Seeding an Organic Future

CALS students and faculty are in the forefront of efforts to develop plant varieties for a burgeoning market

As a wicker basket containing old, faded seed packets made its way around the room, Tom Stearns asked each person to grab a packet and pour a few seeds into their hands. Some of the seeds were green and shriveled, others were tiny, shiny and black.

“Check them out,” encouraged Stearns, founder and president of Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds, the only seed company in the nation to sell 100 percent organically produced seeds.

Addressing participants and speakers attending the Student Organic Seed Symposium at the Lakeview Inn in tiny Greensboro, Vermont, Stearns asked the group to consider what they could—and couldn’t—tell about the seeds just by looking at them. For many, all it took was a quick glance to know what plants they’d grow into.

But seeds hide an important part of their story beneath their coats. Just looking at a handful, it’s impossible to know who developed them and to what end. These details, however, have a lot to do with a farmer’s success.

Plant breeders have enormous influence over the varieties they develop, making key decisions about how, when and where they’ll grow best. Plants bred with high-input, conventional systems in mind (which generally employ chemical fertilizers and pesticides) tend to thrive in those systems. Likewise, those bred for organic systems tend to flourish in organic systems. Yet relatively little of this latter type of breeding work has been done over the past 50 years, mostly due to meager financial support. Today’s organic growers have difficulty finding organic-adapted seeds, and they are often forced to choose among conventional varieties.

To Stearns, this situation is ludicrous, on par with giving a beef cow to a dairy farmer. “You will get milk out of a beef cow, but not a lot—they haven’t been selected to produce milk. Beef cattle don’t have the right genetics for what dairy farmers are trying to do,” he explained to the group. “That’s what I think organic growers are dealing with. We don’t even know what we’re missing. The seeds we’re using aren’t genetically adapted to the kind of systems that we have.”

The most obvious solution is to have more plant breeders doing organic work. And, as Stearns looked around the room that day at the Lakeview Inn, he had reason to hope.

At a professional gathering about a year earlier, Stearns had met Claire Luby and Adrienne Shelton, graduate students in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program at CALS, along with Alex Lyon MS’08, a CALS agroecology graduate now working on a doctorate at the Nelson Institute. During a dinner reception at the 2011 meeting of the Vegetable Breeding Institute—a Cornell University-based public-private partnership that fosters interaction between vegetable breeders and seed and food companies—the trio had shared with Stearns some of their experiences doing organic-focused work. While the students were excited about the work, they also felt unsure about their career paths and somewhat isolated and discouraged. Graduate students working in organic plant breeding, like their faculty advisors, are few and far between, and they lack the support network enjoyed by their conventional-focused peers.

“There are a lot of activities and events geared toward graduate students who are going to work at the bigger plant breeding companies,” explains Shelton. “But it’s really hard to connect with other students doing organic plant breeding because the organic seed industry is so small in comparison, and there are just a few of us—at best—at each land-grant university.”
Before dinner was over, a plan had sprouted to put on a symposium, dubbed the Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), to give this scattered group of students a much-needed opportunity to come together and feel like part of something bigger—part of the new and growing agricultural movement that they comprise. Luby, Lyon and Shelton would organize it, with support from their advisors. Stearns would help host it in Vermont. There would be talks by experts, farm tours and a visit to High Mowing Organic Seeds. There would also be time to just hang out and get to know each other.

“The whole idea was to try to build these connections, to create a scientific community that could support us throughout our careers,” says Shelton.

It all came together in early August 2012, with 20 graduate students cupping seeds in their hands, eager to develop new plant varieties to meet the needs of organic growers.

Humans have been breeding plants since antiquity. Simply by selecting which seeds to save and plant the following spring, people make decisions that alter the overall genetic makeup of their crops. It’s a powerful technique, known as selection, that plant breeders still use to this day.

Modern plant breeders have many more tools at their disposal and bring a scientific approach to the whole process. A significant portion of the work involves making crosses. To do so, breeders pick two varieties with desirable traits, transferring the pollen from one to the pistil of the other, purposefully mixing together the good genes of both. The new plants created this way then go through years and years of re-crossing and selection until the breeder is satisfied with the final product. Only then is it released as a new variety. It’s a time-consuming process, taking up to a decade and sometimes more.

Crossing and selecting are classical plant-breeding techniques that look pretty much the same whether they’re used to breed plants for organic or conventional systems, so context is key.

“One of the underlying paradigms of plant breeding is you should breed for the conditions under which the crops are going to be grown,” says Bill Tracy, chair of the agronomy department at CALS.

And organic farms have a special set of conditions. Without chemical options to control weeds, insects and microbial diseases, organic farmers need varieties with a unique set of traits. For instance, they need varieties that are fast-growing and preferably dense-growing to out-compete and shade out weeds. They also need varieties with natural pest and disease resistance. At the same time, these plants need to produce a large, beautiful bounty.

“But to date there’s been very little breeding for organic conditions, so there are opportunities and needs out there that aren’t being met,” says Tracy, whose breeding program encompasses both conventional and organic sweet corn.