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The Organic Design: A Personal Mission with Erica Renaud

“It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.” -- Albert Einstein

 

"Pick a focus, be an expert – for me this is the organic seed, the foundation of sustainable agriculture,” Dr. Erica Renaud, Ph.D. in Planting Breeding, SENASICA Representative, and Regional Business Manager for Vitalis Organic Seeds, North America, tells me as she quotes Albert Einstein. She likes the idea of processes being iterative. “My perspective on organic and sustainable agriculture has changed as I participate in it within different contexts—a grower, a researcher, a policymaker and community organizer, even a homesteader.”

 

The organic produce market is rapidly growing, not just outward as far as countries and policies, but upward in dollars. The sector has skyrocketed 14 percent in the last year alone, and now claims 6.9 percent of produce consumption in the U.S.

  

Vitalis, the organic division of the Netherlands-based breeding and seed production company Enza Zaden, is the global leader in organic seed production and breeding, as well as one of the pioneers for demonstrating that organic seed is not sub-standard to conventional seed.

 

“100 percent certified-organic agriculture has to start with certified organic seed. We want to be at the forefront, with the best genetics aligning to organic market trends and ensuring the genetic material is best adapted to organic growing conditions,” Erica says. 

 

To be truly organic, as Erica has said, you have to start from the seed, which isn’t always so easy to access in areas that may want part of the $60+ billion global industry that organic growing has become. 

 

Despite the infinite growth of the organic produce industry, huge challenges remain for the contender. After all, agriculture is one of the original industries of the U.S. (and the world) and conventional growing is deeply rooted in plant culture. Vitalis seeks to improve that image and make more room for a new chapter in produce.

 

“There was, and is, a perception that organic seed is all open-pollinated, lacks quality in germination, purity and pathology or diseases, and is limited in quantity available for professional growers,” Erica explains, saying this is one of the largest trials Vitalis faces.

 

To essentially prove this stigma wrong, the company goes to great lengths through science and practices to prove that organic seeds hold their own against conventional. While this aspect is a battle, it’s hardly a summary of the war.

 

To be truly organic, as Erica has said, you have to start from the seed, which isn’t always so easy to access in areas that may want part of the $60+ billion global industry that organic growing has become.

“Organic growers must use organic seed when commercially available, however, their primary seed supplier may not sell organic seed and/or their variety of preference may not be available in organic form,” Erica tells me.

 

The Organic Design: A Personal Mission with Erica Renaud

 

An example of this is the organic produce industry in Mexico, where two major regulations were recently redefined to make organic farming easier for growers.

 

“The Mexican government has made two major regulatory changes in direct response to the growth of the organic sector. After a decade long process, Mexico SENASICA (Activity of National Health Service, Food Safety and Quality) has launched a domestic organic standard for organic production and processing, while, almost simultaneously, SAGARPA (Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food) has modified its mandatory chemical seed treatment requirement for imported seed.”

 

Inconsistent enforcement of the organic seed regulation, which is defined by each nation state’s government even though it’s interpreted by organic certification agencies and inspectors, is what Erica says leads to inconsistent regulatory enforcement. Vitalis and the broader organic seed movement are working with organic certifiers to train inspectors on how to encourage using organic seed while enforcing the USDA NOP organic seed regulatory language (CFR 205-204).

 

 

An active member and past-chair of the organic seed committee of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), and currently engaged in multiple project initiatives with the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), Erica spends a considerable amount of time working with policymakers, growers, and breeders to clarify these aspects and address obstacles and opportunities for organic seed sector growth.

 

“The organic market is broad—servicing both local, direct to consumer markets, and larger-scale retail markets. The former is highly diversity-driven, wanting unique varieties for their organic markets, while the latter is more uniformity-driven and wants a consistent, high performing product that can be produced year-round for their retail outlets,” Erica explains of organics’ reach. Vitalis services both of these market types by not only working through seed distributors who service smaller growers, but directly with larger-scale professional growers in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico as well.

“In order to keep the organic label authentic, the certification will be more rigorous and organic growers will be required more and more to use organic seed.” - Erica Renaud

“We are, and will continue to be, the #1 certified organic seed breeding and production company in the North American region due to our dedication to developing cultivars that are adapted to organic managements systems,” Erica says.

 

 

As for the future of the organic market, and the changes that leaders like Vitalis are continuing to chip away at, she explains that organic growers need to know that the regulations will get tighter as time progresses and governing bodies continue to pursue a harmonized, global context for the organic market.

 

 “In order to keep the organic label authentic, the certification will be more rigorous and organic growers will be required more and more to use organic seed.”

 

While this may seem daunting, the result will be quality and consistency across the board as North America expands its organic trade.

 

“Vitalis is actively developing professional relationships with key organic growers and distributors, staying engaged with the market, following the trends, and putting genetic material in front of the market leaders to see how we can translate these varieties into organic market concepts.”

 

The organic market exists due to pioneers who wanted an alternative to the dominant paradigm in the food system. Being on what she calls the right side of history and contributing to positive change, Erica says passionately, is a personal mission. And, like Albert Einstein, she will continue to stay with it for as long as it takes.