Diseased seed crisis presents pitfalls for organic farmers

Organic producers facing unprecedented challenges in obtaining healthy seed for autumn drilling must take care to stay within the regulations, Organic Farmers & Growers has warned.

Bad weather in recent months has left much of the available seed for autumn drilling with high levels of disease in nearly all cereals, but this has created a catch-22 problem unforeseen in the organic rules.

The Europe-wide regulation governing organic food and farming states that producers must use organic seed where it is shown as available in the industry’s OrganicXSeeds database, even if it’s quality is not at a desirable level. There have also been instances reported where seed has been listed as available on the database, only for farmers to be told it is not when they enquire.

According to control body, Organic Farmers & Growers, this is causing concern for many farmers who may not be clear on the options that are open to them in this scenario.

Certification and Compliance Manager at OF&G, Stephen Clarkson, said: “The simple fact is that if organic seed of the variety the farmer wants can be obtained, regardless of disease levels, control bodies cannot issue approval for them to use a re-cleaned, non-organic supply of that seed. It is crucial that organic farmers speak to their control body for clear guidance before they take a step that could impact on their organic status. They should also contact the seed suppliers listed on the database directly to check on actual availability.”

If there is no variety of the species farmers want registered on the database, certifiers are able to allow an exceptional permission for that. There can also sometimes be agronomic reasons for seeking an alternate seed or it can be approved where a supplier cannot deliver on time.

Mr Clarkson added: “We’re are fully aware that the options are limited and this is currently causing a tremendous headache for many farmers; we have just been faced with an exceptionally difficult year, with the worst combination of circumstances.

“Our job is to protect the integrity of, and the public trust in, the organic standards, but there comes a point where you have to realise that it is in no-one’s interest for their to be a dramatic drop in available organic cereals next year. What we can’t know yet is whether these kind of weather patterns are going to become the norm. If that were the case it would be reasonable for the regulation to be revisited.”

OF&G is urging any farmer facing problems sourcing seed to speak to their control body for guidance, as buying seed that is not permitted is likely to result in the costly loss of organic status. It’s certification team can advise on what is and is not permitted.

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