From the wonderful Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog (a favorite of mine) over at Research Blogging, is a fascinating summary of paper that describes the ways that most modern seed varieties, selected to be used under commercial conditions, don’t do as well under organic conditions, because we haven’t selected for the qualities that would enable success:
To perform well under organic conditions, varieties need to get a fast start, to outcompete weeds, and they need to be good at getting nitrogen from the soil early on in their growth. Organic farmers tend to use older varieties, in part because they possess those qualities. Concerted selection for the kinds of qualities that benefit plants under organic conditions, which tend to be much more variable from place to place and season to season, could improve the yileds from organic farms.
Read the whole thing, and the original paper – well worth a look.
It reminds me of a discussion I had with an older gentleman who in the 1980s had been breeding (for commercial production) a super-sweet non-hybrid corn with good cold soil emergence (translation, a really sweet sweet corn, much more than most old varieties, and one that can be planted early enough to produce well). He observed that the seed company that he’d been working with had been thrilled with the results of his nearly-stabilized breeding, which they felt was as good as most of the then-new super sweet corns developed through hybridization, and which handled wet years and organic cultivation better than most of the hybrids. But that company went out of business, and the gentleman went on growing this variety and eating it himself and giving it away to his neighbors and through Seed Savers Exchange, but never made a dime on it. What frustrated him was not the lack of profit, but that even the seed companies he tried to pass it on to (and by the end he was offering it up for free) in the 1980s and early 1990s didn’t see the value in a corn that responded better to conditions of organic production rather than conventional – it seemed like too small a niche market.
I’m an organic farmer (not certified), but I’m not an organic purist – that is, my claim is not that all agriculture must be organic all the time. But I think it is simple common sense that in a world of depleting resources and volatile price fluctuations for farm inputs, that more and more of our agriculture must operate with vastly fewer inputs. Figuring out how we’re going to do that well is essential.