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Organic Seeds – Why Buy Them?

Lots of people are looking to buy organic seeds but as a chemist this has never made any sense to me. I started asking people on social media for their reasons for selecting organic seeds over conventional seeds or heirlooms seeds. The answers clearly indicate that people don’t understand why they want organic seeds, but one valid reason did emerge.

In this post I will look at the reasons people give for buying organic seed and discuss the validity of the reasons.

Burbee organic seeds

Burbee organic seeds

Organic Seeds – What Are They?

What are organic seeds, and how do they differ from conventional seeds or even heirloom seeds?

Organic seed is seed that is produced by organic gardening/farming methods. These are the same procedures used to produce organic food. In order to be be certified organic, they must be produced by a certified organic operation.

Some people claim that organic seed ” has not been exposed to any chemicals throughout the growth in the field”. Rubbish! Organic farmers use organic chemicals and in some cases these are more dangerous than conventional chemicals. Organic chemicals can be used in larger quantities than in conventional farming because they are less effective. Organic seed is not free of chemical contaminates. It’s chemical contaminates are organic chemical contaminates.

Wild collected seed is not considered ‘organic’ because it was not produced by an organic farm. That makes no sense to me! By not introducing wild seed, this practice has people growing a limited gene pool. This goes against the organic principles – but not against organic certification.

Heirloom seeds can be grown in any kind of condition, organic or non-oganic. Heirloom describes the genetics of the seed, and usually refers to older varieties that are stable and field pollinated. They are available as both regular seed and organic seed.

Organic Seeds Are More Robust

Seeds of Change, a pro-organic group, claims “Organically grown seed produces hearty, robust plants already adapted to organic growing conditions” (ref 1).

That’s a silly statement. Seeds and plants do not know they are being grown organically. Seeds are not ‘adapted’ to organic conditions. The genetics of the seed does not change after growing plants organically for a few years. Good quality seeds from organic farms or conventional farms will grow equally well in your soil.

Are organic seeds more hearty, or more robust? Nonsense. The contents of a seed, and how well it grows is determined by it’s genetic makeup, and to a minor extent, how well the mother plant was grown. Small unhealthy plants will produce poor quality seed in both organic and conventional fields. Quality seed companies will only sell quality seed – organic growing conditions have nothing to do with it.

It is quite possible that organic seed is not as good as conventional seed. As pointed out by Seed Testing International (ref 3) growing quality organic seed can be difficult due to extra pest pressures. “Quality standards for some organic seed, especially biennial seed such as onion, carrot and cabbage, has been reduced. ”

“No Stinking GMO Seed”

One of the most common reasons for buying organic seed is that gardeners, and I quote, “don’t want no stinking GMO seed”.

The reality is that a lot of people are against GMO, and most of them have no idea why.

Being against GMO is no reason for buying organic seed because GMO seed is NOT available to home gardeners. Even if you want to get some, you can’t. GMO seed is sold to farmers after they have signed an agreement which controls how they can use the seed. Seed companies will not sign such an agreement with home owners.

Besides the unavailability issue, almost none of the seed types home owners buy are available as GMO seed. Corn is the only exception. This will change over time as new seed types come on the market.

GMO is not a reason to buy organic seed.

Pesticide Contamination of Seed

Conventional farming uses chemicals which are not approved by organic farming. In most cases these are safer than the chemicals used in organic farming, but that is a topic for another post. What happens to these chemicals – organic and non-organic?

Plants are sprayed as they grow. Most of the sprayed pesticide either washes off or degrades over time. By the time seed is harvested, very little of the pesticide remains, but there can be residual amounts of systemic pesticide in the seed. There is a standard for this called the International Maximum Residue Limit, or MRL for short. Wikipedia lists a number of chemicals and their MRL, with limits of 0.05 to 7 mg/kg of seed.  I believe this is for seed that we eat as food and not for seed that is used for planting, but it gives us a ball park idea of possible pesticide levels.

Let’s consider this example. Assume some tomato seeds have a chemical residue at the 1mg/kg level – an average of the above range. One Kg of tomato seed contains about 300,000 seeds. If seed contains pesticides at 1mg/kg, a single seed contains 0.000003 mg of pesticide.

What happens to the pesticide in the seed? Most of it will be discharged from the plant, or metabolized in the plant. But lets assume the worst case, and that none of it is lost. Then all of it would be dispersed throughout the plant. As cells grow, some of the pesticide would travel from old cells to new cells.

What does a tomato plant weight? I have seen numbers like 30 pounds but to be conservative lets assume our plant is small and weighs only 10 pounds, including the fruit. When the fruit is ready for harvest, the 0.000003 mg of pesticide will be spread throughout the plant. An average tomato weighs 100gms, so it will contain 0.00000006 mg of pesticides. Compare that to the fact that we eat 1,500 mg of natural pesticides every day.

That is a silly calculation! But not nearly as silly as the belief that the pesticides in seed make a difference.

A self proclaimed organic seed expert: Phil Winteregg (ref 2) says, “we have separate stainless steel equipment dedicated to handling the organic seed, as well as ..untreated, so that the potential of cross-contamination … is nearly impossible.” Clever marketing that makes absolutely no sense for organic seed!

Treated Seed vs Organic Seed

What is treated seed? Some seed, like peas and beans have a tendency to rot in wet soil. Treated seed has a coating of anti-fungal and anti-bacterial chemicals that reduce the chance of rotting. In a few cases the seed may be coated with an insecticide but these are usually not available to home gardeners.

This is a different situation from the previous section. Treated seed has the chemical coated right on the seed, and you can easily see it. If you handle the seed, the pesticide powder does end up on your hands.

How safe are treated seed? You should not eat them, and it is wise to wash your hands after handling them. Most of the coating on seeds will wash off with rain or be degraded by soil microbes. Any that is absorbed by the seed will be in very low levels in the food you harvest. Calculations are similar to the ones above, except you do start out with a higher amount of pesticide. Food produced from treated seed is perfectly safe to eat.

Lets say you decide you don’t want treated seed. Do you need to buy organic seed? No. Most seed that is available to home gardeners is not treated. Treating seed costs money, and if seeds have been treated, companies advertise the fact so that they can charge more for the seed. In most countries, the labeling laws require seed producers to identify treated seed right on the seed package.

I  checked Burpee Seeds and they do not sell treated seed. Stokes does sell some but the selection is very limited and the treated seeds are clearly marked in their catalog.

If you don’t want the chemicals found on treated seed, just buy regular seed. You do not need to be organic seed.

Support Organic Farmers

That leaves me with one valid reason for buying organic seed – to support organic farmers. If you feel growing organically is important for the environment and you want to support organic farmers, then buy organic seed. It does support the organic movement.

Buying organic seed, does not produce healthier food, does not make plants grow better and they do not reduce your exposure to chemicals. They don’t even produce better tasting food. If you are going to buy them, you should at least understand why you are buying them – you are supporting organic farming.

Selection is limited for organic seed. Most of the new disease resistant vegetable cultivars are not available as organic seed, and neither are most ornamental flowers.

Personally, I would not go out of my way to buy organic seed when non-organic is just as good. I’d much rather have newer disease resistant tomatoes.

Seed Videos:

References:

  1. FAQ – Organic Seeds and Gardening: http://www.seedsofchange.com/faq.aspx
  2. Self Proclaimed Organic Seed Expert Phil Winteregg: http://www.organicitsworthit.org/experts/learn/phil-winteregg
  3. Challenges for The Production of High Quality Organic Seeds: http://www.seedtest.org/upload/cms/user/STI127April2004.pdf#page=14
  4. Photo Source: Mike Mozart
Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

19 Responses to 'Organic Seeds – Why Buy Them?'

  1. Allie says:

    Can I get your permission to share your blog on Facebook? I have friends that organic seeds but I buy just the normal pack.

  2. KIMBA ANDERSON says:

    Thank you for this. I was looking to buy non-organic seeds for my home garden because I figure the GMO varieties are probably easier to grow, require fewer chemicals, and are heartier. I’ve heard that a lot of hierlooms just don’t thrive because of problems brought on by the limited gene pool. Anyways, it was getting very frustrating as I could only find “ORGANIC! NON-GMO!” seeds on line. Now I know why!

  3. Marcie W Latham says:

    This makes so much sense and explains clearly what I thought when I saw the first organic seed.

  4. Roy says:

    Just staying quiet and absorbing all of this wealth.

  5. Tamara E. says:

    I think…I think you are a rock star (okay, a plant star) and I have just started binge reading your site. (Move over Netflix.)Thank you for your time,knowledge, and a very scientific viewpoint.

  6. Inger says:

    This year I am only purchasing open pollinated seeds for my vegetables. The reason is that I want to harvest my own seeds and cut my $400 bill. It is also for fun to see if I over time can improve on the selections. I will be using fungicides on the seeds, so little is necessary that it makes sense to use it on the seeds and not on the plants
    Most seeds these days are produced in California where the spread of fungi is minimal because of the climate. I do not think much seed is produced in large numbers in Ontario. We just have too many pests

    • Brad says:

      Even hybrid seeds can be harvested. They don’t always grow true, or even grow at all, but considering how many seeds a good tomato, pepper, or other such hybrid can produce, you’re still in good shape.

      It doesn’t always work, and I don’t doubt that it’s only suitable for certain types of plants, but it certainly works for many. I was told that calico peppers couldn’t be grown from seed harvested from their fruits, but I’m on my third generation of calico pepper, each self-seeded through fallen fruits. While I’ve seen some claim that it’s heirloom, I’ve found no substantiation.

      I’m also on my second generation of garden treasure and garden gem tomato hybrids, which Dr. Harry Klee and his team at IFAS (Univ. of Florida) have developed to provide the advantages of hybrids, but with the flavor and texture of heirlooms.

      Perhaps my most hybrid to re-grow is a type of cayenne pepper that I bought as an F1 hybrid seedling in 2013. I’ve grown it every year since then, including several that are now three years old, and two of which are fusion grafted–that is, I grew 2-3 seedlings close together, and then artificially “inosculated” them by abrading their stems, binding them together, and letting them heal into a fused plant with a shared vascular system.

  7. Mark says:

    Another great post! Thank you once again.

    It would be great if you had somewhere that your blog readers could make suggestions of garden myths that need to be explored. While you may not have time or inclination to ever do some of them others may strike a chord with you and be simple enough to test. For example have you heard the one about magnets or even “magnetised water” increasing seed germination rates and making plants super strong and massively productive?

  8. Hello Robert, just subscribed to your blog newsletter, just received my first e-mail, and just wanted to say—well done. I’ve been a garden writer for 20 years; always good to discover a VERY GOOD garden/food writer who has taken on the difficult and contentious task of writing the truth. You have a new fan.

    Don Engebretson, The Renegade Gardener

  9. Michael says:

    I would just like to thank you for all of these blog post you make. This is single-handedly the best information I have encountered to try and fight the ever-present pseudoscience surrounding many aspects of organic gardening. It is very helpful and enjoyable, and the experiments you conduct are spot on. Keep doing what you are doing! Would LOVE to see some experiments with bokashi and no till soil setups, or links if you have already covered this stuff. That is what I am most interested in and there seems to be a lot of unverified claims behind compost teas, bokashi, etc. Thanks again!

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