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.
These unmet needs are expanding. The organic food market is the fastest-growing segment of the American food industry, as it has been for more than a decade. Sales of organic foods increased 9.4 percent to $29.2 billion in 2011, and now make up 4.2 percent of all U.S. food sales. Wisconsin alone has 1,200 organic farms, including dairy, beef, vegetable and berry.
And it’s not just consumers. In recent years, students, too, have expressed growing interest in organic. “When we interview students who are potential undergrads or grad students at CALS, they ask, ‘What are you guys doing in sustainable agriculture? And how can I work in that space?’” says Irwin Goldman PhD ’91, chair of the horticulture department, which, in partnership with the department of agronomy, co-administers the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics (PBPG) graduate program. “We’re hearing that more and more, and we’re starting to address it,” Goldman says.
As one of the strongest plant-breeding programs in the nation, the UW–Madison PBPG program is well positioned to rise to the challenge. It has trained more professional plant breeders than any other program and earned the respect of seed companies large and small, including Monsanto, which donated $1 million to the program in 2008 to support graduate fellowships. Breeders at UW release a constant stream of new varieties, and graduates have excellent job prospects. The seed industry is full of Badger alumni—all the way up to top leadership positions.
One of the benefits of such a large program is that there’s room to accommodate a diversity of approaches. With only a small handful of breeders and a few graduate students focused on organic systems at UW, the university is nonetheless considered a leader in the field, a hub for organic plant breeding work. For all involved, there’s a huge opportunity to help organic farmers as they try to meet the demand of this burgeoning market.
“We’re starting to incorporate this into what we do,” says Goldman. “It’s exciting to see us starting to serve this clientele.”
In early spring last year, weeks ahead of planting time and months before the Student Organic Seed Symposium that summer, participants and presenters from across the nation shipped seeds to Vermont for Stearns to sow in High Mowing’s trials and showcase garden.
Stearns’ team planted and tended the plants—organic-adapted varieties of sweet corn, carrots, broccoli, barley and wheat—so that by early August, many were near their peak, ready for a special show-and-tell among symposium attendees.
The group visited the demonstration plots on day two, a glorious and hot summer afternoon. With a backdrop of blue sky and rolling hills, CALS’ Shelton went first. She described the challenge sweet corn presents to organic growers while picking and handing out ears to taste from her plot.
In sweet corn, the same genetic mutation that causes sweetness also causes the plants to have trouble germinating and popping out of the ground. For conventional growers, there’s an easy fix: a simple chemical treatment applied before planting protects the seeds from diseases and insects, helping them to survive until they emerge. But organic growers don’t have that option. Instead, they struggle with the crop. Many choose to start seedlings in greenhouses, where they are relatively safe from harm, before transplanting them to the field, a time- and labor-intensive process with a marginal return.
“A lot of organic farmers only grow sweet corn because their customers demand it, especially if they’re doing community-supported agriculture,” says Shelton, referring to an increasingly popular program by which customers, in effect, buy shares of a farmer’s harvest. “So we’re trying to make it easier for them.”
With support from the USDA’s Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Cooperative (NOVIC) program, and in collaboration with organic farmer Martin Diffley, Shelton and Tracy are developing a population of open-pollinated sweet corn that germinates and grows more quickly in organic systems. It also has enhanced disease resistance.
With that $2.3 million program, NOVIC is underwriting the most substantial organic plant-breeding effort ever seen in America. In addition to sweet corn, the program focuses on breeding and trialing varieties of broccoli, snap peas, winter squash and carrots for organic farms across America’s northern states.
At High Mowing, CALS graduate student Lyon gave an overview of the program, whose Midwest trialing efforts are being led by her advisor, agronomist Erin Silva. NOVIC’s lead carrot breeder, John Navazio, MS’94 PhD’94, showed some carrots. Navazio, a breeder with the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance, is partnering with CALS and USDA-ARS carrot breeder Phil Simon PhD’77 to develop new and improved organic-adapted varieties.
CALS’ Irwin Goldman and Claire Luby took the opportunity to display their efforts as well, which were bred outside the auspices of NOVIC. They included Goldman’s newly released varieties of orange and yellow beet—Badger Flame, Badger Torch and Badger Sunset—that are expected to be a hit among organic growers and other farmers looking to sell beautiful, unusual vegetables.
Recently, another novel funding source has cropped up to support this kind of work: Seed Matters. An initiative of the nonprofit Clif Bar Family Foundation, Seed Matters grew out of the idea that large food companies whose success is based on organic products, such as Clif Bar, Organic Valley and Whole Foods Market, need to build capacity and invest in the infrastructure of the agricultural system that they depend on.
“Organic has had great success, but there’s always need for continued improvement,” says Matthew Dillon, Seed Matters’ director. “We realized that we needed to make a long-term investment in the primary foundation of organic agriculture—in the next generation of plant breeders.”
Based on Tracy’s organic sweet corn breeding work, Seed Matters selected CALS at UW–Madison to receive one of four, five-year organic plant-breeding graduate fellowships that it awarded in 2012—the first such fellowships in the nation. With the funding, Tracy was able to bring on Tessa Peters in the fall of 2012. With Peters and Shelton, he now has two of six graduate students focusing on organic sweet corn. In spring 2013 Claire Luby, working under Goldman in horticulture, received a Seed Matters fellowship as well. For those in the field, it feels like momentum is building. “This is really the beginning, I think, of a concerted effort to breed varieties for organic systems,” says Shelton.
On the final day of the symposium, the student organizers held a discussion about the future of the symposium itself. By that time the group had spent three intense days together from sun up to well beyond sundown, and they had clearly bonded, particularly after lunch at High Mowing the previous day, when students had shared stories about their lives and motivations.
The main question at hand: “Do we want to do this again next year?” But almost before the students could propose it, a team of student and faculty wheat breeders headquartered in Mt. Vernon, Washington, offered to host. A funding source soon followed. Without waiting to be asked, Seed Matters offered to foot most of the bill for the 2013 gathering, keeping it affordable for graduate students. The second symposium is set for August 4–7 (more information provided below).
For his part, Goldman was deeply impressed by the whole gathering. “This really went into new territory,” he told the group on the last day. “I think the building that took place here went far deeper than work collaborations in research. It really went to the heart of what it means to have a shared dream and what it means to have a shared ambition.”
Students Claire Luby, Alex Lyon and Adrienne Shelton came home thrilled; their expectations had been surpassed. “I realized that there are other people who really care about this work and support you, and that there are job prospects, and that you can make this happen,” says Luby. “That’s why it was so energizing.”
The next Student Organic Seed Symposium takes place August 4–7. More information at https://sites.google.com/site/studentorganicseedsymposium/
SIDEBAR — Seeds for All
In order to develop new crop varieties, plant breeders need access to the wealth of genetic resources housed in even the tiniest seed. While patents often govern this access, some participants in the Student Organic Seed Symposium are working to develop an innovative alternative model, one that supports the open exchange of germplasm with minimal restrictions on the use of seeds in further breeding.
Advocates of such free seed exchange are looking to the open source software community as an inspiration and model. A working group of plant breeders, farmers, nonprofits and seed advocates have joined in what they’re calling the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). Explains Jack Kloppenburg, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology and a founding member of OSSI, “It’s a parallel system, a new space where breeders and farmers can share germplasm.”
In addition to working for the open exchange of germplasm for breeding, OSSI is committed to supporting a robust public plant-breeding sector, diversifying the commercial seed market and enlarging the opportunities for farmers to collaborate with university scientists in what they describe as “participatory plant breeding.”
The development of several open source licenses under which breeding lines and new cultivars would be released and exchanged is at the operational core of OSSI’s approach. Though each is created to fit unique circumstances, all three licenses preserve open access to material for further breeding.
Moreover, the licenses are “viral,” Kloppenburg notes, meaning that any new varieties bred from seeds released under one of these licenses must carry the same license. “This makes for an expanding pool of germplasm that any plant breeder can freely use,” he says.