31 July 2019
Best in class

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31 July 2019
HAWL bursaries

Bursaries offered for three-day homoeopathy courses



21 March 2019
In adversity, what are farmers doing to be more resilient?

Opportunities, barriers and constraints in organic techniques helping to improve the sustainability of conventional farming

D1: Grass seed/variety availability

Chair: Lois Philipps (Abacus Organic Assocs.)

This workshop will examine whether or not organic producers are making best use of available forage varieties or whether they are being hampered in accessing the most appropriate varieties because of the constraints of the organic regulation to use 65% organic seed (organised by Abacus Organic Associates).

Session summary

The session provided a valuable exchange between farmers, plant breeding scientists, certification bodies, seed merchants and a Defra representative. The farmers’ main concern was the limited availability of organically approved seeds of their desired varieties (particularly high sugar grasses, important for capturing the N provided by legumes), through their chosen merchant. Flexibility was perceived to be limited by the creation of mixes to suit the 65% organic seed rule. According to Defra, this inclusion rate was intended to balance the interests of all participants in the industry, but the current relations between seed breeders and merchants causes some limitations in availability to individuals. Better communication through the Organic Forage Seeds working group could help to feed in the needs of organic farmers, to inform seed producers and those who design mixes. The specialist and risky nature of seed production as a business was pointed out. Organic production is even more challenging, and multiplication is a slow process. Breeding programmes are now selecting for both seed yield and forage quality, but multiplication of the popular varieties is a long term task. Adaptation to climate change is another current goal of plant breeding. Data on testing varieties in organic conditions are relatively limited, but the ranking of varieties on performance parameters is generally the same under conventional and organic conditions. The procedures and grounds for obtaining permission to use conventional varieties were discussed. Control bodies would take into account the agronomic conditions, the likely animal performance, farmer evidence for the need and merchant evidence on the availability of alternatives. An explanation of why the organic seeds would be inferior, or not appropriate needs to be given. More transparency here was requested. It was suggested that some seed merchants needed to act on a better understanding of both the organic regulations, and the requirements of organic farmers and their livestock.

Discussion points:

  • Growing organic seed is risky and needs experienced and enthusiastic growers
  • Seed growers are particularly unwilling to produce high sugar grass seed organically because yield is very low
  • The fact that grass seeds are sold in mixtures restricts choice and availability
  • Availability of organic seeds of particular varieties through individual merchants is a problem
  • As a result organic farmers feel they are being restricted from using the varieties of their choice
  • Use of the OrganicXseeds database is not an efficient process at present, it is not kept up to date

Action points:

  • Defra representative to request the organic forage seeds working group to consult more widely with end users, and raise the issue of availability of particular varieties to particular merchants
  • Improve accuracy of information on organic seeds database (it needs to be kept more up to date)
  • Explore potential for research into seed production methods per se in organic systems
  • Soil Association to look into the possibility of publishing the reasons for approval for non-organic seed use

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

John Downes (Organic Farmer and President of BGS): A farmer perspective
We have always used NIAB recommended grass and clover varieties from a local supplier who understands our needs. He has worked very hard to utilise the maximum percentage of high quality varieties in our mixtures, but has to compromise in most seasons due to organic availability. I appreciate we must encourage organic seed producers to increase their production with a proper return on their investment. There may be a way in which all their quality seed is utilised first and then we select the best available. In my role with the British Grassland Society I regularly see the importance of quality leys in livestock production. I firmly believe the future for most of these farms will be driven by excellent grassland husbandry. The key factors of sound soil and fertility management, grassland measurement and allocation and conservation of winter forage planned to maintain high quality grazing all lead to productive stock, contented farmers and PROFIT.

Dr Athole Marshall (IBERS): A breeder’s perspective (PDF 988KB)
The forage grass and legume breeding pro-grammes at IBERS are focusing on the develop-ment of new varieties that combine improved agronomic performance with incorporation and selection of traits that will reduce the environ-mental impact of grassland agriculture and improve the ability of grasslands to adapt to climate change. This presentation will summarise the target traits of the breeding programmes, the selection criteria and approach to selection currently being adopted and how this knowledge is being integrated into current selection to breed improved varieties. Using examples from the perennial ryegrass and white and red clover breeding programmes some of the challenges of integrating selection for these traits into existing breeding programmes will be outlined. Availability of organic seed of improved varieties is important and the problems associated with organic production of forage seed will be considered.

Stephen Clarkson (OF&G): The control body perspective
The question, are the available organic varieties suitable, can be answered in part by looking at the number and type of enquires received by the Control Body and the number and different varieties of grass and forage derogations approved by the Control Body. The UK is somewhat different to other member states in its approach to grass and forage seeds. It is one of the few member states that have developed a percentage-based approach to derogations. The number of derogations approved for mixes below the 65% will give an indication if this approach is working or is too restrictive.

James Winpenny (Organic Team, Defra): What the Regulations say (PDF 70KB)
The EU organic Regulations allow Member States to authorise the use of non-organic seed where organic seed is not available. The UK allows operators to use an organic grass seed mix whereby a defined proportion of the mix must be organic. This approach takes account of the availability of organic grass seed, demand from operators and the need to increase the supply of organic seed over time. In accordance with the principles of the EU Regulations, Defra wishes to increase the supply of organic grass seed with a view to supply meeting demand in the future. Defra and representatives from the grass seed sector meet regularly to discuss the availability of organic grass seed and to consider the percentage requirements for organic seed in the mix. This enables Defra to monitor the situation and to encourage the industry to increase the overall supply of organic seed while ensuring that a pragmatic approach is adopted. The proportion of organic seed in the mix has increased over time and is currently 65%. It is intended that the percentage requirement will be increased to 70% as of 1 January 2014 and the industry is working together to achieve this. The industry will be encouraged to further increase the supply of organic seed although it is acknowledged that this will be harder as the percentage requirement increases.