Organic Plant Breeding for Climate Resilience

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing $2.3 million in funding for a unique collaboration in Oregon to conduct plant breeding focused on organic farming systems. The research will be done in five states, looking at five crops (broccoli, carrot, snap pea, sweet corn, and winter squash).

The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaboration (NOVIC) is a partnership of the Organic Seed Alliance, Oregon State University, Cornell
University, University of Wisconsin Madison, and Washington State University Extension. They partner with organic farmers to breed new crop varieties, identify the best performing existing varieties for organic agriculture, and educate farmers on organic seed production and plant variety improvement.

Organic agriculture must have access to diversity of plant varieties that perform well under a variety of conditions, including weed competition, low-input fertility, and pest and disease pressure. Under future climate change scenarios, all of these challenges are likely to be exacerbated, as CalCAN has reported on previously.

In addition to developing more resilient organic seeds, the NOVIC project has these additional advantages for farmers:

  • Season extension to allow for earlier spring planting of warm-weather crops and continued spring yielding of cold-weather crops. This enhances marketing opportunities for growers and avoids costs of other season-extension methods such as hoop houses.
  • Seed saving as project uses primarily open-pollinated varieties rather than hybrids.
  • Participatory research, giving farmers input into the research process to meet their on-farm needs.

This is exactly the kind of research project that should be supported in order to give farmers the tools they will need in the coming years and decades to adapt to climate change and enhance the resilience of their operations. Organic farming systems have important contributions to make to climate protection by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon in soils and woody plants. The USDA spent only two percent of its research budget to support organic farming research, a sector that provides four percent of retail sales in the country.

To meet the challenges organic and sustainable farmers and ranchers face with climate change, more funding is required for projects such as NOVIC.

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