Challenges in the Market for Organic Spinach Seed

eOrganic authors:

Alice K. Formiga, Oregon State University

Vijay Joshi, Texas A&M University

Micaela Colley, Organic Seed Alliance

Spinach Production in the United States

Spinach (Spinacea oleracea) is an important vegetable crop. Over 30 million tons are produced per year worldwide (Bhattarai 2021). In the United States, approximately 8.4 million cwt (about .42 million tons) of spinach was grown on 60,300 acres in 2022, valued at over $562 million (USDA NASS, 2023). About 75% of U.S. spinach production is in coastal California, and about 18.5% is grown in Arizona. These states, along with Texas and New Jersey, produce most of the U.S. spinach crop. There are three main commercial types of Spinacea oleracea: smooth leaf, semi-savoy, with some wrinkles in the leaves, and savoy, with curly leaves. Due to increased demand for packaged salads in recent years, most spinach is cut, washed and sold as "baby leaf" or slightly larger “teenage spinach". For this market, smooth leaf and sometimes semi-savoy leaf cultivars with an upright habit are used because they have less contact with the soil and are easier to harvest mechanically and clean.

spinach leaf types

Smooth leaf, semi-savoy and savoy spinach. Photo credit: Micaela Colley, Organic Seed Alliance.

Some fresh market spinach cultivars are also grown for processing, and in some cases, spinach can be cut once for baby leaf spinach, and the second cut is used for processing. Sometimes it is only cut once to prevent the buildup of diseases. Buyers often contract with producers for specific varieties. Various types of spinach are also grown for sale in bunches or as loose spinach in stores or farmers' markets. Semi-savoy and savoy leaf spinach types are often larger and higher yielding, and sometimes better tasting. These types are sometimes also used by hydroponic growers.

Spinach production is challenging for both conventional and organic growers. Baby leaf spinach is planted at a very high density, which increases its susceptibility to foliar diseases. The most problematic cause of crop losses is downy mildew. Most spinach varieties used in large scale baby leaf production are hybrids resistant to downy mildew and other diseases. Many producers grow multiple varieties to reduce the risk of the entire crop failing, because many cultivars resist some, but not all races of downy mildew, and it is not possible to know which strains will affect crops in a given year. There is also the danger that disease strains will appear to which there are currently no resistant varieties. As well as disease resistance, qualities such as good germination, and lack of weed seeds are essential to reducing financial risk for spinach producers. Producers also need varieties that are slow to bolt in warm weather so that the leafy greens grow to full size and can be harvested before flowering. Because they purchase so much seed per acre to plant at high density, the cost of seed is also a very important economic consideration.

United States producers harvested over 26,000 acres of certified organic spinach in 2021, which amounted to over 2 million cwt of organic spinach on 609 farms for over 215 million dollars. Only four farms grew organic spinach for processing (USDA NASS, 2022). Approximately 33% of U.S. spinach exports are organic (Demko and Marez, 2017). The U.S. also imports over 6 million pounds of spinach annually, but no statistics are currently available on how much of that is organic (USDA ERS, 2023).

Spinach Seed Production

The leading spinach seed producing countries are China (where other species, including Tetragonia sp. are also grown), Denmark, the United States, Holland and New Zealand. The U.S. produced approximately 1500-2000 hectares per year of spinach seed in 2016-2017. (Du Toit, 2018). Unlike some other crops, the regions where most of the spinach crop is grown are not the same as those in which seed is produced. While the majority of spinach is grown in coastal California and other areas with mild climates, most U.S.-grown spinach seed is produced in the Pacific Northwest, primarily in the Skagit Valley of Washington, where 1841 acres were produced in 2021 (McMoran, 2021). This is because spinach has specific climatic requirements to produce large, vigorous seeds with high germination. To produce high quality seed, it must be grown in areas with long days, relatively cool temperatures, and dry summer and early fall weather. The approximately nine seed companies that produce or contract spinach seed in the Skagit Valley are primarily international, and they grow conventional hybrids of smooth and savoy spinach which is sold worldwide. Seed producers need seeds that are true to type, with good germination and vigor, and free of diseases and weed seeds (du Toit 2018). Each year, producers in this region attend a meeting to pin their field locations on a map—so that different varieties are planted far enough apart to minimize the risk of cross-pollination.

According to the Organic Integrity Database, only ten certified organic farms and grower groups produce organic spinach seed in the U.S. (Organic Integrity Database, accessed July 2023). All these farms, in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, also grow other crops. These farms' websites reveal that most of their spinach seed consists of savoy or semi-savoy open-pollinated types. Although they have other good qualities, they do not have listed resistances to foliar diseases. Some U.S seed companies sell disease-resistant organic hybrid spinach seeds to farmers and gardeners; however, most of these varieties are imported from large global companies such as Bejo, Vitalis, and several other firms that do not produce it in the United States. Some other large international companies market various untreated conventional varieties suitable for organic growing conditions.

Organic spinach seed is difficult and expensive to produce due to labor, input costs, and risks, such as crop failures due to extreme weather and diseases. In addition, it is difficult to know which varieties will be in demand each year based on disease pressure. National Organic Program regulation § 205.204 requires growers to use organic seed; however, it allows them to use nonorganically produced, untreated seeds and planting stock when an equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available, with approval from their certifier (CFR 2023). The concept of equivalency is difficult to define precisely and enforce, since even different strains of the same variety can sometimes vary (Lawn, 2011). Additionally, buyers often contract with growers for specific varieties that are unavailable as organic seed–if they were, they would likely cost more. Taken together, these factors serve to deter large seed companies from producing and selling more organic seeds. Overall, there is a limited number of high quality organic smooth-leaf, upright, heat-tolerant, disease-resistant varieties commercially available in the U.S. 

The State of Organic Seed report, published by the Organic Seed Alliance, reported that 27% of the over 1,000 organic producers in the United States whom they surveyed used all organic seed (Hubbard, Zystro & Wood, 2022). The same percentage was true for the respondents who grew vegetables. However, the average vegetable acreage of respondents planted with organic seed was 71%, and the average percent of total acreage planted to organic vegetable crop seed was 35%. The percentage of organic seed used was much higher for growers with farms under 50 acres than for farms with more acreage. Among the 9 growers surveyed who listed spinach as one of their top 3 vegetable crops, a higher than average percentage used organic spinach seed (64%), but no general conclusions can be made about the demand for organic spinach seed due to the petite and unrepresentative sample size. Although 83% of State of Organic Seed survey respondents believed that organic seed was essential to the integrity of organic food, respondents gave the following reasons for not using organic seed:

“(1) a specific variety was unavailable as organic (75 percent of respondents), (2) a lack of desirable genetic traits in organic seed (44 percent), (3) insufficient quantities of seed for an organic variety (37 percent), and (4) a processor or buyer supplied non-organic seed or required a variety that wasn't available as organic (32 percent). Although price is not an allowable reason for sourcing non-organic seed, 30 percent of respondents indicated this was a factor."

No comprehensive statistics are available on how much organic seed is used by organic spinach growers in the U.S. According to conversations with representatives from two U.S. seed companies who sell organic spinach seed, the largest scale growers of bagged organic spinach mostly use untreated conventional seed, but many small and midscale growers use organic seed, as do some large scale growers who supply markets and stores in metropolitan areas. They thought that lack of need or interest from these customers is not why many seed producers do not offer large quantities or a large selection of varieties, but rather the high cost and risks of producing high quality organic spinach seed. However, since the largest scale organic spinach growers who buy the most seed cannot afford to pay much more for seed, there is also less incentive for the largest seed companies to produce organic seed, which would cost more than conventional untreated varieties. In the past year, one major producer of organic spinach hybrids is discontinuing them in the U.S market. Other challenges for spinach seed producers include the short life cycle of varieties, and the limited number of areas where organic spinach seed can be grown. 

Due to the high level of consolidation and lack of competition in the seed industry, growers who wish to continue growing organic varieties after they are discontinued have limited choices. In addition, patents and licensing of varieties and traits can limit the amount of germplasm that is available for public and private research into developing new organic varieties. More research and solutions are needed to solve production challenges that make organic spinach seeds with desirable traits expensive. A NIFA-OREI funded research project is evaluating 272 spinach accessions from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed collection to determine their bolting and yield potential. Conserving biodiversity and wild forms of spinach and other crops is critically important to reducing vulnerability to disease and other production challenges, since they are often used to develop new varieties with desirable characteristics.

spinach trial field

Organic spinach trial field. Photo credit: Micaela Colley, Organic Seed Alliance.

To increase the number of organic producers using organic seed, some have proposed gradually closing the organic seed loophole that allows conventional untreated seed when no equivalent organic varieties are available. In Europe, organic regulations will require organic growers to use only organic seed in 2036 (Article 12, Regulation (EU) 2018/848). These actions could potentially stimulate production, increase availability, and perhaps reduce the cost of more high quality organic seed varieties; however, doing this too quickly without also increasing the supply and diversity of organic seeds could limit farmers' and buyers' choices of which varieties to grow from which suppliers, and lead to increased seed costs and less diversity of varieties developed (Padel et al. 2021). Some growers might also cease producing organic spinach unless they could get enough of a premium for the crop to make up for higher seed costs. Whether consumers would pay more for organic produce grown with organic seed is unknown. One study from Denmark found that many consumers don't realize that organic food isn't consistently grown with organic seeds (Deleuran, 2011). Similarly, Endres et al. (2022) found that growers and buyers often see organic certification as a proxy for overall environmental benefits. In 2018, the National Organic Standards Board recommended strengthening the National Organic Program organic seed regulation and the certifier guidance document on organic seed searches, to stimulate an increase in producers' use of organic seed each year; however, this recommendation is not legally binding since it is not an actual change to the organic rule (NOSB, 2018).

Various initiatives and participatory plant breeding projects have attempted to increase the availability and consumer demand for organic spinach seed varieties. For example, a case study from Holland documented an initiative by a group of organic spinach growers who worked with a buyers' cooperative to pay a seed company to produce a variety that they wanted produced organically at an agreed-upon price (Raaijmakers et al., 2020). In the U.S., the Organic Seed Alliance and collaborating farmers bred 'Abundant Bloomsdale' savoy spinach under organic conditions, which is now commercially available from several seed companies. However, plant breeding and seed production take time, and require long-term funding and policies that prevent excessively restrictive intellectual property rights (IPR) on seeds and their genetic traits.

In short, while there is demand for organic spinach seed from small, midscale and some large scale producers, the largest organic producers who buy the highest quantities of seed often use untreated conventional spinach seed. For this reason, a limited selection and quantity of organic disease-resistant varieties available from the large seed companies that produce them. A study of the organic seed market in Europe concluded that delivering a diversity of organic seeds to all organic producers who want it will not happen through market forces alone without policy interventions from governments (Padel et al. 2021). The LIVESEED project developed policy recommendations to accelerate the use of more organic seeds in European Union countries (Raaijmakers, Bruszik & Sommer, 2021). In the United States, the Organic Seed Alliance has also recommended policy changes to increase the availability and diversity of organic seeds (Organic Seed Alliance, 2023). More data collection and public investment in organic seed production and research could help growers overcome production problems, and create incentives for plant breeders and seed growers to produce and distribute more high quality, resilient organic varieties. 

References and Citations

Additional Resources

Published November 24, 2023

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.