – crops that mitigate pest and disease pressures, and that are adapted to their local conditions and climates.”

To date, plant-breeding efforts focused on organic production have been minimal, and organic farmers remain underserved in seed adapted to organic conditions. Research demonstrates that varieties developed under non-organic growing conditions are not always successful in organic and other low-input systems.

The two reports seek to inform plant-breeding efforts by ranking crops and traits most important to organic farmers.

Across crops, Pacific Northwest priorities include breeding for improved end-use qualities, nutrition, beneficial microbial associations and disease resistance. Crop-specific priorities include breeding for carbon sequestration and adaptation to organic no-till systems in small grains, nutrient and water-use efficiency in sweet corn, and resistance to fungal diseases in potatoes and brassicas.

The Pacific Northwest organizing committee included Oregon State University and Washington State University, two institutions already engaged in organic plant breeding. The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides also served as a committee member.

“The ability to breed plants for early emergence to out-compete weeds or to build a better cover crop for improved soil health and resiliency are important to organic systems,” says planning committee member Kim Leval and the executive director of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. “We need to breed smarter plants that can meet the needs of organic farmers in the Pacific Northwest and better adapt to our changing climate.”

Rachel Hultengren, a plant-breeding student at Cornell University and lead author of the Northeast report, says their project has had two important outcomes.

“We now have timely guidance from our grower community on the key traits they need prioritized in vegetable improvement,” Hultengren explains. “This is useful for vegetable breeders like us at Cornell who are developing improved cultivars for the region as well as those delivering seed to growers to understand the gaps that exist in the seed supply.”

“The second outcome of this project is the creation of a new regional conference that promises to sustain this communication and sharing of information to bolster our seed in the Northeast,” she adds. “By having everyone in the seed community come together to discuss our mutual needs, we can continue to build a resilient, regional food system.”

The Northeast report prioritizes crop-specific traits needed by growers in 18 important vegetable crops, and highlights themes in survey responses, including: season extension (e.g., heat and cold tolerance, and increased storability); pest and disease resistance; and the importance of quality traits. The Northeast working group was comprised of organic vegetable growers, representatives from the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) chapters, cooperative extension agents, public plant breeders, and seed company representatives. Participants also identified infrastructural challenges and opportunities around the effective delivery of improved traits to growers. The recommendations emphasize the need for increased education and training opportunities for farmers who want to produce vegetable seed, as well as the development and production of more regionally and organically adapted cultivars.

Cornell University vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek says the last time they convened stakeholders to understand breeding priorities in the Northeast it was in response to the sudden loss of cultivars on which growers relied. At that time, two initiatives, the Public Seed Initiative and the Organic Seed Partnership, facilitated relationships between public plant breeders and their neighboring growers.

“Reviving this dialogue was long overdue,” says Mazourek. “We have an enduring challenge to retain capacity to safeguard the availability of seed critical to the Northeast.”

The two regional organic plant breeding assessments follow a 2014 report detailing the state of our public plant breeding infrastructure. The Proceedings of the Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture included a recommendation to host regional seed symposiums to identify plant-breeding priorities, including for underserved markets like organic.

“It’s encouraging to see more public investments in organic plant breeding,” says Beth Rasgorshek, an organic seed producer and owner of Canyon Bounty Farm in Nampa, Idaho, who attended the Pacific Northwest symposium. “Organic remains the fastest growing sector in our food system, but the availability of organic seed – specifically, seed bred under organic conditions – still lags behind this broader industry growth. Bringing together diverse stakeholders to identify regional plant breeding priorities is an excellent first step in building the availability of regionally adapted seed that’s been developed in and for organic production systems.”

The work of both OSA and Cornell University was supported by a grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.