While using organic seed (whenever possible) is a very important component of organic growing, the NOP was not put in place to keep growers from growing what they feel their markets demand. It is ridiculous to even entertain the idea that everything someone might want to grow is going to be available as organically grown seed. Not realistic. And many times, even when the seed is organically grown, it is produced in such a small quantity (compared to conventionally grown seed) that the expense is 2-5 times that of other seed and supplies run out quickly. (I am not referring to things that big commercial organic growers would be growing. I am talking about things a small farm or home gardener might grow. We grew over 100 different varieties at our farm, over a 10 month period, so we were not usually growing fields and acres of one thing. )
So, there is a caveat in the certification requirements that states that if you are unable to find a certain variety of seed organically produced you can use conventionally produced non-GMO, non-treated seed, provided you supply the certifier with documentation that you have contacted at least 3 suppliers (I always contacted at least 5) in you attempts to find the variety organically grown. In cases where a variety might not be available and providing you can document that the variety was NOT genetically engineered, then you can use conventionally grown seed. Sound like a lot of trouble just to grow 3-4 rows of beans, huh? But, nevertheless, that is exactly what we have done year after year, for anything that we wanted to grow that I could not find an organic source for.
I made my living off my farm and had fierce competition in the market place, so it was vital that I keep my offering to the public interesting and in demand. For that reason, and because I have always been fascinated with old time food plants (my interest in this started when I was a child and my grandmother would only grow certain "old timey" varieties in her gardens). When we got into growing vegetables for a living, we decided that we wanted to go "old school" on everything possible and that included what we were growing, so from the beginning, we were into "heirlooms" and open pollinated seeds (so we could save the seeds). (We grew very few modern hybrids, unless it was just such a superior variety we felt it was in the best of everybody's interest. Many of those modern hybrids were more readily available as organically grown than the old time varieties. Also, we tried to get hybrids that were the offspring of heirloom varieties...not that hard to find if you know where to look.)
When we started out 11 years ago, there were very few seed companies offering heirlooms, organic seed, etc. so it was laborious to ferret out many of these seeds. Over the course of time, I amassed a huge collection of seed suppliers and now can just about put my finger on any variety I might want to grow with a couple of mouse clicks. Now there are seed sellers at every turn because with the explosion in local foods, home growing, etc. there was demand. Now there are so many seed purveyors around that the waters on seeds are becoming muddied like everything else in the organic world. Toss in the whole GMO thing and it is a stew of confusion.
So, I am going to take a stab at clearing up some of the confusion, best I can. I am going to keep it as simple as possible. Here goes:
While there is on concrete definition of what makes a plant an heirloom, there are several schools of thought. I use the rule of thumb that the plant must have either been in production for at least 50 years, but preferrable between 75-100 years or older. All heirlooms are open pollinated. http://www.halcyon.com/tmend/define.htm This website echoes some of my own beliefs and reasons for planting heirlooms.
Here is a brief definitition of "heirloom plant" taken from Wikipedia:
"1)An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, or (especially in the UK) heirloom vegetable is a cultivar that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods was grown for human consumption. In modern agriculture in the industrialized world, most food crops are now grown in large, monocultural plots. In order to maximize consistency, few varieties of each type of crop are grown. These varieties are often selected for their productivity, their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. Heirloom gardening is a reaction against this trend. In the Global South, heirloom plants are still widely grown, for example in the home gardens of South and Southeast Asia.
Most authorities agree that heirlooms, by definition, must be open-pollinated. They may also be open pollinated varieties that were bred and stabilized using classic breeding practices. While there are no genetically modified tomatoes available for commercial or home use, it is generally agreed that no genetically modified organisms can be considered heirloom cultivars. Another important point of discussion is that without the ongoing growing and storage of heirloom plants, the seed companies and the government will control all seed distribution. Most, if not all, hybrid plants, if regrown, will not be the same as the original hybrid plant, thus ensuring the dependency on seed distributors for future crops.
2)An open-pollinated plant grown from seed over many generations; often passed down through families.
Open pollination is pollination by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms, and contrasts with cleistogamy, closed pollination, which is one of the many types of self pollination. Open pollination also contrasts with controlled pollination, which is controlled so that all seeds of a crop are descended from parents with known traits, and are therefore more likely to have the desired traits.
The seeds of open-pollinated plants will produce new generations of those plants; however, because breeding is uncontrolled and the pollen (male parent) source is unknown, open pollination may result in plants that vary widely in genetic traits. Open pollination may increase biodiversity.
Some plants (such as many crops) are primarily self pollenizing and also breed true, so that even under open pollination conditions the next generation will be (almost) the same. Even among true breeding organisms, some variation due to genetic recombination or to mutation can produce a few "off types".
All heirlooms are open pollinated. Visit the link in the previous paragraph for more info on open pollinated plants.
Hybrid pollination, a type of controlled pollination in which the pollen comes from a different strain (or species), can be used to increase suitability, especially through heterosis. The resulting hybrid strain can sometimes be inbred and selected for desired traits until a strain that breeds true by open pollination can be developed. The result may be referred to as a hybrid inbred or inbred hybrid strain. To add some confusion, the term "hybrid inbred" also applies to hybrids that are made from selected inbred lines that have certain desired characteristics (see inbreeding). Such hybrids are sometimes designated F1 hybrid, i.e. the first hybrid (filial) generation whose parents were (different) inbred plants. These seeds (F1)will never produce a second (F2) true generation so it is useless to save the seeds. F1 hybrids may be grown organically however from conventional, non-GMO seeds. (Interesting aside: A hybrid in not an unnatural state. F1 hybrids can also occur naturally, a prime example being peppermint, which is not a species evolved by cladogenesis or gradual change from a single ancestor, but a sterile stereotyped hybrid of watermint and spearmint. Unable to produce seeds, it propagates through the vining spread of its own root system. If you ever bought seeds for peppermint, you were had.)
"A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.
Transgenic plants have been engineered to possess several desirable traits, including resistance to pests, herbicides, or harsh environmental conditions; improved product shelf life, and increased nutritional value. Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified plants in 1996, they have been modified to be tolerant to the herbicides glufosinate and glyphosate, to be resistant to virus damage as in Ringspot virus resistant GM papaya, grown in Hawaii, and to produce the Bt toxin, an insecticide that is non-toxic to mammals.
Most GM crops grown today have been modified with "input traits", which provide benefits mainly to farmers. The GM oilseed crops on the market today offer improved oil profiles for processing or healthier edible oils. The GM crops in development offer a wider array of environmental and consumer benefits such as nutritional enhancement, drought and stress tolerance. GM plants are being developed by both private companies and public research institutions such as CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. Other examples include a genetically modified sweet potato, enhanced with protein and other nutrients, while golden rice, developed by the International Rice Research Institute, has been discussed as a possible cure for Vitamin A deficiency.
The coexistence of GM plants with conventional and organic crops has raised significant concern in many European countries. Due to relatively high demand from European consumers for the freedom of choice between GM and non-GM foods, EU regulations require measures to avoid mixing of foods and feed produced from GM crops and conventional or organic crops. European research programs such as Co-Extra, Transcontainer, and SIGMEA are investigating appropriate tools and rules. At the field level, biological containment methods include isolation distances and pollen barriers. Such measures are generally not used in North America because they are very costly and there are no safety-related reasons to employ them."
The only good news about GE seeds is that they are not generally being produced for the small home gardening market at this time. It is simply not economically feasible to introduce these seeds into the market...yet. I am sure it is only a matter of time. Many smaller seed houses are being bought up by other companies and that is leading to some confusion about whether the seeds being sold are genetically enhanced, etc. That doesn't automatically mean that they are not still legitimate seed houses.
I recently saw a post condemning these smaller companies without even so much as a caveat that they were still selling legitimate non-gmo, heirloom and other perfectly good seeds. It is irresponsible information like that that causes all the confusion surrounding exactly what is going on with organics, gmo's, etc. I abhor the "chicken little" mentality and while I am one of the most outspoken and adamant opponents of anything genetically engineered, I always try to encourage people to educate themselves about these issues before they jump to a conclusion.
Knowledge is power. Don't be powerless.