Paul Evering is witnessing a revolution that starts below ground and is slowly working its way up. Having founded Ecogenesis, an organic and heirloom seed supplier based in Guelph, Ont., in 1989, he has seen demand for organic seeds reach widespread interest only in the past two years. As seed varieties become increasingly unavailable, many gardeners are drawn to organics as a way of ensuring diversity."The public is waking up to these issues and seeing that seeds are disappearing," Mr. Evering says.
The developing organic-seed movement is not simply a matter of advancing diversity, of course. It is also a natural extension of the organic food movement, with gardeners wanting to ensure that the fruits and vegetables they grow are organic at source, rather than planting seeds that have been treated with chemicals or contain genetically modified organisms.
Gayla Trail, a Toronto-based gardening author, says there are two main concerns shared by gardeners today that lead to considerations of just what seeds they are planting.
"It's usually around either local or organic, or both," she says. "And then they start to think about, 'Okay, where did these plants that I'm growing come from in the first place?' "
It's still a kind of nightmare bureaucracy... If it was a simple and more standardized system, a lot more farms would do it. Mark Macdonald, West Coast Seeds
According to this year's Canadian Organic Growers seed list, there are 36 companies in this country that sell organic seeds. But because of a certification process that many in the industry say is difficult to navigate, there aren't enough organic seeds available to meet gardeners' and commercial growers' requests.
"Organic seeds are definitely becoming more popular, so much so that the demand is outstripping the supply in Canada," says Bob Wildfong, executive director of Seeds of Diversity Canada, a volunteer organization dedicated to conserving the biodiversity of food crops and garden plants. "It goes hand in hand with the popularity of organic produce."
Right now, there are so few producers of certified organic seeds in Canada that most of the seeds come from outside the country, says Laura Telford, executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers.
"Most of the seeds that you see sold in gardening stores come from Holland," she says. "We're trying to grow this strong, vibrant, big organic community in Canada, yet our vegetable growers are using seeds from Holland or the U.S."
The organic industry in Canada has recently embarked on a large seed study that aims to sort out supply and demand dynamics, Ms. Telford says. One main challenge will be creating regulations that balance the economics of seed production with high standards, she says.
"We want it to be easy enough that we're going to attract new entrants to organic production but we don't want to make it so hard that it's impossible and it costs more money than it's worth," she says. "We need to get to that place where there's enough incentive for growers to get into it in a big way."
Under the current system, introduced by the Canadian government in June, 2009, seed producers looking to acquire organic certification must maintain crops that have been free of pesticides or man-made fertilizers for at least three years, and undergo an inspection by an auditor certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says Dale Adolphe, executive director of the Canadian Seed Growers Association.
It is a long and often costly process, says Mark Macdonald, who is in charge of marketing at West Coast Seeds, a Vancouver-based company that sells certified seeds.
On top of that, different certifying bodies often have different requirements, he says. For example, acquiring the British Columbia certified organic label comes with a different set of paperwork than the federal certification program, as do the certification programs of foreign countries.
"It's still a kind of nightmare bureaucracy," Mr. Macdonald says. "If it was a simple and more standardized system, a lot more farms would do it."
Still, the federal system provides a strong incentive for organic seed producers to enter the marketplace, Mr. Wildfong says. Under the regulations introduced last year, farmers who want to sell produce with the certified organic label must use certified organic seeds unless they are unable to find them (the exception is in place because of the lack of supply, he says).
"That means that if you're a grower of seeds and producing seeds and putting them on the market, you have this captive audience," he says. "You have all these organic farmers who have to buy your seeds because right now the supply just isn't there. Pretty much, if you can grow certified organic seeds, you can sell as much as you can grow."
Of course, to get to that point, organic seed producers must pass all the regulatory hurdles, Mr. Wildfong says. Many of the challenges faced by producers result from the fact that the production and certification processes are relatively new.
"It's a really young industry," Mr. Wildfong says.